a writing by Timothy DeChenne

The goal of this essay is to argue against free will, but in a way that seems relevant to daily life, and maybe even improves it a little.

The argument is this: just recognizing that free will is illusory, and reminding ourselves about that periodically, can help make us better people.

First, full disclosure: everyone, including the author, feels they have free will. This will never change; as far as we can tell, the feeling is built into the normal human nervous system. But my proposal is that stepping back from this feeling every once in a while, occasionally swimming against the tide of its subjective power, can prove helpful.

Let’s consider someone we’ll call Mary. She was born of average health. She grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood. Her mother was a single parent who worked in a clerical position. In middle school Mary decided she was going to achieve something different. She became a diligent student, and eventually got into college on a scholarship. She went on to earn an MBA, and by her thirties had become a high-paid consultant.

Ask Mary how she got where she is today, and her response, although undoubtedly tempered by socially appropriate modesty, will probably emphasize hard work. After all, her childhood neighborhood wasn’t the best, and there were few professional women as role models. She just worked hard, got scholarships, maintained a belief in herself, and eventually succeeded.

But my explanation would be a little different. I would say she’d been lucky. Furthermore, nothing but lucky. End of story.

How so? Of course hard work was central in her success. But the social scientist asks: what were the causes of her choosing to work hard? The whole story can never be known (more on this later), but many relevant factors spring to mind. For example, she probably inherited a disposition toward above average intelligence: heritability of adult IQ has been estimated at around 75-80%. And she also probably inherited a disposition toward above average conscientiousness. This personality trait refers to being thorough, organized, self-disciplined, and achievement oriented. The heritability of this trait appears to be in the 40’s.

But of course that’s not all. If we look more closely we might discover that her mother always impressed upon her the importance of education. Maybe in the evenings and on weekends her mother was a voracious reader, and there were many books in the home. And although the neighborhood was rough, maybe Mary found a friend in middle school who was a good student and who supported her during hard times. The list of maybe’s goes on and on.

The point is that Mary’s choice to work hard did not spring de novo from the brow of Zeus. The choice was itself caused by other things: by a staggering, countless diversity of factors, both nature and nurture, which eventually produced the structure and functioning of her nervous system. She was lucky in the sense that she developed as a person in that particular causal nexus, the one that determined she would choose to work hard, as well as have the resources to succeed.

In short, like many others in the history of philosophy and science, I am suggesting that free will is an illusion. For a will to be truly “free”, it would have to make choices in a total causal vacuum, completely free of influences from any other source. A “causeless free will” would only arise in a hermetically sealed self, unaffected in any way by the rest of the physical world. At least at the current time, nothing in the universe seems to operate in this manner.

We do not somehow magically cause ourselves. We are not the authors of our thoughts and actions. Our thoughts and actions are caused by neural events of which we are unaware. Those events in turn are caused by a vast series of other events, also of which we are unaware.

For some readers this will be business as usual. Others, however, may be uncomfortable. For the latter especially, let me hasten to add what I am not saying.

First, I am not suggesting the world operates under a rigid Newtonian determinism. Decades ago quantum mechanics revealed that events at the atomic level are probabilistic, that is, random within firmly established probability limits. Recently, some in the popular press have speculated that this probabilistic quality might be the back door through which free will could return to the stage.

But as others have pointed out, exactly what implications this has for events at the neuronal level remain unclear. More importantly, if significant effects on neuronal functioning ever were clearly demonstrated, this still would not save the concept of free will. As Brian Greene, a physicist at Columbia University, has succinctly remarked: “Free will, in the usual sense of the term, requires that I control my actions. Whether my actions are determined by Newtonian rigidity or probabilistic flexibility, I still am not in control, so I still lack free will.”

Second, I am not suggesting that we will ever be able to completely predict anyone’s actions. We cannot even predict the exact path a leaf will take when it falls from a tree, let alone the precise responses of a human brain containing billions of neurons and trillions of connections. The causation involved here (as everywhere) is not a simple matter of one event invariably leading to another, but rather a process of complex, interdependent patterns.

Finally, I am not suggesting we do not make choices. We obviously do. There are three doors and I choose door number three. So far so good. But what does my choice demonstrate? It shows I was capable of taking an action. The action, however, like all of my actions, was not plucked out of thin air. It was itself caused by a host of other factors.

Parenthetically, for some in the philosophical community my choice of door number three is a big deal. For those known as “compatibilists”, it shows, amazingly, that determinism and free will are consistent. What’s their reasoning? Well, it's a matter of definition. They simply define “free will” as making choices on the basis of one's own motives, rather than some type of coercion. Even if those motives are fully determined by prior causes (which they always are), the choice still constitutes free will.

If that’s how they want to define free will, they’re allowed. It's a definition that does have some practical uses, for example in the legal field. But of course it is not, in an ultimate sense, what is meant by free will. The ultimate sense is a will undetermined by prior causes. If pressed in a discussion, it's my experience that many people (most?) will cling to that position. They will not admit that even though their choice felt free, it was actually completely caused by other things. And they will cling to that position tenaciously, despite all evidence to the contrary.

But let’s turn to practicalities. Even if you agree with the absence of free will at a theoretical level, you still might wonder why I’m making such a fuss. Since we all still feel responsible for our actions, and always will, what’s the relevance of this argument?

One part of the relevance has to do with the old fashioned concept of character. Understanding, and periodically reminding ourselves, that free will is an illusion can be, well, character building.

At the peak of our success, when we are tempted to sing “I did it my way” and to take an extra bow in the winner’s circle, it’s a gentle restraint on pride. Yes, I got the promotion. Congratulations are in order. But what really got the promotion? It was a bewildering net of biologic and social forces that shaped, and continues to shape, this flow of events called “me”. Remembering this, I get over myself a little sooner. Everyone around me is relieved. Even I am relieved.

Won’t this induce fatalism? Might I not just give up trying altogether? Not likely. As noted before, the sense of a totally free will appears to be wired in. There are undoubtedly evolutionary advantages to this. It’s not going away anytime soon. Rather, it’s much more likely you’ll forget to have a little modesty. You have to really work at remembering that. It slips the mind so easily.

But there’s more. Recognizing the illusion of free will can have a salutary effect on our view of others. It can be of value to us in responding to a wide range of transgressions, from minor mistakes in etiquette to the commission of major crimes.

Of course we will continue, reflexively, to view others as having free will. That is not likely to change; indeed, it is difficult to imagine human society without it. But occasionally taking a moment to reflect on free will as an illusion can be helpful. The recognition can be a slight curb on righteous indignation, and a gentle push toward compassion. It can broaden our focus, at least a little, beyond the simple assignment of blame. It can point us, at least sometimes, toward an interest in underlying causes.

Consider the more serious end of the transgression continuum. Should individuals convicted of crimes face legal consequences? Of course. There is no suggestion here for the abandonment of legal sanctions. Such sanctions form an important part of the causal nexus determining all our actions. We should keep them in place not because our will is "free", but rather because they help shape behavior in ways we consider desirable.

But remembering the illusion of free will can prod us to do more than simply punish. Punishment is easy; child’s play, literally. The much, much harder path is also to work on understanding, and perhaps eventually changing, the underlying causes of social dysfunction.

To stay on that path we need all the reminders we can get.

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