by Bolderiz14 on September 5, 2016 - 7:54pm
There's No Such Thing as Free Will
Stephen Cave June 2016 on The Atlantic
Issue: How should we react as a society as research in neuroscience continue to disprove the "myth" of free will and support a deterministic view on human behaviour and the universe.
Conclusion: As more knowledge is acquired through research, it is better to keep the most useful parts of a belief in free will while understanding that some behaviour may be explained by a deterministic approach. A healthy mixture of both views would be the best thing to adopt for now.
Free will is nothing
1- The genes that we inherit from our parents determine the structure of every part of our physiology, including the brain.
2- Recently, scientists concluded, by studying brain scans, that our brain's structure, the networks of neurons making our brains, is shaped by our genes and the environment in which we evolve.
3- The scientific community also agree on the fact that the activity of these neurons cause our thoughts, emotions, memories, decisions, in short, the activities of our mind.
4- Neurons are the main constituents of the human brain.
5- We do not choose to make our neurons fire, but the neurons that fire make us choose, act, think, feel, etc. The firing of neurons, a natural phenomenon, precedes everything in our "minds". Benjamin Libet, an American physiologist, discovered that before we make a "conscious decision" to move our hand, there is an electrical build-up in a specific part of the brain that precedes that decision.
6- The way that "neurons fire" is determined by our brain's structure.
7- Human behaviour, the way we make choices and act upon them, is then determined by our past environment which shaped our brain and our genes, since they are the factors that determined our brain's structure. And the way that "neurons fire" is dependant on this structure. The structure determine our thoughts, emotions, and any other reactions to a stimuli from the environment.
Therefore, the modern scientific view of human behaviour is that of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, the firing of neurons reacting to what we perceive in our environment. An individual's reaction to any stimulus would be entirely predictable if we understood his brain's structure, shaped by genes and experience. Free will, in the way it is defined, would be nothing but an illusion.
A necessary secret?
1- The idea that we are unable to control our brain (and the thoughts it produces) is gaining popularity as more and more "your brain on ..." articles are published.
2- A popular belief in hard determinism is dangerous as many of our institutions (political, juridical, economic) are based on the idea of free will (people being responsible for their actions) and many fear it would bring moral irresponsibility.
3- Two psychologists, Kathleen Vohs (University of Utah) and Jonathan Schooler (University of Pittsburgh) lead a study in which a group read a passage disproving free will and another read a neutral passage on the subject. They've found out that those who were convinced that free will doesn't exists were more likely to cheat, steal, and behave with less morality in the subsequent tests.
4- When someone stops believing in his freedom of will, he considers himself less blameworthy for his actions and act more accordingly to their basic desires, as demonstrated by the study.
5- Another study directed by Vohs found out in a group of day labourers that those who believed that they had control over their mind were rated as better workers by their supervisor than those who held a deterministic view.
6- Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University, noted that students who held a weaker belief in free will offered less time to help other students and were less likely to do selfless acts, such a giving money to a homeless person, than those who believed in free will.
7- In another study, Baumeister linked a weak belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, a lesser commitment to relationships, and a sense of meaningless in life.
8- Determinism undermines blame and praise according to Saul Smilansky, philosophy professor at the University of Haifa in Israel: an individual failing to do his duty or making great sacrifices to fulfill it would be considered equal as they couldn't control their decisions.
Therefore, it is better to preserve the "illusion" of free will, since a widespread of a deterministic view would negatively affect the health and behaviour of the majority, dealing a hard blow to popular morality.
The truth must prevail
1- Sam Harris, neuroscientist, philosopher, and author, state that our belief must always follow the truth.
2- The worst criminals couldn't choose his genes, his parents, or the environment in which he was born in, all three having acted on the development of their brain, source of all intentions and actions.
3- By accepting that human behaviour is determined by neurophysiology, it will be possible to understand why some continue to do bad things despite the consequences stated by law. Only then will we be able to find better ways than a threat of punishment to prevent these crimes.
4- Accepting that thoughts and actions are determined, and viewing others' behaviour as "natural phenomenons" would greatly reduce the amount of hatred in the world. Sam Harris compares 2 disasters caused by "natural phenomenons": 9/11 and hurricane Katrina. One led to the loss of countless lives in the Middle East because we blamed the perpetrators for their actions instead of acknowledging that it might've been out of their control. Belief in free will led to hate and a desire for vengeance instead of a desire to understand and prevent terrorism.
Therefore, a deterministic view would allow us, as a society, to be more understanding of the behaviour of criminals and diminish our hate and desire for vengeance toward those who harmed us.
The author conclude by saying that, for now, it might be best to keep our belief in free will for its best parts while being aware of the deterministic nature of the brain's function to be more understanding of others' behaviour. One last argument could be:
1- Kathleen Vohs, Jonathan Schooler, and Roy Baumeister have proven that people who believed in free will were morally superior to those who didn't and were in overall better health.
2- However, Sam Harris argues that adopting the deterministic view would make us more understanding and less hateful toward others.
Therefore it might be best to keep our belief in free will for its best parts while being aware of the deterministic nature of the brain's way of functioning to be more understanding of others' behaviour.
I've been convinced by the arguments proving the non-existence of free will, but nevertheless find it very hard to not be judgmental toward others for their actions. Sam Harris argues that accepting the deterministic view would would make us more tolerant and understanding, but I personally do not think that it is within the reach of the majority. Only a few will go beyond their instinct of the existence of free will and will never doubt its existence. Just like reading Schopenhauer can change our perspective on love and Jean Paul Sartre, on freedom, most of us chose not to because we are simply uninterested, prefer to follow our own instincts, and never doubt our beliefs. Determinism is drastically opposed to popular belief and I think that it may stay out of it for, at least, decades to come.