Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 discussion programme “In Our Time” used its 500th edition to look at the issue of free-will. It included what I assume were eminent intellectuals in the form of Professors Blackburn, Beebee and Strawson from Cambridge, Birmingham and Reading respectively. It’s probably my lack of intellectual rigour or logical prowess, but it seemed to me that the programme was riddled with non-sequiturs and gaping logical flaws. I fear that it was Professor Beebee whom it seemed to me exhibited these failings most evidently.
The problem, and indeed even the possibility, of free-will has exercised thinkers for millennia. Its current prominence is very much a consequence of new discoveries in physics and genetics. In this sense human genetics can be seen as the way in which physics and chemistry impinge on us in the most obvious and basic way. When in previous history the issue of free-will was about philosophical choice as it were, for the first time it is now posited that the fundamental forces and mathematics that underlie the very substance of the entire universe or universes permit no space for freedom of any kind. This is a radical determinism, quite unlike the more familiar forms of determinism, such as biological or social or historical determinism. In these “lesser” determinisms outcomes are seen as the result of an interplay between some fixed points as it were on the one hand, and human freedom of action on the other. In the new determinism, there can be no such thing as “human freedom of action”. Everything that happens is the inexorable, inescapable consequence of things that have already happened, in a single, seamless chain of cause and effect stretching back to the big bang itself. This cause and effect is happening at the sub-atomic level, in the deterministic dance of the myriad of fundamental particles, whose number rises as our understanding increases. We humans might think we have free-will, we might experience our lives as if that were the case, but it is a cruel illusion. In fact, everything, every thought we’ve ever had, every action we’ve ever taken, every emotion we’ve ever experienced, every good or bad thing we’ve ever done, all of it was determined by the actions of the sub-atomic particles that make up our atoms, our molecules, our cells. Everything that happens anywhere in the entire universe, or in all the universes that may exist, is the only thing that could have happened.
What depressed me about the discussion this morning was not so much this truly barren and bleak version of reality, but the inability of those putting it forward to honestly accept its inevitable moral consequence. Watch my lips. If this radical determinism is true, there is no morality, no good, no bad (in a moral sense, rather than a utilitarian one), no responsibility, no creativity, no agency whatever. There is a ridiculous attempt at a “get out of jail free” card in the notion of compatibilism. This logical cul-de-sac proposes that within this determinist framework, it is somehow possible to create a space in which the agent has freedom to act, in the sense that they are not coerced. So what? The debate is not about coercion, but about the possibility of novel, not-previously-determined, outcomes that arise as a result of a free decision to act in one way rather than another.
An example, given in today’s discussion. Suppose I am offered £100 pounds to torture someone. I can choose to take the money and inflict the torture, or to desist and lose the chance of the payment. Apparently, according to Professor Beebee, this is an opportunity for me to have both free-will, and yet to be determined by previous events. I have no idea how one gets to be a Professor of Philosophy whilst being unable to see the utter drivel that this represents. The new determinism, to which Professor Beebee claims to subscribe, allows no such choice. The very fact that on Radio 4 this morning she articulated this postulate was in itself determined by all the sub-atomic events of the last 13.5 billion years. There is no “if” in the question, “If I am offered £100…” etc. Either I will be put in this position, or I won’t. When I discover whether or not the pattern of determinism that has been going on for all those billions of years produces this set of circumstances, I will also discover what “moral” fibre I possess. I will have no say in the matter, although I might think that I do. This is not a “compatibility” between free-will and determinism. It is the denial of the first in favour of the second.
In the determinist model, with or without the fantasy compromise of compatibilism, there can never be any such thing as morality, because morality requires agency. There can never be any iota of responsibility, since human beings have no agency. Everything is going to happen as it is going to happen. There’s not even room in this model for randomness. Randomness by definition means that an outcome cannot be predicted. Determinism, by equal definition, means that everything can be predicted in the minutest and incontrovertible detail provided that we could (which we can’t, at least not yet) know all the determining variables. It is crystal clear. All the things that have ever happened since the big bang were the only things that could have happened. Without exception. The Holocaust. Slavery. Rape. Murder. Love. Joy. Creativity. Every last damn thing.
I have no problem with people being radical, new determinists. I do have a problem with lazy and fuzzy head games. If you are a derterminist in this sense, accept and live by its consequences. Don’t rant on about the Coalition government and its cuts to science spending. You’re wasting your breath and simultaneously displaying your hypocrisy. Don’t witter on about child abuse or on-line exploitation. These things are happening because they must. Vote for doing away with the entire edifice of criminal justice as it’s merely a fig-leaf of a delusion to cover up the ghastly truth that bad things happen. Accept all that. Or shut the fuck up.