Free will carried many a soul to hell, but never a soul to heaven. —Charles Spurgeon
Free will. You’ve used it as an excuse. You’ve used it as a tool of judgement and condemnation. But this morning we’re stepping right off into the deep end of the pool by considering the possibility, and quite likely the fact, that free will has never existed. Sounds like I’m off my rocker, doesn’t it? Kat might as well reserve me a room in the old folks home, strapped into a rocking chair so I can’t hurt anyone. Bear with me.
Back in 2002, there was a movie starring Tom Cruise called Minority Report. The underlying premise of the movie was that a very “special” group of triplets had the ability to see into the future and know who was going to commit a crime before it was committed. Law enforcement found a way to tap into that gift and use it to stop those crimes (mostly murders) before they happen. Things get dicey, though, when the condition of the triplets begins to deteriorate and a false positive accuses a cop (Cruise) of committing a murder. The movie was interesting, in part, because it raised the question of what happens when one’s free will is interrupted, even though that interruption might save a life.
Our society, as it is currently constructed, depends on free will, the presumption that one makes, and is, therefore, responsible for one’s own decisions. Our entire justice system and our concept of guilt and innocence hinge upon free will. Religions around the world fall to nothing if there is no free will determining morality. Without free will, what’s the point? If we have no choice in the matter, what keeps us from being the most base and loathsome creatures possible?
Yet, for all the arguments one might make to the contrary, there is considerable evidence that there is no such thing as free will. This is a problem; an existential and perhaps merely academic problem at this point, but nonetheless a problem.
What I encourage you to do, just as soon as we’re finished here, is to jump over to The Atlantic and read the article by philosopher Stephen Cave, There’s No Such Thing As Free Will. He goes a lot deeper into the details than I have space to do here. He does a very good job of breaking down all the science into a language that is almost understandable. Appreciate his effort. When I drop back to look at the base research material even my head begins to hurt. He’s doing you a favor. Sort of.
The challenge in even bringing up this topic is that it causes us to question our motivations, our morality, and our very place in the universe. Almost to a person, our initial response is fatalistic: if I’m not in control of my life, if my choices are predetermined, then fuck it, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want. People who take such a fatalistic approach are more likely to steal, less likely to help someone else, and less likely to be happy with their lives. If that is how life is without a belief in free will, then maybe we’re better off living with a lie. Some scientists, theologians, and philosophers are willing to go with that theory.
But do we really want to live under the umbrella of a lie? As we are better able to map the activities of the brain and observe neurons and chemicals involved with specific activities, we can actually observe how our brains prepare us for an action before we’ve made the conscious decision to act. Stop and let that sink in a minute. We’re not just seeing the brain activity that comes post-decision, what we’re observing now is how our brain anticipates and actually guides us toward what we like to think is a decision of our own doing. There are specific transmitters that fire, certain chemicals that are activated, to correspond with everything we do, whether it be good, bad, or indifferent.
While the prospects may seem frightening (determinism is a very scary thing), being without free will may ultimately be in everyone’s best interest. Cave uses the comparison of how we responded to the atrocities of 9/11 versus how we responded to the atrocities of Hurricane Katrina. We look at 9/11 as being something that someone caused: someone made a willful and deliberate decision that resulted in horror. As a result, our first response was one of anger and retribution. By contrast, we look at the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and, because we don’t consider weather to be an act of anyone’s doing, we skip the blame game and go straight to healing the hurt, addressing the loss of life and property, and moving on with our lives. Where there is no free will fueling our anger, we get to a more appropriate response much more quickly.
There is also the prospect that as we learn even more about what causes us to do what we do, we might then be able to address anti-social problems, especially those involving violence, before they ever become an issue. Whereas the approach in Minority Report was to imprison people before they committed a crime, we may be able to one day completely eliminate the need for prisons by altering whatever chemical/neurological combination leads to those specific actions.
In the end, the world could ultimately be a much better place as we wean ourselves away from the concept of free will and take steps to address the real cause of our inappropriate behaviors. The same science is also likely to lead us to cure diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Our future could be very bright and wonderful.
But in the meantime, there are some critical questions regarding our dependency on free will and religion that need answering and those answers are not going to come easily. We’ve relied on free will for so very long, it is almost impossible for us to imagine life without it. But if we start looking at those questions now, by the time science can fully explain our actions then perhaps we’ll have some moral and philosophical answers.