Sunday, November 13, 2016

Implications of not having Free Will

In the previous post I briefly challenged the idea of free will.  In philosophy, hard determinism states that current events are determined by previous events and therefore free will cannot exist.  That any thoughts or actions we take are the result of the interaction between earlier environmental factors and our genetics.  And those earlier environmental factors in turn are the result of the interaction between even earlier environmental factors and our genetics.  You can ultimately go back with this chain of causality (infinite regression) to a point where we have not yet been born.

Hard determinism is very difficult to argue against, but some philosophers argue that even though current events are determined by previous events (determinism), the fact that we have choice on a practical level means that free will exists.  This position is called soft determinism or compatibilism and can only work by changing the definition of free will.  You could describe this version of free will as functional or practical free will, as opposed to what could be called ultimate free will that is the topic of this post

The case against free will has been made stronger from recent neuroscience research, showing that our conscious awareness of having made a decision occurs after our brain unconsciously makes the decisions [1] [2].  So in a sense, both conscious decision making and free will are illusions

Rather than being an academic point, I think the absence of free will has several important implications.  In the previous post I used the absence of free will to question whether it was appropriate to blame someone for their behaviours and health status, but there are more important issues than this.  This content is going to be quite different to my usual blog posts, but I think these are ideas worth mentioning regardless

Personal Responsibility

In the strictest sense, a not having free will means that we cannot be personally responsible for our actions and so any praise and criticism is not deserved.  However, it’s still important for the functioning of society to emphasise personal responsibility and praise and criticise the behaviours of others as if they were personally responsible.  This is purely because of the positive consequences of doing so, the negative consequences of not doing so, and the fact that none of us have a gun to our head forcing us to act in a certain way (functional or practical free will)

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Someone does poorly on their job and when questioned about it states that they are not responsible for their poor performance
  • A driver runs over a pedestrian with their car, and in court claim they are not personally responsible for running the pedestrian over
  • A student studies hard for a test and does well on it.  The student receives no praise from the teacher who decides the student is privileged for being white/Asian and being middle/upper class
  • An entrepreneur finds a gap in the market, takes risks and works hard to start and build their business, and they end up making a lot of money.  Despite selling people products they want and increasing jobs, an angry mob claims conflates inequity with inequality and demands 90% of the entrepreneur’s income

In each scenario the person cannot strictly be held personally responsible for their actions, but each scenario demonstrates the importance of: (1) emphasising personal responsibility regardless of its truth; and (2) using praise and criticism to encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour, even if life isn’t fair, the world isn’t a true meritocracy, and the praise and criticism isn’t deserved.  You would want other people to hold themselves personally responsible for their actions, other people would want it of you, and you would want society to be based on it and the encouragement of good behaviour and discouragement of bad behaviour

The alternative is a bleak world, but one that is close to the utopia of social justice warriors.  It would be a socialist world where people would have little incentive to work hard or create value.  The opposite would be true as people would be incentivised to take as much as possible from society while doing as little work as possible, claiming that their unique set of genes and environmental factors resulted in them having great needs and little ability*.  The perceived merits of each person and the criminal justice system would be perverted by what Thomas Sowell calls cosmic justice.  The purpose of the criminal justice system will no longer be to deter crime and prevent repeat offences to protect the innocent.  Instead it will focus on the criminal and apply the law unequally to people from groups with current or historical privileges or oppressions to the detriment of the public.  This will raise tensions between races/sexes/etc because the ‘privileged’ group will be resentful of the special treatment of the 'oppressed' group, while the ‘oppressed’ group will be fed a false narrative of victimhood at the hands of the privileged.  People who disagree with this ideology won’t receive the same concessions.  They will uniquely be held personally responsible, labelled as evil, and silenced in the name of progress because the end always justifies the means

* Capitalism is been criticised as a system based on based on greed.  I agree, but capitalism incentivises co-operation and creating value for others, whereas socialism is a system based on sharing, but one that actually incentivises greed

Divine Justice

For this section just an FYI, I’m an atheist

This brings me to what I think is the most important implication of not having free will by far.  Many religions have a concept of an afterlife and that pleasantness or unpleasantness of which is determined by your actions while you’re alive.  This is judged by an omniscient deity in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or by karma in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.  I’ll call this divine justice

Many aspects of religion can be interpreted to have had functions that provided a net benefit to society in some way at some stage.  For example, the Abrahamic religions have a very strong emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness and this was likely a cultural adaptation against infectious disease at a time before the germ theory of disease.  Similarly, the belief in an afterlife and in divine justice could have been a cultural mechanism to strongly encourage or discourage certain behaviour and provide consolation for the suffering experienced in life.  This could be cynically interpreted as a means to keep the general population complacent with authoritarian regimes and the massive inequalities in those ancient societies

Belief in an afterlife and divine justice may have been helpful earlier, but I think that these beliefs are ultimately responsible for some of the major problems in the world at the moment, which is why I’m writing this section

