As we’ve seen, Molyneux has a confused conception of truth, a confident but incoherent conception of reality and a evangelical Christian’s dislike of his own chosen position on god i.e. atheism. To be fair to Molyneux, those first two subjects are challenging ones that have bamboozled thinkers for millennia. In most circumstances judging the quality of somebody’s writing on the basis that they don’t have a solid and clear conception of the nature of truth and reality would be unfairly harsh. However, in a book purporting to be an introduction to philosophy a minimum requirement would be for the author to at least acknowledge that they are struggling to get their thoughts together.
Molyneux’s next trick is to combine all three issues into one topic: his lack of clarity on the nature of truth, his confusion about reality and his desire to nominally take an atheist position while remaining unthreatening to the religious right. Added to this blended smoothie of wrongness is Molyneux’s staggering capacity to discuss a topic without ever examining his own ideas and assertions. So, without further ado, let’s look at Molyneux on the topic of free will.
You won’t be surprised to discover that he never actually explains what he thinks free will is. This makes it difficult to précise his position on free will.
“Without free will, there is no such thing as philosophy. We do not attempt to cultivate wisdom in inanimate objects.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1040-1042). Kindle Edition.
Inanimate objects? He will eventually get on to the topic of animals and robots but it’s an odd place to start. The question about free will is one about beings that can think, that appear to respond to their environment at a level that we could call informational. We don’t try to convince unthinking things about anything because they can’t think. We might even try to deceive things that merely have some semblance of thinking by feeding them false information (like a former coworker who would position a fan heater near a thermostat to trick the office air-con into blowing colder).
Molyneux’s main objective is to try and defend the existence of free will against a materialist position that says that free will doesn’t exist while accepting (to some degree) materialism. In other words Molyneux wants free will but rejects the idea of a soul as an explanation of it.
“These arguments certainly have the ring of consistency to them. How could it be rational to create an exception to the universal laws of physics just for the human brain? We do not see or experience even the idea of free will among animals, among nature, among inanimate objects – how are we so different? The answer that we possess a soul is not satisfying to those who reject immaterial explanations for material causes. If a child denies stealing a cookie and claims that his imaginary friend ate it instead, few parents would accept such an explanation.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1063-1068). Kindle Edition.
This is a task that is far beyond his ability. For a start, as we’ve already seen, he’s unable to distinguish between thinking and free will as concepts. I should add, it’s not making an argument that cognition and free will are the same that I have an issue but rather that Molyneux doesn’t MAKE that argument. Instead he just gets the two ideas confused and rambles around and then says that he’s done.
His first argument is one based on a principle that he describes as:
“Testing the hypothesis of an argument against the methodology of communicating the argument is a powerful method for rejecting irrational arguments.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1087-1088). Kindle Edition.
An example of which is:
“If a man sends me an email containing the argument that emails never get delivered, I do not need to know anything about how emails are delivered in order to reject his hypothesis.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1073-1075). Kindle Edition.
And which he generalises with more examples:
“You cannot use logical arguments to disprove the value of logic. You cannot use empirical arguments to disprove the value of empiricism.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1090-1092). Kindle Edition.
Of course, you can actually do both of those things. The past 150+ years of philosophy have involved some very clever people beating up logic with its own weapons. Demonstrating that something doesn’t live up to its own rules is an effective method of argumentation. Of course, we already knew that Molyneux does not have a decent grasp of logic, truth or argumentation.
Molyneux belabours this point for several pages. The essence of his argument is that if a determinist (i.e. the people who are rejecting free will) are trying to convince you that free will exists then they are tacitly accepting that free will exists because why else would they try and change your mind?
The errors here are manifold.
- Changing some one’s mind with new information does not imply free will by itself. Somebody who does not believe in free will can easily argue that whether you do or do not change your mind when presented with an argument is something pre-determined. That pre-determination doesn’t change that it was the argument that changed your mind.
- Accepting that there was no point to making an argument because everything is pre-determined is itself pointless if EVERYTHING IS PRE-DETERMINED. Molyneux assumes the disbeliever in free will is using their free will to make their argument but struggles to remember that the disbeliever in free will doesn’t actually believe in free will.
Molyneux has obviously encountered arguments about robots:
“Referring to a mechanical device such as a robot in lieu of a person does not solve the problem of human consciousness and choice because it takes a human being to create a robot. It’s like saying I have superhero hearing because I can hear someone talking from thousands of miles away – when all I have done is use a phone.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1215-1219). Kindle Edition.
