Oct 01

Free Will: R.I.P.

Free Will—A Zombie Existence

Free Will may be a good subject for ethicists, philosophers and graduate student Ph.D. dissertations, but with the exception of preachers using it to condemn sinners or judges and lawyers using it to condemn accused criminals, does it really exist? Science has revealed that it really doesn’t exist. In a moment we’ll look at the evidence.

Very briefly, however, before moving on to the core of my position, let me just mention the philosophical elements. They center on three approaches: determinism, libertarianism and compatibilism, but we are not going to concern ourselves with these concepts. We are concerned with whether free will even exists. If you wish to explore these philosophical approaches further, I recommend that you Google Free Will and read the article in Wikipedia.

Free Will Defined—

First, what is free will? According to Sam Harris in his essay on Free Will, free will appears to be based on two assumptions: that we could have behaved differently and that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions. His conclusion and mine is that free will is an illusion.

To give you a picture of why free will is illusory, physiologist Benjamin Libet used an EEG to determine the illusion by showing that some 300 milliseconds before his subjects made a conscious decision to press a button, the subject’s brain had determined which button to press. Put another way, the subject was not yet conscious of which button would be pushed, but the brain had already decided. This indicates that the action of the subject was already determined before he became conscious of it.

As Harris says, “…free will describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness.”

Your actions are rooted in both conscious and unconscious causes, but as just pointed out, it is the unconscious thoughts that govern what reaches your conscious mind. You have no control over your thoughts and actions because they are determined by your brain before you are even aware of them.

Nature or Nurture…or Both?

Behavioral genetics tells us that humans are influenced to a greater or lesser degree by our genetic makeup. The environment in which we are raised and live determines to a greater or lesser degree what we will do within the bounds of our genetic makeup. The scientific literature and research confirms without a doubt that our genetic component is an essential part of our makeup.

Genetics and environment. Nature and Nurture. Which has the greater influence can only be determined by an examination of the life and circumstances of the individual. Put another way, each of us is the sum total of our genetic makeup and the environment factors that influenced our formative years and surrounds us now. It’s like a building: there is the foundation and framing and there are the finishing materials and the neighborhood. A close look today shows us that the genetic component is largely fixed at birth while the environment varies markedly throughout life.

It may be an illusion but is free will a “necessary illusion?” Research has shown that reading an argument denying free will results in a greater likelihood to cheat on a subsequent exam. But both Harris and I assert that by making you the author of your own feelings the end result is empowerment and greater awareness of your impact on the world around you. It leads to greater control over your life in that we live not in a vacuum but in a greater society within which we react with others in a complex dance that is life.

Now let’s look at free will as it is seen and used in our legal system. The United States Supreme Court in United States v. Grayson (1978), has written that free will is a universal and persistent foundation for our system of law. Any threat to that foundation would undermine the ethics of punishing lawbreakers for their bad behavior.

Harris proposes a thought experiment that illustrates the escalating moral opprobrium that attaches to the gunshot death of a woman. At one end of the spectrum is an accidental shooting of the woman by a child and at the other end is the deliberate killing of the woman by a man who is suffering from a brain tumor. He points out that the degree of condemnation attaching to the acts varies according to the facts touching on the perpetrator. Free will is the legal determinant of the degree of culpability, but the outcome remains constant: a woman has died. Accidental vs. intentional. However, by dispensing with free will we are allowed to focus on what really matters: the level of risk, the protection of innocent people, the deterrence of crime and more.

By focusing on what really matters, we must ask whether the criminal is responsible for his environment during his youth. We can see that retribution depends on our NOT seeing causes of human behavior. Maybe the day will come in the not too distant future when we recognize that our use of free will has stood in the way of true justice.

There is little to say about the use of free will in religion. Free will supports idea of sin. The sinner must pay in this life and will surely pay in the next.

Finally, we need to recognize that the concept of free will operates in the political sphere as well as in those just discussed. We see that it has repercussions there arising from the philosophies of those identified as liberal and those identified as being conservatives. Liberals recognize luck or lack thereof while conservatives believe the individual is solely responsible for his/her position in life. We must recognize that both successful and unsuccessful people were the result of background conditions they didn’t create.

Summed up, there is no question that free will is an illusion that has made life more difficult for all of us. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can move ahead toward a more humane world.


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  1. Wow that is deep

      • Don Bay on October 1, 2013 at 22:22

      Actually, it’s quite simple: free will is in your mind: your brain has already decided what you are going to do before your conscious mind becomes aware of the decision. Then, of course, your genes in combination with your environment determine your course of action. Religion and the legal system have made it look deep while science has pulled back the curtain to reveal it is simple: free will is the walking dead. Let us hope that someday free will will lie down and rot so humanity can get on with becoming more humane.

  2. I’m afraid I’m not convinced. The subject’s BRAIN decided what to do? What am I, if not a product of my brain? Maybe I’m not understanding the subtleties of the study, but I’m not surprised that it took 300 ms. for the brain to organize the firing of thousands of individual neurons in order to create a concrete response, including conscious realization of intent.

    In respect to justice, this idea is a double-edged sword. On one hand, if we aren’t responsible for our actions and choices, why would we bother trying to rein in our baser impulses? The devil made us do it. We can’t help it. It’s our destiny. On the other, if someone is pre-programmed to anti-social behavior, then they have no hope of change or redemption. Therefore, for the protection of society, society must, at minimum, lock ’em up and throw away the key.

    This worldview strikes me as very grim and very bleak, much akin to existentialism– nothing matters. I have difficulty reconciling sentience, conscious awareness, sense of self, things that appear to be experienced by many species of creatures, into nothing more than a program created by experience running on the hard-wiring of genetics. It turns us into machines, incapable of growing and changing, when this is patently not the case.

    I don’t see how rejecting the notion that we have choice can possibly lead to a more humane world. Rather it would seem to lead to despair and chaos.

    • Mary Ann Conley on January 8, 2014 at 21:14

    I tend to support the perspective written by Kathlena as well as the position and research suggesting that we are a product of our genes and environment with genetic determinants having varying influence over our behavior. The “genes” for anxiety, for instance, have a stronger influence than do “genes” for intelligence. Habitual ways of thinking and responding lay day strong neuronal pathways. Those who have been traumatized over and over, for instance, tend to respond to neutral stimuli as though it is traumatic…PTSD. It is difficult to change habitual ways of thinking and responding emotionally. However, it can be done when an individual learns to consider choice and options in perception. The stimulus may evoke a response that can be reconsidered and a different alternative can be chosen. Learning to employ those alternatives leads to the formation of new habits of thinking and responding.

    One or two or even three research studies are not irreversible facts. There are always studies to refute the results.

    If I didn’t have that understanding and experience, I would not be in my chosen professtion.

      • Don Bay on January 12, 2014 at 09:45

      Genes and environment are the determinants of behavior. What you are doing is altering the environment in an effort to overcome the earlier environmental influences. Your professional efforts support my contention.

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