Today the monthly Salon discussion group that my wife and I are part of spent quite a bit of time talking about free will.
This is one of my favorite subjects, for after pondering quite a few books about free will, or the lack thereof, I'm highly confident that free will is an illusion.
I can't recall exactly how our group started conversing about it, but for sure I spurred our conversation by saying that I've started reading Robert M. Sapolsky's terrific book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.
To give you a feel for his general view of free will, here's an eight-minute interview featuring Sapolsky, a Stanford University professor of biology, of neurology and neurological sciences, and of neurosurgery.
I was worried that my passion for this subject wouldn't be shared by other members of the discussion group. I was wrong. We had a really interesting discussion of free will in which some people agreed with me that we don't possess it, and others presented reasons why they think we do.
Since I'm writing this blog post, not them, I'm going to focus on briefly relating some of my arguments for why free will doesn't exist. These aren't original, obviously. They flow from the books I've read by people arguing that free will is an illusion.
(1) Humans are part of the natural world. We are animals. Animals with powerful brains, to be sure, but animals. If a grizzly bear attacks someone, we don't consider that the bear had the free will to do otherwise. We just say, it was doing what bears do. So what makes us think that we stand apart from the natural world by possessing some sort of free will magic in our brain?
(2) The core argument against free will is simple. Everything about us, and the rest of the world, is determined. That's why Sapolsky's book has that title, Determined. Sure, we make choices. So do bears. And sea slugs. Those choices, those intentions, don't spring out of nowhere. They arise out of the goings-on in our brain, which is amazingly complex, yet still determined by causes and effects that range from a few seconds ago, to the moment of our birth, and even beyond given cultural and genetic influences on us.
(3) Recall something you've done that you regret. That's easy for me. Probably is for you also. We all have regrets. Often, or usually, that regret is made more painful by believing that we could have acted differently. But consider this. If every atom in your brain and outside world were in exactly the same condition as it was when you acted the first time, you'd do exactly what you did again. No doubt about it. Free will assumes that we have a choice to act differently. That can't be true if nothing has changed from when we acted initially.
(4) But as Sapolsky says in the video above, change does happen. All the time. Life and our world as a whole is nothing but change. People change. Animals change. Rocks change. Plants change. Free will, since it doesn't exist, can't change anything. Yet circumstances change. Every thought we have, every feeling we have, every action we take, all that changes us. So there's no fatalism involved in giving up a belief in free will. In fact, not believing in free will opens us to the reality that change can occur for countless reasons. Life is a never-ending series of surprises caused by determinism.
(5) Believing in free will fosters judgmentalism. We see someone in an unfortunate situation and think, "It's their fault." Giving up a belief in free will leads to a realization that, as strange as this may sound, no one is deserving of praise or blame. They're just doing what was determined that they do. So are we. Everybody is. Sure, society is justified in imprisoning dangerous people. But not to punish them. To protect others. And to change the prisoner for the better, if this is possible.
(6) There's no reason to think that people would go wild and crazy if they didn't believe in free will. Animals don't believe in free will, yet a wolf pack, herd of deer, school of fish, or flock of birds do just fine without such a belief. Us human animals have a strong sense of community and social cohesion. We generally want to get along with our fellow humans, notwithstanding our political, religious, and other sorts of divisions. Morality flows from a much deeper source than free will. It is embedded in our being thanks to evolution.
(7) Lastly, here's an excerpt from a post I wrote for my Church of the Churchless blog about Sapolsky's book. I loved this quotation from Determined.
Finally, any contemporary view of determinism must accommodate a profoundly important point, one that dominates the second half of the book -- despite the world being deterministic, things can change. Brains change, behaviors change. We change. And that doesn't counter this being a deterministic world without free will. In fact, the science of change strengthens this conclusion; this will come in chapter 12.
With those issues in mind, time to see the version of determinism that this book builds on.
Imagine a university graduation ceremony. Almost always moving, despite the platitudes, the boilerplate, the kitsch. The happiness, the pride. The families whose sacrifices now all seem worth it. The graduates who were the first in their family to finish high school. The ones whose immigrant parents sit there glowing, their saris, dashikis, barongs broadcasting that their pride in the present isn't at the cost of pride in their past.
And then you notice someone. Amid the family clusters post ceremony, the new graduates posing for pictures with Grandma in her wheelchair, the bursts of hugs and laughter, you see the person way in the back, the person who is part of the grounds crew, collecting the garbage from the cans on the perimeter of the event.
Randomly pick any of the graduates. Do some magic so that this garbage collector started life with the graduate's genes. Likewise for getting the womb in which nine months were spent and the lifelong epigenetic consequences of that.
Get the graduate's childhood as well -- one filled with, say, piano lessons and family game nights, instead of, say, threats of going to bed hungry, becoming homeless, or being deported for lack of papers. Let's go all the way so that, in addition to the garbage collector having gotten all that of the graduate's past, the graduate would have gotten the garbage collector's past.
Trade every factor over which they had no control, and you will switch who would be in the graduation robe and who would be hauling garbage cans. This is what I mean by determinism.
AND WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Because we all know that the graduate and the garbage collector would switch places. And because, nevertheless, we rarely reflect on that sort of fact; we congratulate the graduate on all she's accomplished and move out of the way of the garbage guy without glancing at him.