The Abrahamic religions have a belief in the same deity, who is believed to be omniscient, just, and merciful (they believe this deity possesses many other qualities, but these are ones relevant to the topic).  They also all include a belief in free will, an afterlife and divine justice.  Belief in free will is a necessary premise for belief in divine justice, and in the absence of free will, the belief that their deity possesses those qualities contradicts the belief that divine justice will affect the quality of the afterlife

Since free will cannot exist, therefore we cannot strictly be personally responsible for our actions.  An omniscient, just, and merciful deity could not possibly condemn someone to purgatory or hell based on the actions they made in life as these actions are a product of the genetic and environmental cards they were dealt.  For such a deity, divine justice would be an infinite regression back to the first cause – the big bang (or whatever came before that) or the deity creating the universe – and everyone would have to be judged as neither good nor evil and deserving no different treatment regardless of whether they were a sociopath or a saint.  It would take an exceptionally unjust, unmerciful and sadistic deity to condemn someone to an eternity of suffering for the crime of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong place, at the wrong time

Therefore not having of free will - combined with a belief in an omniscient, just, and merciful deity - undermines the religious beliefs and practices (but not faith in a deity) one would ordinarily not partake in, but does so to appease their deity and increase their chances of a better afterlife.  Knowing this would have the effect of freeing people from any religious practices that don’t improve your life or the lives of others (because you don’t need religion to be a good person).  Most importantly, not having free will undermines a basis for religiously motivated violence/terrorism outside sectarianism (whether it’s holy war, delivering gays from sin, just killing infidels, etc) and the politicisation of religion, all because it cannot matter in the eyes of an omniscient, just, and merciful deity


  1. This is excellent. I would like to point out that unconscious decision making is a black box to our conscious awareness because it is "behind" our conscious awareness. However, it is a mistake to not attribute responsibility to the black box, which has evolved to learn how to deal with new circumstances never before seen (although possibly strictly determined in a physics sense) while preserving life and liberty to the greatest extent possible, and the black box understands criminal justice, social exclusion, etc. quite well. Thus we can trust the black box and do not have to do a lot of second-guessing of our motives and methods. So, rationality fails because we cannot know the exact reasons for our decisions, but we do use rationality to construct a social justification after decisions have been made.

    One thing the religions have in common is that they appeared with the invention of agriculture, suggesting that nutritional mismatches between our evolved dietary needs and the quite different diet from domesticated plants and animals cause the black box to not have its brain's needs met properly and thus to feel globally alienated, estranged from God as it were, with anxieties that the various priesthoods attempt to ameliorate. Many who have experimented with different nutritional strategies notice mood and mental health changes which can be startlingly similar to experimenting with psychoactive drugs, suggesting that the idea of an immortal soul that acts consistently no matter what the body's nutritional status is an unhelpful feature of religions that may be more about social control than about spiritual actualization.

    As human meta-cognition masters, we recognize our conscious experience to be a cinema-like effect created by the black box that may not correspond with any objective reality. The whole system works best when consciousness becomes a visceral experience that can feed back into the black box for satisfying interactions with the objective reality. If we find that we keep deserting this visceral experience for symbolic conceptualizations because the visceral conscious experience is too painful, I say it's probably because one's nutrition is poor.

    1. Thanks Jim! Unconscious decision making is quite a black box. We can crudely look at it through implicit tests in psychology, although those don’t seem to be perfect measure. Unconscious decision making evolved for certain situations, but it isn’t perfect and there are some notable mismatches (the psychology of disgust and overemphasis on mild social stressors come to mind). Totally agree that for the most part rationality is a justification for our unconscious decision making, but would disagree as this means we have to second guess ourselves to increase the amount of rationality and evidence in our decisions rather than being satisfied with something ‘feeling’ right or wrong

      Nutrition wasn’t the only thing that changed with agriculture. The structure of society, relationship with the environment and some social logistics of large numbers of people (infection and crime) also greatly changed in the transition to agriculture. I think it’s quite normal to healthy, well-nourished person to consider the following questions: where did this all come from, what happens when we die, and what is the point/purpose of it all. A component of religion was way to answer these troubling questions for people provided they traded something in return. Sam Harris has talked about spirituality through other means including psychoactive drugs and has a book on the subject, but its not something I can comment on

    2. I find the "black box" to be quite interested when it finds an outcome of its decisions to be wrong. It then asks the rationality unit (language) to look into it and provide some possible narratives.

      Even though brought up Christian, I tend toward the Buddhist view here, that a self that is like a willful executive at the control panel is an illusion, and I think the illusion is propagated by social training of the young to have a false sense of self that can be manipulated to create cogs in the social machine that basically do as they are told and treat non-compliance as a failure of their own willpower and thus a source of shame.

      I don't need no stinking purpose! Actually, the book of Job in the Bible is a great explanation of this. Job is perplexed by the lack of connection between righteousness and favorable outcomes. God then speaks from the whirlwind to say "People! I didn't set this thing up for your convenience!"

