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Lack of Free Will as a Viable Option

epeck01's picture
Having a belief in free will can shape a view of life.  Believing in free will “grants” people the ability to truly change the world and shape their own lives.  Most people who believe in free will acknowledge that there are limitations – one cannot do whatever they want, but they can make a choice between whatever options are presented.  A belief in the lack of free will is often seen as a negative and apathetic outlook.  Because of this connotation, in my experience, most people cling to the idea of free will and treat the matter as if there is no other option.  Unsure of my own beliefs on the matter, I intend to present the option of a lack of free will, since I see it as being just as justifiable and viable an argument as the argument for free will.  Biology, along with evolutionary science and its far-reaching implications play a major role in the discussion on free will and, from my point of view, align themselves with a lack of free will.  
There are many explanations for the desire to have free will.  Most people seem to believe that having free will, albeit limited, gives them a control over their lives that adds meaning to an otherwise supposedly meaningless existence.  In a class discussion, somebody mentioned that life without free will would be “a waste.”  In another discussion, Professor Grobstein made it very clear that he was not content being a “piano key” that simply responded with the same note whenever it was played.  Professor Grobstein also said that he hopes there is more to human beings than the sum of their past experiences, that there is some unpredictability in human reactions and behavior.  He explained that since we can see many alternatives to situations (as demonstrated by optical illusions), we must be able to pick which we choose to see at any give time.  Professor Grobstein also pointed out that he believes humans are able to imagine worlds and realities that they have never seen therefore should be more than only their history.  A considerably different explanation or “proof” for free will is given in some religions as an answer to the eternal question of “why bad things happen to good people.”   If G-d granted people with free will, then G-d did the right thing by giving people the ultimate gift of choice, and also has nothing to do with further crimes committed by humans.  Bad things happening to good people can exist at the same time as G-d because bad people make bad choices and abuse the free will given to them.  I find it interesting that in a class where the tenets of religion are often questioned, a belief in free will is so nearly universal even if it cannot be backed up by science.  Although believing in a lack of free will could be deemed its own “religion,” having a nearly unquestionable faith in free will seems just as irrational (or rational, depending on how you see religious faith) as having an unquestionable religious faith.  In regards to Professor Grobstein’s argument that people must have free will since we can imagine situations we have never encountered and worlds we have never visited, I disagree.  Although we can take our experiences and mix-and-match them to create experiences we have never lived through, it is impossible to imagine something with an element we have never seen, such as a new color or new sound or dimension.  Our imagination takes what we have and allows us to think about it in somewhat new ways, but humans are not capable of creating truly new ideas or experiences.
In Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the idea that struck me most was the concept of evolution as an algorithm.  Dennett describes the algorithm as having three basic properties.  An algorithm must have “substrate neutrality,” “underlying mindlessness,” and “guaranteed results” (Dennett 50-51).  “Substrate neutrality” refers to the idea that the algorithm must be able to be carried out using any means – “the power of the procedure is due to its logical structure, not the causal powers of the materials used” (Dennett 51).  “Underlying mindlessness” means that each step of the algorithm must be simple and easily carried out, and “guaranteed results” means that the results of an algorithm must always be the same.  Dennett writes that Darwin’s grasp on evolution, and the correct idea, is that many related algorithms explain the whole of evolution.  I like Dennett’s idea of the algorithm and think it makes sense theoretically.  Taking his idea a step further, I see evolution and therefore all of existence as one algorithm.  Every step is simple and each level of the algorithm was predetermined at the start of the algorithmic process.  The only problem (if it can be considered a problem) is that viewing life and evolution as an algorithm doesn’t leave much room for free will.  In fact, viewing evolution as truth also doesn’t leave much room in my mind for free will.  If as a species we are striving to be fitter and constantly making choices based, however subconsciously, on our fitness and children’s fitness, do we truly have choice in the matter?  If our brains have evolved so exactly through a strict algorithmic process and must move on to the next stage of the algorithm and of evolution, why would we be able to have free will?  How would free will help in evolution, as all biological processes should?  My answer to this question is that we may not have free will, and that it certainly makes sense not to.        
In many fields of science, especially biology and psychology, the biological aspect of human thought and behavior is constantly being reinforced.  We are creatures of biology, and although we may be unaware of our biology while “making decisions,” it plays a constant role in our lives.  Perhaps the sensation of free will that we all feel can be explained by the phenomena where people do something and later fill in why they did it with a logical explanation – they may not realize why they did it at the time.  In current psychology, studies have shown just how genetic many aspects of behavior are.  In a study on adoption and criminality, it was shown that the adoptive father’s criminality has little to do with whether an adopted child will be criminal.  The main component is the biological father (Jones “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Criminal Behavior”).  This sad and unpleasant example shows that although a child or young adult may believe they are making a decision to be criminal or not based on their own free will, much of the decision may truly be genetic and, in that sense, predetermined.  At the moment, genetic factors are not found to be the entirety of human behavior; the other aspect is the environment, or the “nurturing,” that a person grows up with.  Once “nature and nurture” are combined, it is highly possible to predict behavior.  
Another field of psychology, personality psychology, describes various personalities and personality disorders.  Everyone has a personality, and these personalities make all of us “predictable and consistent” (Comer 461).  Based on our personality, combined with our genetic predispositions and the environment we were raised in, people are extremely predictable.  As an outsider in other people’s lives, and because we do not truly know all of the factors that contribute to our own lives, it seems impossible to accurately predict somebody’s “choices.”  However, if we were to know every detail of a person’s biology, past and present environment and their personality type, I believe their behavior and even thought could be predicted correctly.
The combination of biology, environmental factors and history form the overarching algorithm that Dennett discusses.  This algorithm is not spiritual – it does not attribute a religious type of predestination to life, only a form of predetermination that is derived from a chain of events in which each step must follow the next.  The algorithm can also include randomness, which accounts for all the differences among people, and species.  Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, Dennett’s algorithm picks up at a random point in time; it does not try to prove the first step and therefore the origin of existence.  A belief in a lack of free will is not inherently religious, anti-religion, or atheist.  However, it all boils down to a belief one way or another and, in my opinion, a lack of free will is just as logical and viable a belief as that in free will.

