Ben Shapiro on Free Will

Ben Shapiro shocked family, friends and fans by coming out as a Libertarian on Free Will. Not to be confused with the political position, the libertarian position of Free Will takes a radical view about the level of agent causation in any viewpoint. Long time writer on Free Will, Danniel Dennett describes Libertarian in the following light: “one exponent of this position, Roderick Chisholm, candidly acknowledged that on this view every free choice is “a little miracle”—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else.”

Dennett goes on to quote the survey results of a popular 2009 paper that surveyed professional philosophers and showed that just 13.7% of philosopher’s adopted the libertarian position, with 59.1% coming in at compatibilists, 14.9% coming in at “other” and just 12.2% coming in at hard determinists (we have no free will because everything is determined).

What is Libertarian Free Will? 

Within the Free Will debate, the libertarian view point sees free will as incompatible with determinism. Determinism is the belief or theory that posits that all events happen because of previously existing causes. In other words, the universal laws of physics that govern the world are never broken. The atoms that underly your brain behave exactly like atoms in a baseball, balloon, or any other object or thing: they follow the rules of physics and those laws are set. As Danniel Dennett says, “you can change the future, no more than you can change the past.”

If you grant this, you believe determinism is true. For the sake of brevity, we’ll bypass the different types of determinists that have been put forward by philosophers over the years. That said, two distinctly different questions stem from this viewpoint that are often conflated:

Can you believe that humans have free will while believing determinism is true (compatibilists vs incompatibilists? Is determinism true (determinsm vs indeterminsm)? Now one can hold any combination of these views. What’s important to note is that, though they are often grouped together, one can believe determinism is true and still believe in free will. The inverse is true as well (but rare). One can believe that future states are not fixed (determined) and yet still reject the notion of free will. Speaking broadly, it shakes out like this:

Compatibilists: Determinsm is true, but (some) humans have free will because they have the ability to think, weigh the options and make decisions based on this deliberation. They are “free from external influence.”
Libertarian: Determinism is false, and humans have free will. Depending on the type of libertarian one is, they believe that the nature of human consciousness/psychology plays some type of role in determinism not being true.
Hard Determinists: Determinsm is true therefore there is no free will. Human actions are caused solely by previous causal states and thus one cannot do otherwise than they would have done.
Other: Not to deride an academic minority, but this is where things can get a little weird. Perhaps really weird. For more on this, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Alright back to Ben.

Ben has had three fairly long form run-ins on Free Will. In a live appearance with Sam Harris, in a recorded conversation with Jordan Peterson, and in a podcast with Skeptic Michael Shermer.
Being a Libertarian, Shapiro actually falls in line with Sam Harris in that he believes the concept of determinism is incompatible with the notion of free will. Furthermore when people argue about free will and their belief in it, they are asking the question “could I change the future with my actions?”

However, this is where the two part ways. Sam strictly believes that determinism is true and thus the future is fixed. Meanwhile Ben shuns this view and believes that the future is decidedly not determined. In his own words:

“So this is a philosophy where I’ll say that I actually agree with Sam, that there’s more of a dichotomous view of this question. I’ve always found compatiblism a little bit odd intellectually, in the sense that the definition of freedom is not what most people think. Most people say “I am free to make a decision.” What they mean is that I had the capacity to choose otherwise. Not that I was not forced by an external human force into making that choice. When I say that I got up this morning and I had a choice to come to work, I generally don’t mean that fate has ordered that I come into work but there was nobody with a gun pointing it at my head.”

Though in both debates with Michael Shermer and Sam Harris on the issue, the argument seemed like a side issue of the conversation. However, the issue appears to mean quite a bit to Ben as he believes that his political views and western civilization as a whole actually depend on this interpretation of the issue.

“I think it’s it’s very difficult to build a civilization on the basis of compatibilism. I think that libertarian free will, as unpopular as it is becoming in many circles, is still the fundamental basis for civilization.”

Though, as Ben stated, the libertarian view of free will is indeed unpopular in most non theological circles, he is not in terrible company. Among its primary supporters, the late American philosopher Robert Nozick offered his own complex version of Libertarian free will in his 1981 book Philosophical Explanations.

As always, should we become aware that Ben has changed his opinion or should new evidence be submitted that we have either misconstrued his opinion or failed to include important statements from him, we will 1) make the correction, 2) note the correction here, 3) issue a mea culpa that attempts to explain and improve on how we missed this. 

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