4 out of 5 stars
Free will is not merely an illusion, it is a delusion. We delude ourselves into thinking we are moral, that we have equal justice for all, and that everyone has not only the right, but the ability to rise above their circumstances and join the ranks of the wealthy and influential running the world. That’s the top line summary of Miles’ excellent dissection of the free will debate. His answer to free will and free choice amounts to – Sure, and if pigs had wings they could fly.
By 1524 the Catholic Church had admitted there was no such thing as free will – at least to itself. Erasmus wrote that it had to keep it from the masses who were “too weak, ignorant and wicked” to deal with such information. Only the wealthy and church officials were privy to the truth about free will. It was a “justifiable fraud” because everything had to be done to prevent blame for evil being attributed to God. Only man could originate evil. This illusion of free will makes us who we are, both as a society and as individuals. Today, they still call this branch of free will illusionism .
There are two others: libertarianism and Compatiblism, which muddles the issue by validating free will without also validating free choice. That way advocates avoid blame in case of (daily) reversals. Libertarianism is the pure, Reaganite philosophy that everyone is equal in their ability to choose their own path, make their own way and lift themselves up from swamp by their own hair, as Nietzsche put it in his denial of free will. It has made the United States the unequal, prison filled, safety net-free state we see today.
In philosophy, free will and free choice mean no baggage. You are not responsible for anyone else, and you can’t blame anyone for your own state of affairs. The navel-gazing arrogance of free will proponents is that of being born white, middle class, in postwar USA or UK, allowing them to ignore the plight of everyone else. Using themselves as examples, they can see no reason to commiserate with anyone’s plight. They retroactively assume they actually made themselves this way, without serious physical defects, outside of poverty, with access to higher education and useful networks. The US and UK are nations of unfeeling, uncaring Asperger cases.
Miles backs his views with extensive and intensive arguments from all the big names in the field. He says there is zero external evidence of free will, and the arguments for it resemble theology, where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. His chapters slice and dice free will and free choice from every conceivable angle, from biochemical/neurology to religion, politics, economics, law and of course philosophy. It has given us a fraudulent morality. He says “morality is culturally overlaid rejection of natural world behaviours”. Much as the winners write history, the winners also decide who deserves help and who deserves dire straits.
It is a remarkably easy read, and enormously engaging. There are a couple of things that could have made it better. Miles loves to quote, and he reuses the same quotes repeatedly. Also, the same arguments get redeployed endlessly. He hammers at it ceaselessly. He is particularly incensed by the 1984 declaration by Daniel Dennett, the ranking authority, that luck evens out over a lifetime, so fair enough is good enough and no one should complain. Miles retorts: try saying that someone born poor, in a poor country, with a crippling deformity. He is not going to suddenly become a millionaire before dying. Soldiers killed in wars, orphans left to rot, victims of disease, slaves: none of them benefit from this evening out of luck. Free will is a fraud perpetrated by the lucky on the rest.
The main victim throughout, is American society, unequal and getting worse, incarcerated as no people have been before, unnecessarily denied help, education and mobility. Miles says free will and free choice rationalize our inflicting suffering on others. By coincidence, I had just reviewed Robert Putnam’s shattering Our Kids, which backs up everything Miles says about society with stats, graphs and sickening studies. Miles provides the provenance, Putnam the evidence. The one really reinforces the other.
by David Wineberg