Whether or not we have the degree of free will most of us like to believe we have, I don’t see how that would be a get-out-of-jail-free card. When it comes to being held responsible for our actions—however determined—we are.
Strict determinism, the kind that says everything we do is already set for us, would mean that if you go far enough back in time, or manage to obtain a “high” enough perspective to see every single pattern of actions unfolding from one to the next, then you have no free will, no way to make your own choices.
No one can get that kind of omniscient perspective, however, and that is clear to atheists. No God or gods, no supernatural being to set it all in motion or to direct it one way or another. The best science can do, for now, is trace an action back in time as far as possible in order to make good guesses as to all the predetermining factors that went into a particular decision by a particular person at a specific point in time. Both psychology, neuroscience, and physics are helpful in such lookings-back.
HOW WE DECIDE
Based on my own education in social psychology and human development, my philosophical views are grounded in humanism. The fact is that we all make decisions based on what we know at the time, what we believe to be true or the way our brains are habituated to come to conclusions. That resembles like a form of free will, though mitigated by all that we don’t know or that we misbelieve or a lack of imagination of options that might indeed be available to us at any turning point.
If we’re necessarily ignorant of many of the factors that have gone into any one of our choices, does that mean we’re blameless for our “mistakes,” for our actions that are deemed immoral by most other individuals? Sometimes I figure it doesn’t matter where we place actual blame, because, as a society, a group of people attempting to live peacefully with one another, the greatest good is to agree on a few major points of law and then to corral bad actors away from the rest of us.
A good definition of free will is that we can imagine future courses of action, decide which one to pursue regardless of competing desires we may have, and that we make such decisions without unreasonable external or internal pressure. Such free will is not magical, nor does it depend on a soul or suchlike which is totally free of any physical process. Our decisions are not determined in such a way that they aren’t influenced by our conscious thoughts. We would hate to think that no matter what we try to do, our decisions are inevitable.
The findings of neuroscience suggest that our actions (little ones, like pressing a button) are caused by unconscious processes that don’t even enter our awareness until a bit later. That certain neural activity precedes “decisions” doesn’t mean you have no choice. But it may mean that we probably do have less free will than we think.
I particularly like the sophisticated comment someone (R.A.) posted on NYTimes.com:
I would argue that as we approach making a decision, we observe competing outcome scenarios predicted by subconscious processes. We then sense how we feel about these scenarios based on dopamine production. Our feelings can then influence the subconscious creating more nuanced outcome scenarios. All of this happens again and again in the nonlinear environment of the brain and is subjected to all kinds of butterfly effects. Eventually the decision happens and we act. Our recollection of how the scenarios changed based on our emotional responses makes some of us think we had complete control over the outcome.
YOU WILL READ THIS BOOK (OR NOT)
A recent book showcases its stance by its title: Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (Lexington Books, 2013). It’s a compilation of 16 essays (all but one original for this volume), edited by Gregg D. Caruso, assistant professor of philosophy and chair of the humanities department at Corning Community College, SUNY. The contributors are an international array of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, many of them also professors and authors.
One of the issues explored in the volume is what is the responsibility of professionals in light of the way the mass media headlines the scientific claim that free will probably doesn’t exist. Will individuals and crowds run around doing horrible things (more than usual!)? Some worry about that possibility, while other essayists contend that our lives wouldn’t significantly change if we accepted a lack of free will.
The authors of one chapter that tackles a possible “dark side of believing in free will,” admits that the research thus far is “preliminary and messy,” but suggests that a belief in free will seems to correlate with a belief in right-wing authoritarianism, among other things.
The topic of moral responsibility is a huge and complicated one, and I relish the idea that academics and others are debating it. Can we agree that we should be held morally responsible even if we accept that our stance is based on non-philosophical reasons? I’d like to think so.
Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility is a terrifically clear book and a welcome addition to the debate about free will. (An academic book, it’s thus rather expensive, but the Kindle version is a third the cost of the hardcover.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.