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Smug? Moi?
gravity works
Today, In Our Time (which for non-Radio 4 listeners is a programme in which three experts discuss an important scientific/cultural/philosophic/artistic/you-get-the-picture idea, moderated by Melwyn Bragg, acting as 'intelligent and educated layman') was, for their 500th edition, discussing the concept of 'free will' (and, of necessity, Determinism.)

Personally, I never thought much about this concept, until I read Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves and I was only reading that because I had been impressed by Dennett's arguments in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, a book that straddles the line between science and philosophy, as Dennett himself, a philosopher specialising in the ideas of mind, artificial intelligence and, after someone gave him copies of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, on the application of the Modern (Darwinian) Synthesis to philosophy, straddles those fields.

Freedom Evolves attempted - to my mind unsuccessfully - to prove that free will was a consequence of evolution. The first half of the book, therefore, was given over to trying to prove that there is such a thing as free will and this was where Dennett, to my mind, fails. If free will exists, Dennett doesn't do a bad job of making it a product of evolutionary pressure. However, as all three philosophers involved in this morning's radio programme pointed out at one time or another, you can't actually prove Determinism untrue (or true, for that matter) and if Determinism holds, there is no such thing as free will.

Actually, all of them were terribly sensible (and intelligible, for a wonder); they touched on the religious issues and consequences without getting bogged down in the paradoxes (or, indeed, the cognitive dissonance exhibited by such folk as Martin Luther and Calvin in being fully-fledged Determinists and yet believing that the moral actions of individuals had consequences in respect of the Day of Judgement.) Not one of the three showed any Dualists tendencies, either of the soul/body or brain/mind flavour - a place of retreat for theologians when discussing free will.

I listened without becoming much engaged. After reading Dennett's book, and after seen the matter discussed in the blogs of scientists and philosophers I read regularly, I came to a quite-often-expressed conclusion that the discussion was a waste of time. It does not matter if free will actually exists because humans will continue to act and think as if we had free will. For all practical purposes, we either have free will or ignore any consequences of the idea we don't have it. It really, really doesn't matter.

Towards the end of the programme, one of the philosophers, Galen Strawson, was called upon, by Bragg, to explain what his father, Peter Strawson, had said on the subject of free will. What Strawson said appears to be that no argument about free will or determinism has any effect, in practice, on the way people react to each other. i.e. It doesn't matter.

All the philosophers seemed to pretty much agree with him.

I feel deeply vindicated. And very smug.

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The comment from Peter Strawson was a side effect of his take on morality. I only skimmed a couple of articles on it, but what he seemed to be saying is that morality only exists in the interactions between people. Agency is assumed within those interactions. In effect, this is what actually happens in normal dealing between people.

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