Is Free Will Viable?
This posting arises from Kathlena Contreras’ comment regarding my original posting on Free Will. A reply to her comment in the Comments section would be less visible to readers of this blog than a full discussion in a regular posting.
Briefly, Ms. Contreras challenges the contention that free will is an illusion because it is still a product of our brains and because absence of a free will essentially turns mankind into machines. Yes, our brains control all our actions and, no, we are not machines in the absence of free will.
The point of my mentioning the Libet experiment is that it destroys the contention that our conscious mind controls our awareness and the actions we take in response to that conscious thought. To analogize, we have to turn the key that starts the car before we can drive off. The measured brain impulse (the turned key) exists before the conscious thought reaches our awareness (driving off). Thus, our conscious awareness is not the driver of our actions. Rather, it is a tag-along factor.
Additionally, though not directly discussed in the original piece, the science of genetics is another reason to deny a role to free will in human behavior. As can be seen in microcosm in a Google search, there are thousands of papers and treatises available on the link between our genetic inheritance and our behavior.
Scientific research in behavioral genetics establishes beyond dispute that such a link exists and that it correlates with the behavior exhibited by humans. Researchers have carried out studies involving the behavior of identical twins separated at birth and on other cohorts that shed light on the role genetics plays in determining behavior in later life.
Not to be ignored is the role of environment, what is often referred to as “nurture,” in human behavior. Coupled with our genes, the environment in which we live is a vital determinant in whether humans can indeed exercise “free will.”
Let’s take a common example found often in real life. Joe’s father, an alcoholic, has exhibited sociopathic traits throughout his life, getting in trouble with the law and serving jail sentences on several occasions. He beat not only Joe’s mother, witnessed by Joe, but he has beaten Joe on numerous occasions through Joe’s childhood to such an extent that Joe was placed in foster care. Joe, now seventeen, is a confirmed truant who has been arrested for drunkenness and fighting four times. Finally, he has gone too far and robbed a store at gunpoint after first beating the owner half to death. He finds himself in court charged with armed robbery and attempted murder. The court-appointed psychiatrist reports that Joe is sane and was aware of what he was doing. Query: has Joe acted of his own free will?
Under the law as it exists today, Joe will likely be sent to prison for his crime because he was judged to have committed the crime being fully aware that what he was doing was wrong. This is free will in action.
Were free will to no longer exist in the legal system, a political as well as a judicial decision, we as a society would have to judge whether Joe’s behavior was a result of environmental and genetic factors. Only after this was determined would the court be sufficiently informed to decide whether Joe is a danger to society sufficient to imprison him and “throw away the key” or whether Joe should get a lesser sentence that includes meaningful psychiatric treatment until such a time as he is rehabilitated or shows evidence that he is too badly damaged to be released into society.
We have to ask ourselves which is the more humane approach. As it currently exists, we don’t really want to know about the hard wiring of genetics or what impact the bad environment had on Joe’s behavior. We are into retribution, not rehabilitation. Is it a dollars and cents matter? Which costs society more? Incarceration (retribution) or rehabilitation? That’s a subject for economists to deal with, but you’d be surprised at what they have found.
Ms. Contreras seems to assume that the genetic “hard wiring” is unalterable. What is the proof of that assumption? We know from numerous studies that humans are naturally altruistic and cooperative creatures. Were it otherwise, we would not have achieved our position at the top of the food chain.
She also assumes that our “hard wiring” would turn us into mere machines. If we concede that our genetic component determines once and for all our fate, then we would have to say that the history of mankind is a lie. We must not forget that environment plays a vital role in our behavior. The roles of genetics and environment are on a sliding scale: sometimes genetics is the weightier but more often environment carries the greater weight. The two always coexist. Looks like environment has outweighed genetics throughout history. Put another way, the machine analogy is a straw man.
Is this is a grim worldview? Seems to this observer that eliminating free will from our lives frees us to find the better side of our humanity. It would free us to look beyond the surface into what truly motivates us.
At the outset, I asked whether free will is viable? As it exists today, it lives a zombie existence: science has killed it but it stays upright and keeps us from allowing our better angels to step into the light. Time to recognize that free will doesn’t exist and that there are better ways of dealing with our problems. Let’s use them and create a more humane world.