I'm not one to believe in free will. I don't know who invented the concept -- whether it dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks (or before!), or whether it is, as I sometimes suspect, a Medieval Christian innovation -- but I'd rather the concept were uninvented.
In part, that's because I think several of the sciences have together rendered the concept outdated, and in part it's because I don't suppose it was ever a very useful concept in the first place. It seems to me that, historically, the main importance of the concept has been to justify punishing people. But it is arguable that punishing people is either done for revenge -- in which case punishment serves no moral purpose unless revenge is considered a virtue -- or it's done to persuade people not to do something again -- but if so, the record shows that punishment is largely ineffective. Better to rehabilitate or prevent than to punish. So, I don't see much use for the free will concept. And, beyond that, science seems to be squeezing it wither and dry.
Yet, despite everything I just said, I recently got to wondering whether or not there is some sense in which we have -- if not exactly free will -- then some sort of pseudo-free will. That is, something that looks awfully close to free will, but is not.
Now, here's what I mean: Please consider for a moment that beliefs -- to the extent that we make any use of them at all -- are our guides to reality in much the same way that a map is a guide to its terrain.
Of course, that does not mean that our beliefs are invariably accurate guides to reality. Indeed, if truth be told, some of our most cherished beliefs are probably no better guides to reality than was that "let's pretend we're pirates" treasure map nearly every one of us seems to have drawn at least once when we were kids. Conversely, some of our most useful beliefs are probably our least cherished. For instance, I believe that if I don't bathe on a regular basis my health might deteriorate -- to say nothing of my social life -- but I don't count that belief among my most personally dear and beloved beliefs.
At any rate, we use at least some of our beliefs as guides to reality. So, at least in theory, we should be able to change our behavior if we can change the beliefs that guide our behavior.
Now, if that is indeed the case -- if we can change our behavior by changing the beliefs that guide our behavior -- does that mean we have free will? The free will to change our beliefs as we see fit?
In my opinion, it does not. Our will to change our beliefs is, I would guess, caused -- and the causes of that will are themselves caused, and so on, in a seemingly endless chain. And yet, for all that, we still have a semblance of free will -- a sort of pseudo-free will.
That pseudo-free will exists if we are able to change our behavior by changing our beliefs about reality. And I would argue that changing our beliefs about reality is significant to the extent that it proves to be a more reliable way of changing our behavior than simply willing -- in the manner of a New Year's resolution -- to change our behavior.
Perhaps it can be thought of this way: Suppose I merely resolve to quit stealing candy from children. It seems to me possible that I will somehow keep my resolution long enough for my behavior to more or less permanently change. Possible, but not likely. I am all too familiar with my tendency to backslide to believe it likely that I will keep a mere resolution.
However, suppose that, instead of merely resolving to quit stealing candy from children, I somehow manage to genuinely convince myself that the children's candy is poisoned. Please forget for a moment how difficult that would be to do in practice. Simply suppose, for the sake of discussion, that I were able to do it. Wouldn't my behavior change? And even more surely change than if I were to merely resolve to change it?
All of this raises to my mind the question of what might motivate us to change our beliefs. Offhand, I can think of four motivations. First, we might be motivated by a desire to make ourselves feel good, or perhaps to avoid our feeling bad. For I think that some beliefs bring with them pleasant or painful feelings. I might want to believe, for instance, that I am attractive to discerning women -- rather than merely -- and only occasionally -- to their pets. So, despite any other considerations -- such as the weight of empirical evidence -- I believe it because it makes me feel good to believe it.
A second way in which I might be motivated to adopt a belief is if an authority I respect tells me to adopt a belief. Suppose, for instance, that I believe the Pope to be an authority on metaphysics, and he tells me that bread turns into the body of Christ under certain circumstances. I then believe it because I believe in his authority. Or suppose some scientist, whom I greatly respected, were to tell me that black holes leaked radiation. I might then believe her because I believed in her authority.
Another way in which I might be motivated to adopt a belief is if, by doing so, I made my total set of beliefs more logically coherent. For instance, suppose I began by believing in capitalism, but not in the right to private property. Upon reflection, however, I discover that those two beliefs are incoherent. Thus, I might change one or the other in order to bring both into line with each other.
A final way in which I might be motivated to adopt a belief is because the belief accords with a weight of both reason and empirical evidence. So far as I know, this motivation produces the most reliable results. That is, it is the most likely way to arrive at a belief that is in accord with what I will experience. Or put differently, the most likely way to arrive at a belief that is a good map to reality.
Do I believe any of those four motivations are caused by free will? No, I do not. But I think that each can, in a sense, take on the semblance of free will. And they do so precisely to the extent that they can motivate me to genuinely change those of my beliefs that I use as guides to action.
In the end, I think the only practical application of all that I've said might be whether or not we can more effectively change our behavior by changing our beliefs than we can change our behavior by resolving to change it. If that's so, then in some trivial sense, we may have the appearance of free will, for I think one of the consequences of a free will -- if such a thing actually existed -- is that we would be able to reliably change our behavior.
Having now demonstrated what kind of buffoonery I get up to on a Saturday morning after having been up all the night before, I will turn the discussion over to you, dear reader. What, then, do you make of free will?