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We must pretend there is free will so as to go on using the language of ethics?

In “The Amygdala Made Me Do It” (New York Times, May 12, 2012), James Atlas, writing about “the invasion of the Can’t-Help-Yourself books” that seek to “scientize” psychology by showing that it is an illusion, seems quite comfortable with that:

Does this mean we have no “agency,” no capacity to act on our own? Or can autonomy thrive within the prison of self-ignorance? “We have to believe it does,” says Steven Lukes, a professor of sociology at New York University highly admired for his work in moral philosophy. “If we seriously thought that our intentions made no difference to how we behave, we couldn’t go on using the language of ethics. How would we go on living the lives we live?” Or doing what we think is right? “People have free will when they ‘feel’ they have free will,” says Professor Kahneman. “If we didn’t believe in it, we would have no responsibility.”

But of course what one “feels,” as we’ve learned from all these books, could well be — indeed, probably is — an illusion. As Timothy Wilson puts it with haunting simplicity: “We are strangers to ourselves.”

Run that by us again: “If we seriously thought that our intentions made no difference to how we behave, we couldn’t go on using the language of ethics.” Odds are, given that they don’t really believe in free will, after a while they won’t use the language of ethics and won’t really miss it.

The rest of us sure will.

Also, this is the first time we have heard the verb “scientize.” The noun, presumably, is scientism, normally a term of reproach.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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