Which misses the point about robots and again confuses cognition with free will. A robot can respond to information in a purely deterministic manner. Regardless of who or how a robot was created and even if they are otherwise utterly different to human thinking, a robot demonstrates that responding to verbal information does not show the existence of free will.
He’s also enchanted arguments about dogs:
“Regarding the dog example – yes, a dog can come when you call him, but that does not support the determinist position. A dog’s brain is more complex than a worm’s brain, and we can expect a dog to come when we call him, but not a worm. We can train a dog, but not a worm. Thus this argument supports the concept of free will, since a more advanced and complex brain is used as an example,”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1239-1242). Kindle Edition.
Again, Molyneux misses the point and again gets confused between cognition and free will. Yes, these are closely related concepts and you can’t talk about free will without getting into thinking but Molyneux can’t distinguish.
After much rambling, Molyneux promises us a section entitled “What Is Free Will?”
‘The definition of free will is challenging and complicated, because it must be something unique to the human mind – therefore, it cannot be anything as simple and tautological as “choice.”’Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1299-1301). Kindle Edition.
In this section he wanders between free will and ethics and eventually says:
“If we understand this definition of free will – our human capacity to compare proposed actions to ideal standards – then the debate between determinism and choice becomes much easier to resolve.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1422-1424). Kindle Edition.
How comparing our behaviour to ideal standards is different to regular thinking is unclear or what is undetermined by it is also unclear. That humans have the capacity to think about abstract concepts (including abstract standards) is true. I’d also agree that whatever we believe free-will to be the phenomenon (whether it is an illusion or real) must rest in our capacity to deal with abstraction. However, Molyneux has not joined any dots or refuted any positions. In particular the straw-determinist Molyneux has been arguing with has no reason to reject the idea that humans can reason about abstract concepts.
We are back to the problem that Molyneux has not adequately attempted to describe the phenomenon he is trying to explain. He hasn’t adequately listed a set of features that we expect of the thing called “free will” so that he can show that his “definition” meets those features. He’ simply taken one concept and decided to label that concept “free will”. The relabelling doesn’t deal with the straw-determinist’s objections to free will.
But what if maybe we don’t have free will? Or rather, what if most people who aren’t Stefan Molyneux don’t have free will:
“You are programmed – as I was programmed – to serve the needs of those who rule us. You are raised by the government to praise the government, and to fear freedom. Government schools teach you that the danger in your life comes from your peers, not the school itself, even though you are generally forced to be there. If you are unjustly put in a dangerous prison, the true source of the danger is the corrupt legal system, not your fellow inmates; they are a side effect, not the first cause.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1719-1723). Kindle Edition.
Having belaboured the point that people aren’t robots, Molyneux now contends we are robots or at least programmed like robots.
“You are little more than a useful robot running around in preprogrammed spirals, spewing polysyllabic nonsense designed to prop up the gallows of power.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1746-1748). Kindle Edition.
In what is not a shocking twist in the narrative it turns out the anarchy-capitalist thinks we are all mindless sheep, unlike him.
“True free will must be earned, because it has been stolen. When someone says you have free will, but you know you have not done the necessary work to escape your programmed delusions, what they say often seems both outlandish and humiliating to you. It seems outlandish because you know it is not true for you. And it feels humiliating because you know deep down that you should have done that work, the work needed to become free, the work to undo your programming, the work to shatter delusions, and to move from livestock to human, from robot to free mind. Also, if you become free, what happens to your relationships with your surrounding slaves?”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1777-1784). Kindle Edition.
Molyneux is close to self parody by this point and in danger of becoming an extra in that XKCD cartoon. It’s necessary step for him that he can’t avoid because it is a lead into his own brand of ethics. I’ll cover his theory of ethics next time (which will be either the last part or the penultimate part). In the meantime, here is a quote from the book that I really feel needs to be shared but doesn’t fit anywhere in my posts:
“There was an old video recording and playback technology called the VCR – you can still buy the machines online. Imagine getting ahold of a very early VCR – and then learning how it had been programmed. It might be possible to either get the source code – sitting on some dusty 5¼-inch floppy disk somewhere – or reverse-engineer the VCR code. Then imagine spending months learning that code, studying the hardware specifications and capacities of the machine, and finding some way to improve its speed, efficiency or responsiveness. Then perhaps you could find some way to inject that new code into an existing ancient VCR and watch it perform better. I can’t fathom why anyone would ever pursue that goal, because it would be a dismal and useless waste of time, for many obvious reasons.”Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1944-1950). Kindle Edition.
Stefan Molyneux is 52.