‘To be or not to be’: The free-will debate

Jerry Coyne has been writing about this for a long time now, as have several other people including Daniel Dennett and, now, Sam Harris. It is, of course, a question fundamental to how we human beings perceive ourselves in the grand scheme of things. Most people are unnerved by the possibility that they really don’t have free will.

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This has been doing the rounds on the EMU circuit. Somebody pointed the rest of us to this article by Jerry Coyne about the illusion of free will. I’ve been talking to some people myself (hat tips: Aurko Roy, Parul Singh). In fact, Jerry Coyne has been writing about this for a long time now, as have several other people including Daniel Dennett and, now, Sam Harris. It is, of course, a question fundamental to how we human beings perceive ourselves in the grand scheme of things. Most people are unnerved by the possibility that they really don’t have free will.

The conventional (religious or religion-inspired)  position is that we do have free will. It isn’t hard to figure out why: how do you justify heaven and hell if you had no choice in what you did? But like many other things, the existence of free will is a scientific question in that it is testable. The only answer we should be willing to accept is a scientific one. And people have tried to do this. There are experiments, for instance, that show that subjects have already made their decisions long before they are consciously aware of their decisions, suggesting that the conscious will of the subject had no role to play in the decision.

The implications of accepting that free will is nonexistent are dramatic (\end{understatement}). Terms like good and bad would lose all relevance when it comes to people’s actions. Would you, for example, punish people for crimes if they had no control over what they did? The utilitarians among us might say that punishment should nevertheless be meted out for crimes because this would simply be some sort of negative reinforcement against the causes of the crime; that there is a human being involved should change nothing about the argument. I think it is safe to say that it would be more humane to take these findings into consideration. Like Jerry Coyne says, this is already in some ways a part of jurisprudence (a murder committed by somebody with no control over their actions because of a brain tumour is punished less severely).

What, if any, impact will this have on our daily lives? I think I agree with Jerry Coyne that the answer is ‘basically nothing’. The illusion of free will is too deeply ingrained for us to do something about it (we also don’t have the will to do it, if you think about it). But it must give us pause to realise that we’re basically automatons in a mindless universe. Sort of like this.

2 thoughts on “‘To be or not to be’: The free-will debate”

  1. Sam Harris does feel that free will is mostly an illusion. I believe we can make choices, but seldom freely. In my (free) ebook, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a chapter called “Outside the box.” Here are three paragraphs from it:

    What if you had to make all your decisions about living while detained in a jail cell? The cells may be open for brief periods each day, but the prisoners are still surrounded by walls. There are also walls around cells of everyday life. We are restricted by our ability to control our emotions, mind and body. Even with full command of our “self,” we must live within the restraints of Nature and society. Freedom is relative.

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

    Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.

    Sam Harris wrote ““I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.”

  2. @DudeAbove,

    Your understanding of ‘free will’ has almost nothing to do with what Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are on about. Besides all the ‘mystical awareness and divine law’ crap, being a nice person capable of living in a society has nothing to do with whether or not free will exists.

    The experiments, for example, did not test whether people could overcome gravity and fly; they tested whether people could ‘think’ freely (we apparently can’t, if that wasn’t clear from the post).

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