If free will does not exist, then we should not praise good behaviours.
Can we behave as though free will doesn’t exist? What would we do if we believed that all human behaviour (and everything else, for that matter) was determined by causal chains which stretch back to the Big Bang? What would we make of other people’s behaviour? Would we still judge them for bad actions and praise them for good actions? Would we ever punish any criminals? Would we award prizes to those who’ve performed well?
After all, if we don’t believe in free will, all of these actions are not caused by the person themselves. They are caused by a series of causal chains affecting their bodies, brains, and everything else around them, which stretch back a great distance into the past. Unless we’re willing to state that souls or other spiritual entities exist and have some as yet unknown effect on causality, all the best scientific evidence we have points to the fact that free will is illusory. Plenty of people in the world believe this to be the truth. The problem is, however, that these same individuals walk around judging people, praising people, assigning moral and political responsibility as though everyone still has free will. Why?
This piece is a personal account of various intellectual problems I have experienced over the years with academic philosophy. Note: this kind of philosophy can be referred to as the Western analytic tradition, which begun in Ancient Greece with Plato, Artisotle and co. and is still the main focus of philosophy curricula in Western universities. Other kinds of philosophy may have different problems (and different merits).
I chose to study philosophy at A-level on what was basically a whim – I knew little about the subject beyond vaguely remembered names like Plato and Kant and I had grown up in a cultural environment where philosophy was… well, not quite treated with disdain, but seen as a little bit pointless. My other three subjects, psychology, maths and English language, were in my mind way more useful and worthy of study. Philosophy was just a mildly intriguing subject that sounded more interesting than geography or chemistry, which I – after 5 years of study – was well and truly sick of. Little did I know that I’d still be studying it 9 years later.
Right from the start, philosophy had a completely unprecedented effect on my life that no other subject has come close to. I began asking myself questions I had never asked myself before… questions I never even realised had existed. I distinctly remember those initial moments of seriously considering the arguments for the existence of god for the first time, and how it seemed that my world had suddenly become brighter, fuller and full of purpose. There were these huge questions out there that I had never even thought about! Worst of all, there were billions of people who’d never thought about these questions either! My life’s purpose became quite clear: 1) find the answers to these amazing questions and 2) teach these questions to everyone who would listen.