I'm fascinated by free will. Especially the lack thereof. Do a "free will" Google search of my blogs (via the box in the right sidebar) and you'll find lots of posts I've written on this fascinating subject.
It doesn't bother me at all that modern neuroscience is steadily demolishing philosophical and religious reasons for believing in free will. If this is the way the world works, where's the problem?
To me, worrying about the consequences if people stop believing in free will is almost exactly the same as previous worries about what would happen if people learned that the earth isn't the center of the cosmos, or that we evolved from other life forms rather than being God's unique creation.
How can scientific truth be harmful?
Sure, sometimes there is a period of psychological adjustment when science reveals uncomfortable facts -- What, we humans weren't made in the image of God, starting with Adam and Eve six thousand years ago??!! -- but it is better in the long run to embrace the way things truly are, rather than fantasies.
So I was skeptical about the conclusion of a Scientific American article, "The World Without Free Will: What happens to a society that believes people have no conscious control over their actions?" Here's some excerpts from the final paragraphs.
If neuroscience research continues to degrade people's belief that they have free will, how will society change? We see three possibilities. History is replete with examples of moral norms evolving with new knowledge about the world.
...New research unveiling the biological machinery behind human thought and action may prompt a similarly dramatic change in moral views. This is the first possiblity... Though uncomfortable at times, doubting free will may end up as a kind of growing pain for our society, aligning our moral intuitions and legal institutions with new scientific knowledge and making us stronger than before.
It may not happen that way though. As our research has suggested, the more people doubt free will, the more lenient they become toward those accused of crimes and the more willing they are to break the rules themselves and harm others to get what they want. Thus, the second possibility is that newfound skepticism of free will may end up threatening the humanitarian revolution, potentially culminating in anarchy.
More likely is the third possibility. In the 18th century Voltaire famously asserted that if God did not exist, we would need to invent him because the idea of God is so vital to keeping law and order in society. Given that a belief in free will restrains people from engaging in the kind of wrongdoing that could unravel an ordered society, the parallel is obvious.
What will our society do if it finds itself without the concept of free will? It may well reinvent it.
I hope not. These arguments in favor of preserving an unscientific belief in something that almost certainly doesn't exist fail to make sense to me.
For one thing, Voltaire was wrong about the idea of God being vital to keeping society lawful and orderly. Atheists and agnostics aren't any more prone to lawlessness than religious believers. Arguably, less so, since the most secular countries tend to have less crime.
Likewise, I can't understand why not believing in free will would make someone less moral. If morality is determined, as everything else is, someone's attitude about free will is just one of many influences on his or her behavior.
I used to believe in free will. Now I don't. I can't discern any effect this change has had on the way I go about my everyday life. I still make choices, decide what is right and wrong to do, and make moral judgments.
All that has changed is how I regard the philosophical implications of what I'm doing.
Meaning, I no longer consider that I'm capable of making decisions that are divorced from all of the causes impacting me: genetics, experience, upbringing, culture, environmental influences, bodily states, and such.
As the above-linked article points out, Japan is one of the countries where a small percentage of people believe in the Western notion of God. China is another. I'd argue that most Japanese and Chinese also have a different notion of free will than people in the United States do.
We are much more individualistic, by and large.
Yet does our indvidualism and belief in free will lead to lower crime rates and a greater concern for the welfare of others? No. This country lags behind many, if not most, industrialized nations in many indicators of social well-being.
A belief in free will tends to make us more judgmental toward other people, as argued here. it leads us to think that if someone does something wrong, they could have done otherwise, so deserve punishment or whatever else results from their bad decision (like poverty or poor health).
So I'm eager for society to give up a ill-founded belief in free will. Let's embrace reality.
All of us are connected. No man or woman is an island. We're all parts of an interconnected whole -- the universe -- that collectively determines what happens in every part of itself. To me this is a beautiful way of looking at the world, one that offers way more meaning than an illusory embrace of free will.