Questioning Willusionism

EddynahmiasEddy Nahmias interviewed by Richard Marshall, in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You’re thinking about free will and you argue that we need to be careful about what we think free will is and what it entails. To some, determinism is the opposite of free will, and it seems to be a bad thing. Determinism seems to imply the end of responsibility and stops us from being able to make our own choices. But you think that folk don’t always think determinism is a bad thing. You say they make a distinction between determinism and reductionism, epiphenomenalism and/or fatalism, which people think is threatening, and determinism that doesn’t imply these things. So can you say what your evidence is for saying that people don’t always think determinism is a bad thing?

EN: As you say, determinism is often presented as the opposite of free will (if that’s what ‘determinism’ meant, it’d be silly to debate whether it is compatible with free will). But people understand ‘determinism’ in many ways, and it’s not always clear how it is meant to threaten free will. In my dissertation I used a metaphor of a many-headed monster – if we can distinguish, and take on, the various heads one by one, we can see more clearly what the threats are supposed to be and how they might each be confronted (hopefully, it is not a hydra that will grow back two heads for each we cut off). We also learn more about free will and responsibility by seeing more clearly what exactly it contrasts with- what we are free from (hint: it does not really make sense to say we are free from determinism).

Determinism is sometimes presented to mean that the past and laws control us or that our actions are pre-determined, as if someone planned them. But it should not be anthropomorphized in these ways. The Big Bang did not plan our lives, and it didn’t really cause what we do in any useful sense of ‘cause’. Determinism should also not be confused with fatalism, the idea that certain things (like your actions, or Oedipus’ sleeping with his mom) will happen no matter what – that is, no matter what you want or try to do (or no matter what Oedipus tries to do to avoid his fate). Quite the opposite – determinism suggests that what happens in the future depends on what happens in the past and what we do in the present. Finally, determinism should not be confused with what I call bypassing – the idea that our conscious mental activity is not causally relevant to our decisions and actions. Determinism does not mean that our minds don’t matter.