Unlike too many posts that I’ve seen in the past couple of years, there’s actually a good article on the idea of free will over at the Richard Dawkins Foundation site right now. Zeuglodon does a pretty good job of hashing out the various aspects of it, though I will admit you have to be on your toes to keep up – it’s not quite intended to be a beginner’s primer. I made a couple of comments myself, points I’d also covered in my previous posts on the subject and related (there will be links at bottom,) but more, what struck me is what I’m going to talk about in this post, which is why this is such a big deal in the first place.
Briefly: Everything that we know about the human body, about physics, about the entire universe tells us that everything that we do is a simple, predictable physical reaction, and there’s no evidence of anything else. Which means no supernaturality, no soul, and especially no “mind” or “self” outside of the squishy meatness of our brains, operating solely on known electrochemical properties. And this means that each decision we make, however capricious or arbitrary we try to be, could have been predicted given enough information (far more than we will ever be able to grasp or use, but there nonetheless.) Did you just thumb your nose at me in a gesture of defiance? Ha! Physics already knew you were going to do that, because the impact of these words on the screen could have resulted in no other course of action for you. All of that means that “free will” is a concept without application. Kind of.
First off, the problem that immediately arises (you might say that it’s inevitable) is that many people take this to mean that they’re automatons, or pawns, or drones, or that anything that they do doesn’t matter because it’s predestined. But this isn’t what it means at all. The processes in the brain that we consider our reasoning came from such predictable physics, and in fact rely on them. What takes place up there, our emotional reactions to outside stimuli, are partially based on the very structure of the brain itself, and partially based on the experiences that we’ve had in our lives, which is everything we’ve ever learned, and the weight that we gave them to build certain connections and connotations. So that the program that is running in our minds is one that undergoes constant changes due to both input and connections within. While the concept of “self” is often misunderstood or completely off base, it is composed of the experiences absolutely unique to us, and so go our thinking processes. Moreover, even though they might be predictable, since they are within the self-supporting network of neurons, we have no opportunity to dislike our decisions because the nature of decision-making in the brain also supports how we react to them – we will approve because its our brain. So there are no drones or pawns to be seen; it’s a democratic agreement on the paths we take.
Which still leads to the next common reaction, which is the despair over it not mattering – we have one road to take, and it’s defined by physics. This is almost certainly true, but it’s more of a reaction to what we have been conditioned to believe than anything else. First off, it’s always been that way, so discovering it now hasn’t changed jack shit. But more importantly, we are captives of physics no matter how we look at it, and most of it doesn’t bother us in the least. We need oxygen and protein, we will always have to deal with mass and gravity, we hear nothing without gases to propagate pressure waves, we see nothing without certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. These are not choices available to us, and I doubt anyone has a problem with that – that’s just the way it is.
As I said in a previous post, there are other aspects of “predetermined” that we cope with too. Every book that we read has a fixed ending. Every place that we visit has distinctive geological properties, and will have them when we return. What makes us interested in these is simply that we don’t yet know what they are – in other words, it is not the idea that they are random or capricious, but only that we experience them. The same thing applies to our lives; while predictable, we still don’t know how they turn out, so we have to stay until the end anyway. But we get positive internal feedback from these experiences, so we enjoy them anyway.
That’s the one small key in all this: how we choose to interpret our lives, or what perspective we can take. Nothing has changed except our internal responses, our emotions, over the state of affairs. “Free will” wasn’t ever the answer; what it provided was the perspective that allowed us to be happier. Yet, it was in response to a drastic misunderstanding about the world anyway – that some exotic being had created it, and us, to be a certain way. Free will allowed us to escape being the pawns of a creator, and was later adopted to try and explain why a perfect being would create evil. All ridiculously outmoded concepts now.
As collections of chemical reactions with a belief in personal importance (self, ego, soul, whatever you want to call it,) we are driven to make an impact, and we can gain positive responses, “good feelings,” from our efforts to do so. Anyone that finds discomfort at the idea of inevitable physical pathways and properties has not lost anything, and has undergone no change except for their perception of how things are. The thing is, this perception is easy to change. The book does not accomplish anything by sitting on a shelf; it must be read. The computer program, while aimed towards a specific end result, will not reach it without running. And while anyone may have an inevitable path, they cannot know what it is until they take it. If you like, the “meaning” of life is not to choose a particular path, but to find out what it is.
That brings up another aspect of practically every free will discussion: if such things are inevitable, can we really prosecute criminals for their crimes? And the answer is, hell yes! We cannot forget the “input” portion of the program, and the idea that every new experience can alter the way we react to something (as it always has before.) The whole idea of a society with moral/ethical consequences is that it builds negative connotations regarding antisocial behavior, in not just the punished, but in everyone impacted by the punishment. While it is very easy to state that it was inevitable that a person did something that we consider bad, it is also inevitable that we do something in response to it. Problem solved? Good.
Every game has rules – that’s actually what makes them fun. The restrictions of any activity, whether due to a rulebook or physical laws, are what creates the challenge (and we, as a species, happen to like challenges, which might be a clue as to why the eradication of free will as a concept is so distressing to many.) We can experience the outcome of any activity and still find delight in it because, even if foregone, we didn’t know what it was. Getting hung up on whether we should retain our previous attitudes, despite knowing their flaws, is pointless. Even those that have no idea what free will entails or the philosophical dilemma therein can live their lives happily, which is a clue to the functionality of such philosophy (here’s another: there is none.) It was very likely inevitable that I type this; and it’s inevitable that you have some reaction to it. But neither of us know what it is.
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