I get more than two dozen press releases and book announcements a week, a consequence of running a not-as-obscure-as-some-would-wish blog. The latest was from Gregg D. Caruso, an academic philosopher at SUNY Corning Community College.
He has a new book which asks a bunch of people questions about some thing. I immediately lost interest in it when I noted that Caruso boasted also writing Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will. On his homepage he says, “our subjective feeling of freedom, as reflected in the first-person phenomenology of agentive experience, is an illusion created by certain aspects of our consciousness.” Agentive?
He also says of himself, “In particular, he is an optimistic skeptic and disillusionist maintaining that, not only can we preserve meaning, morals, and purpose without belief in free will and desert-based moral responsibility, but that we would be better off without such beliefs.” Isn’t a disillusionist the kind of magician who keeps accidentally exposing how his tricks work? Never mind.
Now an illusion is mental phenomenon: it is when the mind experiences something as real which isn’t. An illusion cannot appear to or be caused in, say, a pile of bricks or a 1964 Barracuda for the simple reason that bricks and muscle cars do not have minds. Illusions do happen to us because, I feel it is necessary to stress, we have minds.
We often recognize illusions after the fact, as when vision or fever clears, and we sometimes see when others are suffering from one. Because we know there are such things as illusions we necessarily must know that we have normal states of consciousness, too. In other words, because we know the difference between illusion and reality and that a real world exists, it is logically impossible for everything to be an illusion.
Fully determinate objects, like cars and bricks, are “slaves” to physics in the sense Caruso means; they cannot have free will and neither can they experience illusions, even though we sometimes jokingly say, “That car has a mind of its own.” It is a poor enough joke, but it is made worse by adopting it as a basis for an entire philosophy.
We do have free will and we do experience illusions. It is we who come to decisions like “This is real,” or “That was an illusion.” The point is that there is a we, an us, an I or me that must exist for illusions to obtain.
Even if you imagine you are making a choice, you are still making a choice, you are still exhibiting free will. Suppose you, in your seat now, conjure up the scenario whereby you’re standing at a fast food counter and the clerk asks, “Would you like fries with that?” If you imagine yourself as saying “Yes” or “No”, you have used your mind freely. Bricks and cars never do things like that. You cannot imagine yourself not existing, not having thoughts. You cannot think, and mean it, “I am not thinking.” Thinking cannot be an illusion.
Caruso does not mean to say we are illusions as a figure of speech. He means it. Or thinks he does. And because he thinks he does, he doesn’t. But why?
Here might be the reason. Caruso penned the article “(Un)just Deserts: The Dark Side of Moral Responsibility” (pdf). He opens the piece with this:
What would be the consequence of embracing skepticism about free will and/or desert-based moral responsibility? What if we came to disbelieve in moral responsibility? What would this mean for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law? What would it do to our standing as human beings?
Caruso wants bipedal automatons, fully automated creatures who have no choice about anything, all their behaviors being absolutely determined by external forces, to freely choose, i.e. embrace, the idea that they have no free will. And that, once they choose to acknowledge they are incapable of choosing things, they will choose to abandon their desert morality and the world will be a better place.
This really is his argument. I am not a psychologist and so cannot name this form of insanity. Denying (an act of choice!) free will because one doesn’t like morality does seem to be the new opium of intellectuals, however. Caruso isn’t alone and represents a trend in academia.
He says one thing with which I can agree: “As public proclamations of skepticism [of free will] continue to rise, and as the mass media continues to run headlines announcing free will and moral responsibility are illusions, we need to ask what effects this will have on the general public and what the responsibility is of professionals.”
We do need to keep our eyes on these characters, if only to see what forms their insanity might take.