“F### you, I won’t do what you tell me.” – Rage Against The Machine.
The rock band Rage Against the Machine reached worldwide fame in the 1990’s for their angry and impassioned lyrics. They protested for liberation and freedom from corrupt governments around the world, seeing the injustice that coupled scenarios where people were not in control of their circumstances. These feelings of resentment towards an overbearing Leviathan are mirrored in the backlash against recent advancements of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. The more we learn about our brains and minds, the less magic – the less human – we appear to be. The widespread resistance to this is a call to arms; a rally of human nature against the brain dictatorship.
The concept of free will is coloured by desirable connotations. Free will seems akin to freedom, arguably the most basic of human liberties. Indeed, a major advancement of our modern morality has been the view that every person – regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, intelligence or age – should enjoy as much freedom as possible. If we do not have free will, it appears we are not free. What does this mean? Ideas that spring to mind include imprisoned, trapped, and enslaved. We want to be free, we do not want to be controlled by the few pounds of flesh in our skulls. We do not want to be subservient to our neurons. ‘F### you brain, I won’t do what you tell me’.
Our consciousness is, in essence, all we have. Everything you care about in life – your career, your marriage, the friendships you build, the hobbies you master – is realised entirely in your consciousness. Changes to your consciousness offer the only way in which they can matter to you. It is not surprising then that when challenged with the notion that our conscious experience is part of the causal web of events in the cosmos, that we do not have free will, it threatens peoples’ idea of their very existence.
People do not like to think of themselves as mechanistic. Machines are used for a purpose, whether it be drying one’s hair, heating up food, or vacuuming floors, but we like to bestow a higher importance on our purpose. We love people, raise children, enjoy and engage in the arts, acquire knowledge of the universe and our place in it, and read articles such as this one. Machines do not do such things.
Choice entails optimism for the future. If I am born into a poor family or have a prejudicial and unhappy childhood, I can choose to go on a different path in life. If I have become addicted to pain killers and lost my job, I can draw optimism for the future, if only I choose to kick the habit and get my life back on track. Does free will take away this hope? Some believe it does, such as a person who commented on my Twitter feed, “We are in control over our lives. Free will is real, if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have been able to cure my PTSD.”
Many people misunderstand determinism to mean that our mental states are circumvented, such that they do not contribute to the progression of events in any scenario. In other words, they take determinism to mean that our beliefs, desires, and decisions are arbitrary, having no effect. It is a view of determinism that has been promulgated in fictional story telling – a view that is synonymous with fate, known philosophically as fatalism. William Shakespeare is arguably the most notable of story-tellers who has explored the idea of fate: doomed characters will end up in a certain situation despite their thoughts and actions, rather than because of their thoughts and actions. There is an important difference here; the fine line between fatalism and determinism.
By saying free will is an illusion, I am not saying that choices are illusions. As psychologist Steven Pinker has noted, “The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behaviour according to its foreseeable consequences.” You could not be reading this article right now without a series of decisions that led you to do so. Tracing these decisions back to their origins does not lead us into a void of darkness from which they emerged through free will. Mental states like effort, intentions, and decisions are indeed occurring, but free will is not a part of this picture. I am not, as some fear or claim, throwing the baby out with the free will bathwater. Our choices still matter to the world as much as they ever have to believers in free will.