To see how wishful thinking might relate to the free will problem, consider Shaun Nichols’ excellent article “The Rise of Compatibilism: A Case Study in the Quantitative History of Philosophy.” In that article, Nichols wrote:
“Many of us incompatibilists think we know the answer to this: it’s wishful thinking! Philosophers embrace compatibilism because they want it to be true. This view is, I think, common among incompatibilists.”
Of course, compatibilists are not the only ones who raise suspicions about wishful thinking. When I think of wishful thinking, I think of libertarianism—which strikes me as not unlike creationism in its speculative physics and religious undertones. But even those who would deny the existence of free will are not immune to these accusations. I can think of at least the following five ways in which wishful thinking can infect free will theorists:
1. we want more free will for ourselves and so adopt concepts of free will that are more extravagant—and believe the concept refers to something real (libertarianism)
2. we want “free will”, whatever it is, to exist and so settle for a concept that refers to something actual (compatibilism)
3. we worry that if people stop believing in free will, chaos will result, and so assert its existence (or encourage others to keep its nonexistence a secret) (illusionism)
4. we want to be shocking, pugnacious, and smugly “above” the superstitious beliefs of free willists, and so deny its existence (free will non-realism)
5. we believe that denying the existence of free will is morally beneficial and so deny the existence of free will (free will non-realism)
Finally, in discussing free will and wishful thinking, I think it’s important to consider a psychological theory I just discovered—reactance theory. According to Wikipedia, reactance is “an emotional reaction in direct contradiction to rules and/or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms.”
People absolutely detest having their freedoms limited. Kids hate going to bed on time. In some cultures, adults hate having their parents choose their spouse. American colonists hated the oppression of the British Empire. The problem comes, of course, when reactance goes too far, as it surely sometimes must—when people hate feeling confined by their genetics, by their childhood environment, or by the factors before their birth that necessarily determine their lives. People can shrug off the British Empire; they can’t shrug off their destiny—and, at least in deterministic universes, we all have a destiny.
People hate being predictable too. Predictability, like narrowed options, makes us vulnerable. And we loathe being vulnerable. For example, in nature and in game theory, the most desirable strategy is often perfect randomness. But when reactance goes too far, even deterministic randomness will not suffice (Dennett makes a similar point in critiquing Kane’s view). Whenever I see a squirrel zigzagging back and forth, as it must whenever evading a predator, I feel reassured that all philosophical squirrels must be libertarians.
Perhaps the most important aspect of wishful thinking is sex appeal. If cognitive biases distort our understanding of reality, one must ask “how could such distortions evolve?” According to Robert Trivers, one way such biases might evolve is to improve our ability to lie to others. If “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” then free will must surely be sexy—sexier than saying “I’m powerless and it’s all fate.” A person who genuinely believes he has free will is less likely to betray the truth when trying to convince another that he has free will. “Oh, don’t worry about me; No matter how bad my past is, my future can still be bright, because I am completely unconstrained by my history; I’m new and exciting; You never know what I’m going to do next; I evade predators; I keep things spontaneous; I’m unpredictable… I have free will.” The illusion of control and/or wishful thinking might have evolved if they helped our ancestors get away with these sexy lies.
Gardeners: how do you think wishful thinking influences the free will problem?