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  3. There's an aphorism by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (an Enlightenment philosopher best known today for his work on lightning patterns which has informed fractal theory and medical 3D printing) to the effect that our sense of free will may only be our awareness that the machinery is working perfectly.
    This is similar to Colin Wilson's observation that we appear to have less free will when we are ill.
    Thus if free will does exist, it exists in a context of considerable entropy. In other words, we exercise the muscle of free will in a morass of deterministic influences and the wills of other beings.
    To relate this to diet theory, some acts of will are possible that are likely to become labours of Sisyphus, for example calorie counting; they only work if will can be exerted constantly. Others are like the lever of Archimedes ("Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world")- they are so placed in the fabric of determinism that a little effort can cause a lasting change in direction - c.f. carbohydrate restriction.

    1. The existence of Mental illness, drugs, etc can provide the first crack in the belief in free will. You can begin by not believing someone has complete free will, but then on closer inspection everyone is just a different shade of grey, where any shade of grey is determinism

      The story with calorie counting is similar to other areas of your life. Set up the environment so that the right choices are constantly less effortful

  4. I greatly admire the blog posts, comments and tweets of the wonderful George Henderson, who succinctly gets to the heart of a topic with erudition and a great clarity, but without self-promotion.

    George, I do count calories, as I tend to not maintain an ideal weight through intuitive eating. However, I don't do it through a constant exercise of free will, but rather in the manner of a restaurant employee routinely applying portion control as directed by a chef to obtain a profitable yet salable plate du jour.

    Jim Jozwiak

    1. Thanks Jim. I'm going to use a word that should be more common, but seemingly never gets used on the internet - touché.
      I am going to hypothesise that some earlier choice you made - if not cutting carbs or avoiding sugar, then an increased intake of real food and avoidance of the processed - was a point at which your counting of calories became practical.

    2. Hi George!

      I think it starts with my mother. For instance, when my sister's pet turtles didn't thrive, my mom had the successful idea of feeding little bits of ground beef--and it worked: bigger turtle that was still alive until the cat ate it.

      And in my own life--God! it was stressful and annoying, and in the back of my mind was the idea that life events would go more smoothly if only I could figure out the special diet I obviously idiosyncratically required.

      I had the food composition tables in book form, so I wrote "NUT" which was my first attempt to write the nutrition program I needed to figure out the right diet for myself.

      Now, in the present, I know how much protein makes me hyperinsulinemic and how much makes me feel weak. I know how much starch I need (none) and how much fructose (one per meal in medjool date equivalence units). I know what calorie level makes me hyperinsulinemic and which level makes me feel starved and weak.

      I suppose I might decide that the hedonism of mealtime overrides the hedonism of the basic feeling tone I have as result of eating correctly. But for some unknown reason, I don't care so much that the cuisine be the finest, I just want the nutrition to be right so I can feel the pleasure of existence. So, in my case I don't know where the free will might be in my story.

  5. Hi Steven, finally got around to reading your blog - great stuff! I like that you're still philosophising :) Hope all is going well with your PhD.
    - Amber

    1. Thanks Amber! Hope everything is going well for you too

  6. This verbose, boring, uninsightful drivel could only come out of a mind trapped in academia.

    1. Please explain, or are you just trolling?

    2. Perhaps I could be of service, Steve. I'm sure that you would like to hear from the poster who actually uttered his blunt condemnation but I think that I understand where he is coming from, however reductive that his dismissal is proven to be.

      This poster, no doubt, equates "academia" with liberalism in the contemporary appreciation of the term. In such begrudging polar fashion, naturally someone who is so one sided in his opinion, he mistrusts and fosters contempt for anything remotely exhibiting intellectual capacity away from the prescribed notions of "keeping things the way they are."

      I believe that it all ties in and these sorts of curmudgeons, dependent upon how indoctrinated into their partisan beliefs, have told themselves it is quite alright to be unable to qualify their divisive thoughts. This is irony in an unequivocal sense as they speak of a "mind that is trapped," yet it is theirs that is trapped in their own stunted, reductive and under-developed sense of reality.

      However, this is not to say that there isn't BS on both sides of the socio-political spectrum. I mean, I'm not a fan of new-agey and gimmicky cliches that liberal Stepfords seem to wield about like so many badges of credibility. The trick is spotting the legitimate contributions of academia as they would apply practically to society.

      My point, Steve; it's great that you are concerned about how that person arrived at his "conclusion," but when someone is so clearly callously dismissive, is this really an opinion that is worth investigating?......

      Perhaps, maybe in the spirit of sport, however, in the spirit of appreciating one's own time, I would think that his is an opinion that should be "thrown back," like so many tiny, little fish.

    3. Thanks for your comment bigmyc. My comment was only to be polite and to see if there was something useful in his opinion. Like you, I am critical of both sides, which can be seen in this post as well as others. So I would hedge my bets that the kj-meta didn't read the whole post or give much thought before commenting

    4. perhaps kj-meta perceives academia as a mire of deterministic conditioning within which any exercise of free will is illusory, not realising that this is merely a metaphor for the whole of existence.

  7. Let me retool the free will discussion into another format.

    Who could possibly want to be lost in "I don't know?" Why, every child who has ever been born! But we wise old men, we've seen it all and we know what is right!

    To the extent you can choose with your free will which of the previous you want to be, which one is the most fun?