How Free We Aren’t

This is another of the columns written for Humanitie, the Humanist Society of Scotland‘s quarterly magazine. It should be read side by side with Tim’s column from the Friendly Humanist.

When Tim first suggested that we write about Free Will and the Clockwork Universe, I immediately thought , “yeah, I really love those films… that poor whale.” Then I went back and read it again. Free will is something about which I’m not sure what I think, but for the purposes of the article I’ll play the philosopher/psychologist and try to make a convincing case against its existence.

So, what do we mean by free will? Basically the debate is whether we control our thoughts and actions or not. Clearly I don’t believe in fate or predeterminism (I quite regularly ridicule such concepts whilst arguing with religionists), but just because our actions aren’t under the control of a boogie man in the sky doesn’t mean they’re under our control, either.

Some of the things we do are imposed upon us by others. In many situations, we simply will not let ourselves take a choice (other times we aren’t even given a choice, but that’s irrelevant). Say, hypothetically, you found yourself in a situation where you had a choice to kill a stranger or not. I hope everybody reading this would choose not to, but for most I think this would be the result of a strong moral objection rather than an actual decision, it is taken at a subconscious level rather than a conscious one. So in what sense is it you who makes the choice? Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory suggests to me that we are biologically or genetically programmed not to kill one of our own (amongst many other sociobiological hypotheses), in a fairly similar way to how we can’t choose not to breathe.

Society also has a big influence on decisions we take. I drive on the left hand side of the road. Yes, it is probably wise to do so, but I suspect social conditioning plays a large part in it, which is why switching to the right in other countries can be so difficult. In day-to-day terms, decisions have consequences. Surely I’ll just choose the preferable option? Say I’m offered chicken or beef. If I don’t like beef (something I can’t control), I’ll choose chicken. Maybe I’ve had a lot of chicken recently and I’d enjoy a change. Maybe I’m a vegetarian. Either way, my brain weighs up the pros and cons of a choice and naturally falls on the side with most pros and least cons. And all that’s left for ‘free will’ are the most petty decisions with no consequences which don’t matter anyway!

So what am I saying? Can we be held responsible for our actions? Perhaps the real crime is a failure to consider the cons properly, particularly how your actions will affect others. Or maybe we need punishment to push undesirable actions firmly into the ‘no’ part of our brain – a subconscious deterrent of sorts. I don’t know.

So there you have it, free will (mostly) demolished in… about an hour! Maybe.

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One Response to How Free We Aren’t

  1. [...] is my latest article in Humanitie. This time, Mike and I squared off on the topic of free will – be sure to read his column as [...]

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