Free will … it’s difficult to think of any concept so highly prized and seemingly benign but in reality so nonsensical and destructive.
The free will in which most of us believe (and the free will that underlies our justice system) is the idea that we have free choices – the idea that, in any given situation, we might have behaved differently from the way in which we did behave. And this idea matters a great deal because, if it’s true, then the fact that we behave in a bad way, perhaps a criminal way, is thought to make us “morally responsible” and so deserving of all the blame, condemnation, hatred and retribution which will be heaped upon us.
But it isn’t true. In The Nonsense of Free Will, Richard Oerton squared up to this idea, took it apart, and showed that it simply makes no sense. The truth is that we make the choices we do because we are the people we are. And we are the people we are because of the outside factors that have made us that way. We’re not self-created: we’re the products of a process of cause and effect stretching back to a time before our births. And that’s determinism – something accepted by Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein … the list could go on.
In The Cruelty of Free Will Richard takes the battle, as it were, into the enemy’s camp. He starts by recapitulating the case against free will (so that the book is self-contained) but after that he argues that we keep free will belief in place by refusing to consider the idea dispassionately, so giving a foothold to all sorts of philosophical sophistry and sleight of hand, and that our main reason for doing this is that the idea of free will allows, and purports to justify, the expression of the savagery which still characterises us as human beings. We believe in free will mainly because we want to go on blaming, condemning, hating and punishing one another, either individually or collectively.
Neither of these books is dry or academic. Both set out to bring the subject down to earth and both are written in a way that’s meant to appeal to all kinds of reader. Richard would be glad to hear, through the Contact section of this website, from anyone who’s interested in what seems to him a very important subject. More information about The Cruelty of Free Will can be found on the books page.