How to Live a Lie

By William Irwin

November 2, 2015 3:15 am

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From "The Invisible Man," 1933.Credit Universal Pictures/Getty Images

Few things are more annoying than watching a movie with someone who repeatedly tells you, “That couldn’t happen.” After all, we engage with artistic fictions by suspending disbelief. For the sake of enjoying a movie like “Back to the Future,” I may accept that time travel is possible even though I do not believe it. There seems no harm in that, and it does some good to the extent that it entertains and edifies me.

Some of us act as if there were a God, even though we do not really believe God exists.

Philosophy can take us in the other direction, by using reason and rigorous questioning to lead us to disbelieve what we would otherwise believe. Accepting the possibility of time travel is one thing, but relinquishing beliefs in God, free will, or objective morality would certainly be more troublesome. Let’s focus for a moment on morality.

The philosopher Michael Ruse has argued that “morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes.” If that’s true, why have our genes played such a trick on us? One possible answer can be found in the work of another philosopher Richard Joyce, who has argued that this “illusion” — the belief in objective morality — evolved to provide a bulwark against weakness of the human will. So a claim like “stealing is morally wrong” is not true, because such beliefs have an evolutionary basis but no metaphysical basis. But let’s assume we want to avoid the consequences of weakness of will that would cause us to act imprudently. In that case, Joyce makes an ingenious proposal: moral fictionalism.

Following a fictionalist account of morality, would mean that we would accept moral statements like “stealing is wrong” while not believing they are true. As a result, we would act as if it were true that “stealing is wrong,” but when pushed to give our answer to the theoretical, philosophical question of whether “stealing is wrong,” we would say no. The appeal of moral fictionalism is clear. It is supposed to help us overcome weakness of will and even take away the anxiety of choice, making decisions easier.

There is, though, a practical objection to moral fictionalism. Once we become aware that moral judgments have no objective basis in metaphysical reality, how can they function effectively? We are likely to recall that morality is a fiction whenever we are in a situation in which we would prefer not to follow what morality dictates. If I am a moral fictionalist who really wants to steal your pen, the only thing that will stop me is prudence, not a fictional moral belief.

It is not clear that this practical objection can be overcome, but even if it could, moral fictionalism would still be disingenuous, encouraging us to turn a blind eye to what we really believe. It may not be the most pernicious kind of self-deception, but it is self-deception nonetheless, a fact that will bother anyone who places value on truth. Fictionalism has the understandable goal of facilitating what one wants to do — acting as a kind of commitment strategy — but it would be preferable if one could do what one wanted to do without this maneuver.

If God foresaw that I would order pasta, was I really free to order steak?

We would all like to be more truthful, but lying to ourselves about the morality of lying is unlikely to help. Life is too short to live in a fantasy world. We find engaging with movies and novels commendable only if the person does not spend more time in those fictional worlds than outside them. But in the case of moral fictionalism the person is spending nearly all of his time in a fictionalized world — only coming out of it briefly when he considers the philosophical question of the reality of morality.

Joyce nonetheless contends that living in a morally fictionalized world is worthwhile because he thinks moral statements like “stealing is wrong” are mythologically true; they convey a deep truth about human nature despite being literally false. Joyce thus counsels us to voluntarily cultivate moral fictionalism, as Blaise Pascal counseled would-be believers to pray and go to church.

Indeed, Joyce speculates that some people probably take a fictionalist approach to God; they accept the existence of God but they do not really believe God exists. They accept that God is love and that (the concept of) God has shaped human history and guides human lives, but when pinned down they admit that they do not really believe in the actual existence of such a God. Their considered judgment is that the existence of God is not literally true but is mythologically true.

As an example, the philosopher Jean Kazez has written, “I am a religious fictionalist. I don’t just banish all religious sentences to the flames. I make believe some of them are true, and I think that’s all to the good.” At her family’s Seder, she wrote, “I pretended there was a deity to be praised for various things.” Kazez embraces this particular form of fictionalism for personal reasons: “I like pretending the Passover story is true because of the continuity it creates —it ties me to the other people at the table, past years that I’ve celebrated Passover (in many different ways, with different people). I like feeling tied to Jews over the centuries and across the world. I also like the themes of liberation and freedom that can be tied to the basic story.”

Joyce advocates a similar voluntary fictionalism for morality. Fictionalism may not be voluntary for everyone, however. For example, it is possible that for some people religious fictionalism is involuntary. Whatever the reason, they cannot help but act as if there were a God, even though, when they stop to consider the matter, they do not really believe God exists. The same may be the case regarding morality for some people. We can call this phenomenon involuntary fictionalism.

When a novel or movie is particularly engrossing, our reactions to it may be involuntary and resistant to our attempts to counter them. We form what the philosopher Tamar Szabo Gendler calls aliefs — automatic belief-like attitudes that contrast with our well considered beliefs. For example, despite our beliefs that it is only a movie and that the characters are not real, because of our aliefs, we end up screaming when the monster jumps out at the heroine from behind a tree, or weeping with sadness or compassion when a sympathetic character experiences pain.

Like our involuntary screams in the theater, there may be cases of involuntary moral fictionalism or religious fictionalism as well. Among philosophical issues, though, free will seems to be the clearest case of involuntary fictionalism. It seems clear that I have free will when, for example, I choose from many options to order pasta at a restaurant. Yet few, if any, philosophical notions are harder to defend than free will. Even dualists, who believe in a nonmaterial soul, run into problems with divine foreknowledge. If God foresaw that I would order pasta, then was I really free to do otherwise, to order steak?

In the traditional sense, having free will means that multiple options are truly available to me. I am not a computer, running a decision-making program. No matter what I choose, I could have chosen otherwise. However, in a materialist, as opposed to dualist, worldview, there is no place in the causal chain of material things for the will to act in an uncaused way. Thus only one outcome of my decision-making process is possible. Not even quantum indeterminacy could give me the freedom to order steak. The moment after I recognize this, however, I go back to feeling as if my decision to order pasta was free and that my future decision of what to have for dessert will also be free. I am a free will fictionalist. I accept that I have free will even though I do not believe it.

Giving up on the possibility of free will in the traditional sense of the term, I could adopt compatibilism, the view that actions can be both determined and free. As long as my decision to order pasta is caused by some part of me — say my higher order desires or a deliberative reasoning process — then my action is free even if that aspect of myself was itself caused and determined by a chain of cause and effect. And my action is free even if I really could not have acted otherwise by ordering the steak.

Unfortunately, not even this will rescue me from involuntary free will fictionalism. Adopting compatibilism, I would still feel as if I have free will in the traditional sense and that I could have chosen steak and that the future is wide open concerning what I will have for dessert. There seems to be a “user illusion” that produces the feeling of free will.

William James famously remarked that his first act of free will would be to believe in free will. Well, I cannot believe in free will, but I can accept it. In fact, if free will fictionalism is involuntary, I have no choice but to accept free will. That makes accepting free will easy and undeniably sincere. Accepting the reality of God or morality, on the other hand, are tougher tasks, and potentially disingenuous.

William Irwin is a professor of philosophy at King’s College, the author of “The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism” and the general editor of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.