No Free Will

Posted: December 1, 2007 in Cognition, Consciousness, Philosophy, Science

Scientists have been working feverishly over the past few decades to debunk some of our most closely held beliefs about ourselves, many of which stem from religion. Among them is the notion that we have free will, that we are rational actors able to determine our own fates according to our best judgment. Free will, of course, is predicated on other psychological constructs such as identity, consciousness, and some sort of immutable soul — all of which have been explained away as emergent properties of the brain or nervous system. The latest chink in the armor is the finding that cockroaches, a rather unworthy proxy for man, may not be automatons responding purely out of instinct. In short, their behavior is suggestible, and by extension, perhaps ours is as well.

In insect societies, individuals lack significance compared to the life of the community. The prevailing thinking is that if there is any sort of awareness with insects, it is a group mind, not an individual one. Though cockroach society isn’t hierarchical, like bee hives, ant farms, or human society, cockroaches behave mindlessly on an individual level, and according to this article in the New York Times, can be induced to act contrary to their nature and instinct, at least in the mundane experiment being reported. In short, they are vulnerable to peer pressure and their internal or instinctual controls can be trumped by external ones.

Writ large, this reports suggests that we humans, too, are less agents of our own authority than metaphorical pinballs careening from impulse to impulse, basically responding to the needs of the moment, and interestingly, constructing a narrative after the fact to soothe ourselves that we chose rather than being subject to mindless response patterns. Philosophers have pointed to this possibility for a long time now, but the rational arguments that demonstrate it are too subtle for the average person and run contrary to our self-interest. Who wants to study and work to discover that in truth there is nothing up there, no one driving the bus, no me in there? The illusion of identity, like the illusion of faith, is so powerful and indeed comforting that even those of us who have been convinced by the arguments in favor of materialism still act on the conscious level (which doesn’t exist, handily) as though we decide things. I don’t actually believe that I have no choice in the matter of writing this blog, yet beneath that self-delusion, my rational mind forces me to admit, albeit unhappily, that I’m responding blindly to the complex of intellectual experiences and memes to which I’ve been exposed. But blindly isn’t quite the right word. Nor is mindlessly. Rather, my lack of free will means that I’m hardly different from the cockroach being tricked into following robot cockroaches. The only difference is that whereas humans may influence cockroaches, there is no puppetmaster pulling our strings. As a society or culture, we’re pulling each others’ strings.

  1. obie1993 says:

    we have some choice in the matters, but fate tends to play a larger role. poor folks aren’t poor because of poor choices they’ve made, and most rich folks are born into wealth, and that is just their pure good luck.

    many asian societies, especially the japanese one, are more group oriented than western societies. this may contribute to positive mental health in that social interaction can be beneficial; however, individuals can pay a high price for sacrificing individual freedom, which can lead to suicide.

    sometimes our brains drive us to do things we would rather not do. folks suffering from severe forms of o.c.d. know this too well. i don’t have time to write a whole book on mental disorders at the moment.

  2. Vilon says:

    Courage for humans is the desire and capacity to finally leave a small box for a larger box and feel free from our newly acquired walls.

    I generally agree that most people are quite content to be pushed around from place to place and belief to belief. How many times did a see a kid slam the door of his parents’ house to let his football coach tell him where to sleep and what to eat. Two years later, he gets married and is bossed around once more.

    But the Buddhist have quite a different take on life in general. They truly invite people to open their eyes, stop this endless dance and simply be themselves for who they are.

    If you think it takes courage to leave a box, just wait until you realise there is no box.

  3. grasshopperkm says:

    Did the scientists happen to study grasshoppers?

    Not by free will, exactly, but by circumstance and personality, I feel as if I live a separate life. My values and beliefs fall far outside what I think make up the mainstream. Does it help me? Does it help anyone? From what I can tell, no.

    Our will may not be strictly free but most people daily choose whether to behave well or not–whether to hurt or help. Yet some biologists can dismiss the most altruistic among us as genetically predisposed to sacrifice. Altruism exists in animal packs. One creature at least is wired to put the good of society before itself. So where are our altruists? What’s happened to them?

  4. obie1993 says:

    Did the scientists happen to study grasshoppers?

    are grasshoppers a kind of marsupial from down under? :-)

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