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Robert Kane (Editor)


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

The free will question is probably the philosophical issue that is most relevant to non-professionals because of its implications for our ideas about ourselves. It certainly began to puzzle me when I was about 19 and still a believing Catholic. It struck me then that all my choices must be determined by the kind of person I was and the environment in which I found myself. This did not seem to leave any room for the free will to which the Church attached so much importance. The only other possibility I could see was that my choices might be random, but that did not appear to be much of an improvement.

Although my beliefs have changed since those days, I still feel the free will issue to be extremely important, so I was quick to take this book out when I spotted it on the recent acquisitions shelf in the London Library. My enthusiasm was admittedly tinged with apprehension that it might be of little interest to anyone except professional philosophers, but I'm happy to say that all of the contributions are reasonably accessible to the lay reader and do tackle the kinds of questions that will interest such readers. The book does not attempt to cover the whole history of the free will debate (that would be pretty well impossible within a manageable volume) but it concentrates instead on the way free will has been treated in Western cultures in the last 30 or 40 years. (It also appears to be confined to essays originally written in English.)

Robert Kane, the editor, starts with an introduction that defines the scope of the problem very well. This is commendably clear and I found myself constantly returning to it as I read the various chapters to help me orient myself. Indeed, the book would be worth reading for this alone.

Kane identifies three questions that guided him in the arrangement of the essays.

1. The Determinist Question considers various threats that determinism poses for free will. Some are philosophical, others derive from modern knowledge of physics. If everything that happens is determined, what room can there be for free will? Does this mean that free will requires indeterminism, as traditional defences of free will assume?

2. The Compatibility Question looks at various attempts to show that free will can be reconciled with determinism. One of these is "Frankfurt-style cases". These are thought-experiments which claim to show that even if you have no alternative possibilities in a given situation you are still free to choose. I can't say I found these cases very convincing, and I agreed with Laura Waddell Ekstrom, who writes:

No amount of psychological complexity is sufficient for free will. We have the power to act freely only if at some time we are able to act otherwise than as we do. I conclude that the literature on Frankfurt-style scenarios has not overturned traditionalism concerning the necessity of free will for moral responsibility.
3. The third question is what Kane calls the Intelligibility Question and asks whether traditional doctrines of free will that require indeterminism can be made intelligible. Many people think that the main threat to free will comes from determinism, but Kane points out that indeterminism poses just as big a problem. If things happen purely by chance, that does not seem to offer much of a free will option either.
If free will is not compatible with determinism, it does not seem to be compatible with indeterminism either. (One might say that the Compatibility Question is about the first half of this ancient dilemma, while the Intelligibility Question is about the second half.)

As I read, I found myself being drawn ever more strongly towards what Kane calls the Successor Views to hard determinism, as opposed to rather "softer" alternatives. Historically, hard determinism has been the uncompromising view that, since determinism is true, free will does not really exist at all. Although few thinkers today maintain this position in the way in which it was held by some in the past, it is still sometimes advocated in a somewhat modified form. Here, four philosophers (Galen Strawson, Ted Honderich, Derk Pereboom, and Saul Smilansky) defend various versions of Successor Views to hard determinism.

Of all the essays in the book, it was probably Galen Strawson's that carried the greatest conviction for me. It has to be read with close attention, because Strawson uses a lot of abbreviations and it can be quite difficult to keep in mind what he means by RD, URD, and so on. The effort is worth making, however.

Although Strawson is listed here as a "Successor" to hard determinism, he believes that free will cannot work in any case, irrespective of whether determinism or indeterminism is true. Free will in the real sense cannot exist.

[H]uman beings can never be truly or without qualification morally responsible for their actions. This is, in a sense, a quite bewildering fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. We are what we are, and we cannot be thought to have made ourselves in such a way that we can be held to be free in our actions … in such a way that any punishment or reward for our actions is ultimately just or fair.
The implications of this view are indeed bewildering, not to say disturbing. Other essayists in the same section, who take a broadly similar view to Strawson's, consider the implications in more detail. Ted Honderich acknowledges the psychological difficulty of accepting determinism without really offering a solution. Derk Pereboom is an optimist, and thinks that the abandonment of a belief in free will need not destroy human values, in particular love. But the contributor who deals with the question at greatest length is Saul Smilansky, who does think that loss of confidence in free will would be destructive. He holds that a degree of illusion about freedom to choose can continue to exist alongside its opposite, with two incompatible beliefs being entertained vaguely, without conflicting with each other. Such an admittedly inconsistent attitude can, he implies, be good for society and for individuals. (This seems to me to be quite close with the way in which many religious believers function.)

The religious implications of the free will debate are discussed by two contributors. At the other end of the spectrum, two contributors look at what neuroscience has to say on the subject. One of these is Benjamin Libet, whose research on the electrical changes in the brain when people make choices has been widely discussed. Henrik Walter, another neuroscientist, holds that the chaotic nature of brain processes allows for what he terms natural autonomy, in which our actions are not determined. However, I don't think this takes account of Strawson's argument, which I find compelling.

Anyone who is seriously interested in the free will question will find this to be a good source book, with plenty of references to guide further reading.

%T The Oxford Handbook of Free Will
%A Robert Kane (Editor)
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxford
%D 2002
%G ISBN 19-513336-6
%P xvii + 638 pp
%K philosophy

12 July 2005

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