In “Fight your fate” (Financial Times, March 9, 2012), Julian Baggini asks, “Do advances in neuroscience give the lie to free will?”
But as other new books on the same issue show, it’s far more complicated than that. Michael Gazzaniga, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, also acknowledges the soundness of Libet’s research, yet his answer to his book’s eponymous question Who’s in Charge? is that you are. Then you have philosopher Tamler Sommers not disputing that free will is an illusion but arguing in Relative Justice that ideas such as moral responsibility are not as threatened by this as much as we might fear. Finally, there is the eminent psychologist Roy F Baumeister, with the aid of science journalist John Tierney, making a powerful case for the Willpower of his book’s title, which almost completely bypasses the whole free will debate. What’s going on?
This is a penetrating and far-reaching book that suggests – to me at least – that the focus of the free will debate has been in all the wrong places. As Gazzaniga and Baumeister show, we may not have as much conscious control over our actions as we think we do, but people who deny we have any at all have simply drawn the wrong lessons from neuroscience.
What’s really interesting is that many of these authors are in fact materialists. But they don’t want to live with the outcome of materialist beliefs: = You have no control. Since, obviously, someone or something will eventually exert control, enter the bureaucrat state. More and more rules replace common sense. Crime becomes more common but there are rules for how you are allowed to discuss it. Neighbourliness is just a memory, and may even be dangerous.
It’s at least interesting that Clarence Darrow, the big Darwin hero of the Scopes case, was a materialist who argued against free will, in a murder case.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allan at Brains on Purpose