A world without belief in free will


A panorama of Kolob Canyon
Kolob Canyon, Zion National Park, between St. George and Cedar City, Utah
Photo by G. M. Hatfield, Wikimedia CC


I suppose that, from one perspective, the best answer to that question would be that what happens will be what had to happen.  There’s no way out of it; it was all set at the Big Bang, if not before.


Still, as they were fated to do billions of years ago, Azim Shariff (University of Oregon) and Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota) published an article in the June 2014 issue of Scientific American that considers “The world without free will: What happens to a society that believes people have no conscious control over their actions?”


They take no position on the actual question of whether or not human freedom is illusory.  They simply want to know how people, if convinced that it is an illusion, will react to that.


And their findings, while slightly encouraging in one area, are mostly frightening.


People who believe that free will is an illusion, or who even tend to assign a higher than average role to the neurochemical condition of the physical brain in human decisions, are inclined to be less punitive, less judgmental.


That’s the good part.  (I guess it’s good, on the whole.)


Now for the bad part.


Participants in scientific experiments who’ve just read a strongly anti-free-will passage seem to show a significantly greater tendency (50%!) than their fellow participants to cheat on academic tests.  Other experiments showed a higher tendency to cruelty among readers of such passages, and decreased impulse control.


Many neuroscientists and philosophers are currently waging war on the concept of free will.  (One wonders whether they imagine themselves to have freely chosen their position on the subject, and how they conceive the notion of “persuading” their unfree readers and critics.)


To the extent that they’re successful, contend Shariff and Vohs, our justice system might become kinder, more compassionate and understanding.  But their success might also lead to anarchic lawlessness and the overall breakdown of society.


“More likely,” they conclude, “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.”


Posted from St. George, Utah



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