I am a hardline materialist. I think the material world is all that there is and I have no reason to believe in the existence ofany nonmaterial entities. I did not start out with this view as an a priori philosophical premise. Rather I have arrived at it over time as the only way that I can make sense of the world as I see experience it.
Certain consequences follow naturally from this position. One is of course atheism. I see no possibility for the existence of a god or any spiritual phenomena of any kind. Another consequence is the absence of free will and this is where I need some help from readers.
There are three views on free will, two of which I understand. There is the dualist model that says that there is some part of us (the ‘mind’) that is somehow apart from the body and tells the body what to do. This is known in the literature as libertarianism but has nothing to with the political philosophy with which it shares the name. It was aptly dubbed the ‘ghost in the machine’ by philosopher Gilbert Ryle. I think this view is totally mistaken.
The other view that I understand (and subscribe to) is the deterministic approach that says that our material body is all that there is. Our sense of consciousness is something that emerges from the workings of our brain, nothing more, and our sense of free will is just an illusion. All our actions are caused by responses of our brain to external stimuli. Our brains arrive at some decision and at some point it informs us of it, giving us the illusion that the decision was freely arrived at. We no more actively control our thoughts than we control what enzymes our glands secrete. Sam Snyder provides a list of people who have expressed deep skepticism about the existence of free will.
Our brains themselves are the product of genes and the experiences of our past and so at any given moment we could not have done anything other than what we did. It seems to me to be impossible to test the claim of those who advocate for free will that we could have made a different decision from the one we did.
But there is a third view called compatibilism that many sophisticated people hold and that is the position that I don’t understand. In Sam Harris’s book Free Will (p. 16) he says:
Compatibilists generally claim that a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions. If you want a second scoop of ice cream and no one is forcing you to eat it, then eating a second scoop is fully demonstrative of your freedom of will.
I don’t understand how this position distinguishes itself from the materialist denial of free will, since our desires or sense of will could be purely the workings of our body and brain. It seems to be saying nothing more than if we think we have free will because there are no obvious forces acting on us, then we have free will. But I feel that I may be missing something.
Can anyone clarify?