Dennet, Daniel C.  Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.
Jones, Caitlin M.  “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Criminal Behavior.” .  13 March 2009.
Comer, Ronald J.  Abnormal Psychology.  New York: Worth Publishers, 2007.


Anne Dalke's picture


You’re a good question-asker; I really like having you here, always pushing back @ some of the “foundational” assumptions of this course. You construct a pretty good argument here for the viability and logic of our not having free will. My final question back to that conclusion would be about its implications: whether that belief serves us as well as one that we are free. Is it as useful for good? happy? productive? generative? lives?

But I also have a number of other questions before you get to the end of this project. What would you say to the suggestion that “free will could help in evolution, as all biological processes should,” by generating what is new? What evidence could you assemble, in support of your argument that we “are not capable of creating truly new ideas or experiences,” that everything we call “new” is some combination of what is old, what we already know? If it’s really not possible to “know every detail of a person’s biology, environment and personality type,” then of what use-value is it to say that (if we could) we could predict their behavior?

Most pointedly, however, I want to push back @ your saying that something which is “genetic is, in that sense, predetermined.” I certainly grant that psychology has uncovered multiple biological triggers for our behavior that were not once understood, but I also understand that “genes code for proteins, not behavior”; that the activation of genetic material is very unpredictable--as much so as cultural influences are. So many factors affect whether or how either of these dimensions interact to result in certain behaviors, that I would be hard pushed to call either of them determinative. Hugely influential, yes--but determinative?

Speaking of the influence of biology: are you familiar w/ the work of Jonathan Haidt? He has a lovely essay in Psychological Review called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” arguing that we are not consciously in control of most of our behavior, but-and-so do lots of post-facto making up of explanations. Eolecki and I read the piece together in an earlier course, and I’ve just reviewed its main points in my response to her essay on the evolution of morality; for details, see