Philosophy professor Tibor Machan wrote a nice, succinct broadside against the sort of determinism advocated by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s argument is complex, but he essentially believes that there is no such thing as free will and that the behaviors we perceive in our minds as being behavioral choices are in fact as deterministic as the functioning of our bodies.
Machan points out some of the immediate absurdities of this view, though he ignores Dennett’s objections to those absurdities. For example, Machan notes that it does not seem to make such sense to hold people accountable for their actions if they truly have no behavioral choice. Dennett’s response to this is that it is irrelevant — we often hold people accountable for actions even when individuals do not appear to have a behavioral choice (we might do it more humanely than in the past, but society still locks up mentally ill people who commit crimes, for example).
What I have always found bizarre about arguments like Dennett’s is that in order for it to be correct, very deep, basic intuitions that human beings have must be denied. As even Dennett concedes, regardless of whether or not people genuinely possess free will, almost everyone perceives that they have the ability to make choices. Dennett ends up asserting that this is basically an illusion — you might think you can make behavioral choices, but you are wrong.
But once that position is accepted, everything seems to fall apart. If something that is so second nature and obvious is, in fact, a lie, then how can people possibly trust any of their other intuitions? I firmly believe, for example, that ~ (A and ~A), but if I am wrong about free will, how can I ever be certain that this is correct? Since everything I believe must at some point fall back on internal intuitions I have about the nature of reality, if my perception of free will is a lie, the result would seem to be nihilism. There’s simply nothing else meaningful to say, because I can no longer trust anything I believe to be true about the world.
Does self-control exist. Tibor R. Machan, Laissez-Faire City Times, Dec. 31, 2001.
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