Column on Revisiting Free Will

Revisiting Free Will

Tibor R. Machan

In an essay for The New Republic, “Oh, the humanity,” Bradford Plumer writes as follows:

"Take your pick on what’s most infuriating about the oil crisis in the Gulf. There’s the growing evidence that the platform blowout that caused all that crude to erupt out of the ocean floor was entirely preventable and should never have happened in the first place. BP cut corners on safety to save money, and regulators barely seemed to care. And now no one has any real clue how to contain the spill–we just have to watch helplessly as the ever-expanding oil slick poisons fisheries and kills off marshlands and coral reefs. What’s especially unnerving, though, is that the recklessness that helped bring about the spill, and the political reaction that followed, seem to indicate a larger inability to prevent and cope with other large-scale ecological catastrophes–particularly climate change."

Here you have yet another instance of never allowing a good disaster to go unexploited for political purposes, a policy endorsed a while ago by White House Chief Rahm Emanuel. But I will leave that aside for now and focus once again on the curious phenomenon of defenders of determinism remaining completely silent when it comes to defending those who are accused of wrong-doing on the grounds that, well, there is nothing they could have done differently. Saying that the blowout “was entirely preventable” clearly assume free will–that those responsible for operating and managing the operations at the rig could have done otherwise than they did. All this finger pointing, charges of recklessness–at BP and the regulators and whoever was near to the events and might be a candidate for malpractice charges–seems to be entirely fine with the academic defenders of determinism, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland, Ted Honderich, Daniel Dennett and their innumerable supporters in this controversy.

The doctrine of free will is not faring very well these days among most philosophers, although a few who work on the topic, even among neuro-scientists, do defend it. I am one of them. I have written books, scholarly papers, and essays on the topic but each time I make my case, quite a few people dismiss my thesis as implausible, wrong, even disingenuous. (In these discussions many do not stick to topic and veer off into name calling, sadly, or charging their opponents with duplicitous conduct, specious argumentation, etc., instead of leaving it at trying to show that their adversaries’ position is wrong. That is itself odd, since a determinist could not really sustain the claim that the opponent could have done other than he or she did, namely, defend free will!)

But back to BP and the oil catastrophe. If one maintains that it was all preventable, one must hold that those involved could have done things differently from what they actually did, that they were free to choose to act other than they did act. And that is to reject determinism. So, all those famous determinists I have named above and their allies might be expected to be rushing to the defense of the idea that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico simply had to happen–no alternative course of conduct was possible.

There was one famous American who did come forth in a notorious case, the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb, namely, Clarence Darrow, and defended the accused on the grounds that no one can help what he or she does and criminals are not exempt from this principle. Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, supposedly because they believed in some contorted version of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the overman and to put it into practice they decided to do the perfect crime. Darrow, in turn, defended them in part on the very general grounds that there is nothing anyone can do differently from what he or she does in fact do.

One may disagree with Darrow’s line of defense but there is certainly one commendable thing about it: it shows integrity. Darrow put his money where his mouth was, as it were, even though it was a very unpopular position and, indeed, he lost the case for his defendants.

But perhaps coming to the defense of BP would be far more unpopular, given how there is a considerable populist atmosphere in the country and big corporations are pretty much guilty before having been proven so of whatever they are accused. (It is probably true that BP and some of its associates will be found guilty of grievous malpractice in this case, although it is too early to be convinced of this now.)

What is curious to me, as a minor public intellectual–someone who takes one’s theories outside the halls of the academy and applies them quite directly to actual issues in the world–is that these famous defenders of determinism, many of whom make fun of the idea of free will (e.g., call it spooky and magical), do not step up in defense of their idea when it matters most, in a concrete case like the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

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