Just in case anyone hasn’t seen this subject the last nine times I approached it, I find ‘free will‘ to be a corrupt concept, a common belief without rational support (which gives it plenty of company.) And no, I’m not going to broach it again. Instead, we’ll look deeper into the question of whether we should retain some illusions.
A recent article at Mind Hacks highlighted several studies that seemed to show that not believing in free will actually makes people less sociable. The article admits that this is a very superficial result as yet, and more studies would need to be done to understand the response better, but for the moment, let’s assume it’s accurate and consider if it’s better to either live a lie that produces better behavior, or understand the world and ourselves as accurately as possible.
The ‘comforting lie’ argument crops up in numerous topics, from religion to medicine to child rearing to social interactions, and when you stop to think about it, as a species we’re pretty resistant to bold reality quite often.
“Am I ugly?”
“Well, yeah, on a scale of one to ten I’d rate you about a three.”
“Do you want the last donut?”
“Of course I do, you twit – did you think just by asking I’d deny it out of politeness or something?”
If you bother to take all of our social interactions and quantify them on their level of honesty, you’d find that we lie all of time, and probably would become pretty neurotic if we dealt with nothing but truth. So as lies go, perpetuating the idea of free will is a drop in the bucket.
Now, there’s a curious conditional in here, in that if you’ve heard any arguments against free will that sound kosher (I can provide a few if you like) and nothing that refutes them, you’re liable to think that ‘free will’ is all nonsense; someone then telling you otherwise (or simply that it’s better to believe in it anyway) isn’t actually going to eradicate this info from your mind. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it without doing something you probably shouldn’t – so the only way of dealing with the social consequences is to ensure that no one actually learns the issues with free will in the first place.
That puts us in the territory of scientific censorship, and/or of halting any research into decision-making, motivations, neurological responses, and so on – not really a viable or recommended program, and we’re only talking about free will itself. Imagine all the other things that can be affected if we start to consider that comforting lies are to be encouraged if some social benefit can be found.
There are definitely times when a certain amount of self-deception is a good thing. Take phrases like, “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.” That’s obviously horseshit, but even if we keep it in the realm of things humanly possible, most people will never write the novel they planned, or simply don’t have the writing ability to interest a publisher if they did. Most will never become a sports legend; most will never rise to the top of their profession. But facing such truths is discouraging, capable of destroying our motivations to even try. Belief in the value of hard work and dedication is a minimum requirement for those who do succeed in their endeavors.
[As a curious side note, recognize that the chances of getting that novel published are hundreds of times higher than of winning ‘the jackpot,’ yet many people will get discouraged from the former while spending ridiculous amounts of money on the latter. But that’s fodder for another post.]
Then, there’s the perspective that a little learning is a dangerous thing – the key bit in that quote is, “little,” not, “learning,” since it was intended to encourage deeper investigations. The initial reactions we might have from some new information, which changes our beliefs or attitudes, may change over time as we consider all of the ramifications, or place it in a more realistic perspective. While most people won’t have their novel published, largely this is because most never finish it, while some never try to find out what makes for good writing (save the comments.) But unlike sports, publishing is an open-ended pursuit with an unlimited market – there can always be another writer, and it doesn’t matter how old they are, and isn’t limited by season or team size. To a significant extent, the lack of success is due to the lack of motivation.
And when we return to free will, we can recognize that the apparent lack thereof has always been there, and this only had an effect if we believed otherwise. Tell someone that they have no free will and they are immediately motivated to prove otherwise, often without realizing that this isn’t addressing the points in the slightest – it’s only through careful consideration that they come to understand that it’s the concept that’s stupid, and doesn’t lead to them being an automaton or there being no consequences of their actions (however predictable, given a few jillion bits of information that would be impossible for our minds to grasp anyway.) If the experiments were prefaced with the simple statement, “People that believe they have no free will tend to be antisocial,” how much will that skew the results in the opposite direction, making people go out of their way to prove they’re not assholes? Even without that, does the antisocial tendency last any time at all, or is it just a side-effect of bringing the topic to mind during the tests?
When we talk about comforting lies, we’re placing emotional supplication higher in value than dependable knowledge, which by itself is enough to send up warning flags. If we don’t like a fact, this doesn’t indicate something wrong with reality, but instead that our expectations or wishes are poorly aligned with such – this is probably a good thing to correct. Evolution deniers very frequently disparage the idea that we’re related to monkeys (usually not even capable of getting the ‘apes’ bit right,) but this has quite a lot to do with finding monkeys distasteful or inferior – such people are frequently coming from the belief of being a higher, Chosen™ species, so the apparent fall is abhorrent. The problem is that they were wrong to begin with, and that we’re not any more (or less) special than any other species.
It’s fairly easy to make a case that self-delusion is something we should avoid as much as possible, yet those earlier examples of our inability to handle bare honesty throws that into question. Could we actually handle the truth, all of the time, everywhere? If not, how and where do we draw a dividing line? Most especially, is the risk so great that we should consider not following through on any given avenue of investigation?
Overall, I find it fairly easy to answer that we should investigate as much as possible, and our fragile emotions be damned – they’re not that fragile anyway. We get used to new ideas fairly quickly, and it’s impossible to say where a more accurate perspective can lead. For my own part, realizing some of the ramifications of being an evolved species has led to a much greater understanding of human motivations, reactions, and thinking processes – surpassing by miles any distaste I would have felt over being related to a ‘monkey,’ had I actually possessed that warped perspective in the first place. While a patient with a condition that’s been fatal in 90% of the cases may do better if they don’t know this fact, the doctor can certainly benefit from the knowledge, even if only to recognize that death is not a strong indication of improper treatment. And if we become a little nastier with knowing that free will is a ridiculous concept, well, that’s life. When it gets to the point of creating suicide bombers and televangelists, we’ll revisit the matter.
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I just have to add this, but it only tangentially touches on the main point so it gets relegated to the basement. When I first heard the premise of the linked article, I found the conclusion unlikely, and as I went through, I started noting flaws. But I soon realized this was exactly the kind of thing that someone does when they dislike the information, and was not necessarily a rational response even by my standards – after all, it wasn’t just one study, or even one methodology, that produced the results. I still think there are reasons to find the tentative conclusions to be questionable, and the article admits that anyway, but I can’t deny that I want to find the conclusion false. There’s an old saying that finding the results you hoped for in research is reason to be extra suspicious, because humans are prone to bias, and I’m self-obligated to admit my own prejudice here.
And yet, it is amazingly easy to influence someone’s thought processes, even with something as simple as descriptive terms (search under “Dr. Elizabeth Loftus” for plenty of examples,) so offsetting any real detrimental effect might be trivial. And with free will being such a poorly understood term, there are reasons to believe that discarding the whole idea would have a varying impact, since it would require more than simply saying, “It’s nonsense” – people have long ingrained ideas about their motivations, abilities, and ‘place in the cosmos,’ very often completely unsupportable by facts. As they change, so might any aspect of their behavior, in any direction, and over a period of time. Returning again to my own example, a deeper knowledge of science didn’t take away any magic, it actually made the world that much cooler to experience. And treating morality as a function of human social interaction, rather than following the rules of some overseer, makes it far more useful. So I can’t be too concerned over the anti-social changes that may occur if everyone finds out ‘the truth about free will,’ in the face of all the changes we could be making. If Ayn Rand didn’t collapse civilization, the disappearance of the concept of free will sure as hell won’t.
The title, by the way, is homage to a classic Simpsons episode with Leonard Nimoy. Since YouTube is so remarkably undependable and the clip may vanish at any time, I’ve simply embedded the audio clip: