Early on in the paper “Willusionism” leads to “Bad Results” Nahmias sets the tone for what will ultimately be his argument: “ [A conception of free-will is naturalistic and] [u]seful because scientific discoveries about human decision-making and self control, such as those offered in the research they discuss, can help explain how such free will works … Many other scientists work with a conception in mind, they suggest that scientific discoveries about human decision-making explain away free will, suggesting that it is an illusion.”
He goes on to explain the concept “bad results” which is when people behave worse when they are told they lack free-will. Very briefly, in experiments where individuals read sentences like “who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons” they were more likely to steal, cheat and be aggressive.
Nahmias then mentions the myriad of experiments that claim science has shown that free will is an illusion can be labelled “willusionism”
The emergence of these two concepts together “bad results” and “willusionism” raises a worrisome neuroethical question: if it is the case that “bad results” are extended to show that these “willusionism” claims have sizeable negative effects on people’s behaviour, should we – for political and social reasons – hide the supposed revelation of these claims?
Now, a positive answer to this question calling for social control of potentially harmful scientific claims is not an argument for compatibilism. Rather, it is more concerned with the debate about whether, if free-will were an illusion, that this truth be embraced or hidden. The argument for illusionism (hiding free-will denial) due to potential disastrous consequences can be found here. However, Nahmias, doesn’t think that free-will is an illusion, and he would rather dispute the scientists claims that do so. As he says “As someone who would be loathe to advocate any such response, I am hopeful that there is a better alternative – to correct the willusionists’ claims.”
He thinks the scientists usage of free-will is ambiguous and how “willusionism” is interpreted depends on how ordinary people understand freewill. “I will argue that the best explanation for the “bad results” is that people interpret willusionism in ways that the evidence does not justify.”
He distinguishes between two types of powers libertarian powers (LP) – “involve … indeterminist “gaps” at appropriate places in the process of human decision-making, and often an extra power of agents to initiate causal processes without being caused to do so” (“agent causation”) and compatibilist powers (CP) – “include … cognitive and volitional capacities … like self-control, rational choice, and planning.”
So, Nahmias wants to answer, (1) on willusionists claims are they CP or LP? (2) when ordinary people think about freewill what powers are they thinking about?
- Nahmias answers that willusionists in the main are thinking about LP when they say that freewill is an illusion
But this answer is problematic. Even if it were the case that scientists ascribe LP to these experiments, the correct interpretation of these experiments by philosophers is the crucial aspect. This is the manoeuvre that Nahmias himself is suggesting when he will later in the paper go on to suggest that these same experiments actually confirm CP, despite the initial proclamations of the scientists themselves. I would argue, however, that the correct interpretation of these experiments actually point closer towards incompatibilist intuitions as it appears that the experiments of Bargh, Wegner and others suggest that conscious processes and intentions do not play a causal role in action. Nahmias anticipates this reply by arguing “[Bargh and Wegner] are unclear about whether they take this to mean that humans lack LPs or CPs or both.” Well that may be the case for the scientists, but as Nahmias surely knows that hard incompatibilists, hard enough determinists and hard determinists will argue that is because humans lack CP. My interpretation of these experiments, along with Gregg Caruso and others, is that it suggests a rather large role for unconscious processes in initiating and playing a causal role for action, while the scope for conscious intention is rapidly shrinking. Nahmias does not attempt to argue the case in this paper, but he points to other papers of his where he suggests these arguments are “highly contentious and, I believe, false.” The nature of Nahmias’s argument, then, is that if consciousness does not have a causal role for action then free will is an illusion. He, of course, argues that consciousness does play a causal and intentional role in action.
In this paper, at least, then the question is still open whether the claims of willusionism can be interpreted to suggest that we do actually have CPs as the battleground between compatibilism and non-libertarian incompatibilism is still being fought over this very issue. Interestingly, though, there is a distinct lack of scientific data to suggest that consciousness does play a causal role in action, and this surely is a mark against his argument. As Nahmias says in a book review of the incompatibilist Sam Harris, “[s]teeped in the modern zeitgeist, they believe that neuroscience will surely explain all human decisions and actions. But such explanations currently offer no place for consciousness, since there is not yet a neuroscientific theory that explains how certain neural processes are the basis of and explain conscious processes.” Nahmias might be correct that neuroscience of the future will bring consciousness back into the causal picture in regards to producing actions and intentions, but as it stands the science doesn’t support him and his argument is relying on a hedged bet that his horse will come through at the end. (Note: I may have done him a disservice here and should read his other arguments referenced in the papers in the future, apologies if that is the case)
Moving onto (2) Nahmias suggests that ordinary folk-intuitions are of CPs.
However the line of reasoning that enforces such an answer is extremely dubious. Nahmias himself says that it is “extremely complex” what ordinary folk-intuitions are. On the one hand he argues that “people think that freewill and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism” whilst on the other hand “most people think that free will is threatened by a fully reductionistic account of human decision-making in terms of neural processes, one that suggests to people that conscious mental states do not play a proper role in causing our actions.” He goes onto state that this means that the ordinary free-will intuition is that of CP, “people associate free will primarily with CPs, though they also tend to think such powers are inconsistent with the reductionistic framework sometimes suggested by neuroscience and psychology.” However, Nahmias has nothing to back up this reading of the data, one could easily argue the other way that they are troubled by determinism, but give CP intuitions when they do not think that brain and mind are the same. This reading is further enhanced by the fact that, if we agree with willusionism that freewill is an illusion since unconscious processes initiate and play a causal role in our actions, and individuals have “bad results” when they read sentences that suggest willusionism, then the most likely reading is that our freewill intuitions are incompatibilist. At very best for Nahmias those intuitions appear a stalemate, rather than his arbitrarily biased reading of the account.
On a last note, there is much good philosophy that Nahmias has contributed in this paper. However, philosophy is long, and life is short, so I will leave it here