Letters to the Editor

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Illusions and Angst

In “Grand Illusions and Existential Angst” (November/December 2018), Alan Scott appears to be arguing that free will is merely an “illusion” and that therefore it does not really exist. At the risk of repeating what may be well-worn arguments, the following points immediately leap out in response:

  1. In common with all others who profess to deny the existence of free will, Scott clearly does not really believe what he is saying. Otherwise he wouldn’t even bother to get up in the morning, let alone write an article about it that is clearly intended to be read by reasoning individuals and that inevitably is littered with implicit assumptions that individuals can choose how to act.
  2. The whole concept of an “illusion” implies that there is some conscious entity that is being misled into believing that something is the case when in fact it isn’t. With no conscious beings to observe them, there are no illusions.
  3. The concept of “self” implies free will. If I do not have free will, then there is no “I.” And how can “I” possibly be mistaken about the existence of my own self? For “I” to be mistaken about this, there must logically be an “I.”
  4. Finally, quite apart from the above, the “illusion” of free will is free will. That is all it is. If you want to call it an “illusion” then okay, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Just because it may arise out of the actions of neurons, and ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles, does not mean that it does not exist. The goal is to find out how free will comes to exist—not to avoid the issue by simply denying its existence. The bottom line is that denial of free will is simply a cop out, i.e., I can’t explain how it comes to exist, so I will simply deny its existence.

James Adams
Bromley, England, UK  

I believe the article on free will, trenchant as it was, slighted the visceral reason for the debate. Freedom, if understood as an uncaused cause or the random die toss of quantum physics, satisfies no one because it leaves unanswerable the question we ask most: Why? Determinism gives a “why” but is resisted by many because we too easily think of the mechanics of a wind-up toy or some naive presentations of behaviorism that deny individuality and seem to reduce everything to the result of pressing a few operant conditioning buttons.

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