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Monday, June 16, 2008

Free will: How can a guy who doesn't believe in free will take credit for writing a book? I mean ...

God Delusion author Richard Dawkins was asked this very question a while back:

Questioner: ... you seem to take a position of a strong determinist who says that what we see around us is the product of physical laws playing themselves out but on the other hand it would seem that you would do things like taking credit for writing this book and things like that. But it would seem, and this isn't to be funny, that the consistent position would be that necessarily the authoring of this book from the initial condition of the big bang it was set that this would be the product of what we see today.

Dawkins: The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question. It's not one I discuss in this book, indeed in any other book that I've ever talked about. Now an extreme determinist, as the questioner says, might say that everything we do, everything we think, everything that we write, has been determined from the beginning of time in which case the very idea of taking credit for anything doesn't seem to make any sense. Now I don't actually know what I actually think about that, I haven't taken up a position about that, it's not part of my remit to talk about the philosophical issue of determinism. What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don't feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, "Oh well he couldn't help doing it, he was determined by his molecules. Maybe we should… I sometimes… Um… You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won't start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that's what we all ought to... Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is "Oh they were just determined by their molecules." It's stupid to punish them. What we should do is say "This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced." I can't bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in his own childhood. And so again I might take a …

Questioner: But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?

Dawkins: I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion - it is an entirely separate issue.

Questioner: Thank you.
Indeed, it usually is the guy in the prisoner's dock claiming that he is not responsible for his actions, rather than the guy in the author's booth.

G. K. Chesterton, an early twentieth century Catholic journalist and author, wrote, regarding free will:

It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may call their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a madhouse. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poeached egg, he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly, you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants or even to say "thank you" for the mustard.

and also,
Some Determinists fancy that Christianity invented a dogma like free will for fun -a mere contradiction. This is absurd. You have the contradiction whatever you are. Determinists tell me, with a degree of truth, that Determinism makes no difference to daily life. That means - that although the Determinist knows men have no free will, yet he goes on treating them as if they had.

The difference then is very simple. The Christian puts the contradiction into his philosophy. The Determinist puts it into his daily habits. The Christian states as an avowed mystery what the Determinist calls nonsense. The Determinist has the same nonsense for breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper every day of his life.

The Christian, I repeat, puts the mystery into his philosophy. That mystery by its darkness enlightens all things. Once grant him that, and life is life, and bread is bread, and cheese is cheese: he can laugh and fight. The Determinist makes the matter of the will logical and lucid: and in the light of that lucidity all things are darkened, words have no meaning, actions no aim. He has made his philosophy a syllogism and himself a gibbering lunatic.

It is not a question between mysticism and rationality. It is a question between mysticism and madness. For mysticism, and mysticism alone, has kept men sane from the beginning of the world. All the straight roads of logic lead to some Bedlam, to Anarchism or to passive obedience, to treating the universe as a clockwork of matter or else as a delusion of mind. It is only the Mystic, the man who accepts the contradictions, who can laugh and walk easily through the world


I like the part about mysticism vs. madness.

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