Sunday, March 27, 2011

Free Will

Whether free will, as that term is usually understood, really exists is problematic.  From the perspective of the individual, it can certainly seem like we have free will.  We go about our business unaware of the future or how we will act in future situations.  Then, when those future situations arise, we think about them, choose a course of action and act--seemingly without restraint and based only on our own decisions.

The problem is that the independence of our decision making process cannot be established.  The mind that is trying to exercise free will is the same mind that was shaped by genetics and early environment--by factors completely outside the individual's control.  Thus, by the time a person can hope to begin thinking for himself the vast majority (if not the entirety) of the factors that will determine what he thinks are already in place and irremovable.  Thus, it can be difficult to see how the individual can "choose" to make a decision other than the one he actually makes.

Taking physics into account, one has to wonder how free will fits in with the notion that time is simply another dimension. If time is just another dimension, then the future, in all its detail, is already out there somewhere just as surely as the wall behind my computer right now. The only problem--and the reason for the debate--is that we lack the equipment to perceive it.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that changing the relevant factors, incentives and disincentives, has been shown conclusively to affect human behavior. Thus, from a social policy standpoint, free will should be treated as a legitimate factor.  It should be assumed, when making political judgments that individuals possess some free will and that the choices made politically will effect the choices made individually.

The same thing can be said about the forces of nature and nurture that shape our minds. They, too, have been shown beyond any doubt to affect human behavior. Any decently thought out social policy initiatives should take them into account as well.  Individuals do not possess total free will; they should be judged accordingly--as individuals.  Furthermore, we as a society can make policy choices that help individual members of our society attain the necessary mental development to be good citizens.

This debate is often couched in terms of morality--moral responsibility versus moral innocence.  What the debate really should be about is how best to make ourselves and our society better through social policy decisions.

Most people have a basic, implicit assumption that free will and predestination are like matter and anti-matter--completely irreconcilable and unable to co-exist.  And, if one focuses solely on the definition of each, then that is understandable.  I prefer to think of them as descriptions of parts (and only parts) of a larger reality.  When one focuses only on part of a thing--and only from one perspective--then one is missing the complete picture.

I believe they both exist--and that neither exists.  The partisans on either side seem to me to be a bit blinkered.  The nascent intelligence of the human species advances the cause of that species by giving it the perspective of free will, thus enabling it to behave in a flexible manner and thus survive to pass on its genes.  But, the free will model that many believe in, where people are seen to be completely in control of themselves and their lives, is obviously false because each decision will be largely determined by factors outside of the person's control.

I think this debate, like many others, is one driven by emotions of the debaters.  The proponents of the opposing sides are probably driven, in part, by a desire to either take or avoid responsibility for their lives.

There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.
[1961 J. F. Kennedy News Conference 21 Apr. in Public Papers of Presidents of U.S. (1962) 312]

Unfortunately, the free will partisans are usually the religious, who wish to take credit for their decisions because they are so sure they have made admirable decisions.  They have tried to make their decisions in a way that pleases god.  This is what they think god wants and what they think they try to do.  They fail to see, of course, that the god they are pleasing, like all invisible friends, is just a reflection of themselves and that pleasing themselves does not make them or their decisions good. 

This type of thinking leads to moral condemnation of those who make different choices and, worse, to the belief that the moral condemnation is required by the universe's highest authority.  This inevitably leads to intolerance and acts of violence and cruelty as "god's partisans" seek to impose moral "justice" on the others without regard to reality or effective policy choices.

Unfortunately, likewise those who deny free will and argue for determinism often seem to be motivated by a desire to avoid responsibility for mistakes they or others have made.  Usually, these partisans are non-believers.  To any who read this, I would encourage them to desist because they do a disservice to the cause of atheism.  I understand that you see the high moral dudgeon of the religious to be offensive, cruel, and insensitive.  But, don't let your emotional reaction cause you to adopt the wrong side of the argument.  Remember that this is really about proper public policy--not morality.  Make this point explicitly, if need be, in order to keep the discussion civil and on point.  Furthermore, as long as it is about public policy, then you know which side to argue.

The evidence that various punishments and incentives will alter the behavior of the vast majority of people is overwhelming.  In fact, the evidence that the right punishments and incentives will alter the behavior of everyone who is conscious and aware is overwhelming.  If you doubt this, ask yourself how many people will touch a red hot stove eye.  The answer is none--absent some huge, hypothetical incentive needed to counterbalance the obvious, huge negative reinforcement awaiting those who do.  If you still doubt it, simply research what happens when laws are changed.  What happens is that most people change their behavior.

Thus, from a public policy standpoint, it is usually best to take the position that people have enough free will to respond in predictable ways to changes in their environment--including changes in the law.

Arguing for determinism usually involves making a fallacious argument (implicitly or explicitly) that such incentives and punishments should not be used.  This sort of thing ignores the evidence and fuels the religious bigotry against non-believers because it provides them with "evidence" of our lack of morality.  Such arguments also usually involve the implicit assumption that motivation equals justification, which is often an intellectual sin of the believers.  Who will often argue that their desire to believe is itself a "reason" for believing.  We should not join them in that intellectual gutter.

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