Noel Byrne  🖋  with a piece published in the September-October 2020 edition of the Irish Freethinker and Humanist: issue number 184.

With Earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,
And there of the last harvest sow'd the seed:
And the first morning of creation wrote,
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read. (Rubaiyat of Umar Khayyam) V 53

In a recent article here I maintained that Free Will is an illusion. Free Will is ingrained in our psyches and in society for generations. Most folk don’t grasp the idea of Free Will, because they are aware that they make decisions and then proceed to conflate the two ideas. It is a counter-intuitive concept. Living without Free Will does not come naturally to us, particularly as one of its consequences is a lack of moral responsibility. 

I believe that the illusion of Free Will is an adaptive trait that remains in our population in order to sustain our concepts of morality and make group living operable. But what if we had a society in which the non-existence of Free Will was accepted? How different might that be relative to present society? If, as I contend, Free Will does not exist and never existed, then present society has actually been built on the absence of Free Will, just as it was also built on the absence of an interfering god. The Free Will illusion, I believe is even more ingrained in the human psyche than the god illusion.

In a society without Free will there would be neither blame nor praise and most importantly a realization of the major part played by luck in our lives through both nature and nurture, by way of our genes and our environment.

The principal argument against the acceptance of the absence of Free Will in a society is that it would bring about the downfall of human civilization, because nobody would be morally responsible for their conduct. Without moral responsibility what can prevent the social order from collapsing they ask?

In relation to society this is the only argument I will deal with here, as this illusion is currently a philosophical issue only, and in the present time extremely unlikely to change laws, policies or society. As Free Will is neither widely understood nor accepted I believe that society is not yet ready to let go of it’s illusion. In fact in present society it is probably still a necessary illusion. It is only if people can live without the concept of Free Will on a personal basis first that society might be changed.

Further on I will deal with the absence of Free Will at a personal level.

If we are not then personally responsible for our actions how can society deal with this fact? Do murder, rape, pillage and mayhem follow? Actually no. All that would be required would be a change of mindset. Society as presently organized would not require much change. The principal change would be in the area of law and penology. Accountability or answerability would be to society. This is different from personal moral responsibility. The governance of any society requires accountability or answerability. In such a society we would be liable for the consequences of our actions, but not morally responsible. Those who break the laws or interfere with the rights of others or violate community norms, rules or standards would have to be curtailed, but not in a revengeful or punitive manner. This curtailment would have a rehabilitative or deterrent value and not be retributive. Punishment would be justified on consequentialist grounds not on prior events. Society has to be protected to ensure that peace and order prevail. Deterrence would be required but it wouldn’t be seen as punishment but as correctional. The deterrence would need to ensure the rule–breaker is capable of understanding the potential consequences of his or her conduct and can be influenced by the deterrence. Every effort should be made to help these persons function in harmony with the rest of society. 

One of the practical consequences of accepting the non-existence of free will is that we would no longer accept revenge as a factor in punishing people who commit a crime. Deterrence would still be a valid argument though, as would extracting a dangerous individual from society. Such individuals must be prevented from doing more harm by putting them somewhere safe, or by encouraging that person to change, by re-educating them or by dealing with whatever behavioral problems they have. We would also need to discourage others from doing the same socially unacceptable acts. Being presented with the knowledge that a particular action may result in a particular punishment may be sufficient to alter a wrong trajectory of action. It is completely reasonable to act against wrongdoing in any society whether one accepts Free Will or not.

Among those who try to live their lives free of the illusion of Free Will are the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the psychologist Susan Blackmore. The Stoics also argued that affirming determinism could result in a profound sort of equanimity. From a personal point of view, the difference between genuine free will and the illusion of free will is pretty meaningless. Life basically continues much as before just as it does without god.

When you live without Free Will some aspects of your mindset change with the realization that you are not responsible for your decisions or their outcomes, including the guilt you feel when you let people down, your need to defend yourself against criticism, not putting yourself down, your need to talk about yourself, boasting, your sensitivity to insult or rejection, being willing to be emotionally honest, your grasping for power, or admiration for those who have power, among others. You realize that life’s outcomes are determined by disparities in nature and nurture. Realization of the illusory nature of Free Will is really quite liberating. You are no longer so concerned with making the wrong decision. You can live in the moment. It makes your emotions easier to control. When you understand that people behave the way they do because of factors beyond their control it becomes harder to hate them for their actions. If one seriously accepts the illusory nature of Free Will then emotions such as resentment, anger, spite, vindictiveness and scorn rarely arise and when they do they retreat more quickly. Guilt, shame, fear of failure and much anxiety fall away. You become a better person.

One of the arguments against the illusion of Free Will is that if we are not morally responsible we will go around pillaging, murdering raping etc. and that people will no longer consciously control themselves. This is untrue. As a species we have evolved a natural reciprocal altruism. This means we are consciously aware that we will be treated as we treat others.

Another issue that arises relates to meaning in our lives. In a deterministic world we are not praiseworthy for what we do, because our actions or deeds are caused by events beyond our control. But achievements and life-hopes are not necessarily tied to praiseworthiness. If one sets out to achieve a goal and accomplishes it, then this is still an achievement that was desired even though one is not praiseworthy for it. A further issue which arises relates to whether life would have any purpose in these circumstances? But we give life purpose ourselves whether or not we believe in Free Will.

In a deterministic world some might argue that our actions are just part of a course of events and our efforts would not affect it. That they are not in control of their own fate, and without free will all they have and all they have accomplished are not of their doing but merely a result of circumstances. Determinism and fatalism are not the same. People are also causes. Our deliberations, actions and decisions are determined but causally effective, and they can and do influence the future. This is confusing determined and pre –determined. Our actions are not written by the fates. Our genes and our environment determine them, and our environment is changing constantly. Although luck plays a large part in life, our actions and decisions do have consequences for our lives.

There are other points of view and arguments against a society in which Free Will is accepted as illusory, but there is no space in this article to deal with them.

Personally I find peace of mind in the notion of determinism and lack of Free Will as in the Desiderata, be at peace with yourself, “and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the world is unfolding as it should.” Everything that happens does so for a reason and it could happen no other way.

If we realize that Free Will is a nonsensical concept, we should be more compassionate. If someone does something bad to you, you’re less likely to get angry with them. Free Will is not a necessary foundation for morality and responsibility. Codes of morality, legal doctrines, and the language of responsibility are all useful behavior patterns that result in, or are meant to result in the reduction of anti-social behavior and are likely to remain whether the term Free Will has a meaning or not.

Gary Watson in “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil” quotes Einstein:

I do not at all believe in human freedom in the philosophical sense. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity, Schopenhauer’s saying, “a man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants”, has been a very real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing well-spring of tolerance. This realization mercifully mitigates the easily paralyzing sense of responsibility and prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it is conducive to a view of life which in particular, gives humour it’s due.

A Society without Free Will would leave the important things in life intact, such as morality, preventing human evil, as well as fulfillment and meaning in life. We would resist anger, blame and resentment, but we would still feel pain, sadness and regret when wronged.

⏩ Noel Byrne is a retired Civil Servant and a Humanist, with a principal interest in Philosophy, and a particular interest in Ethics and Morality.

Living Without Free Will

Noel Byrne  🖋  with a piece published in the September-October 2020 edition of the Irish Freethinker and Humanist: issue number 184.

With Earth’s first clay they did the last man knead,
And there of the last harvest sow'd the seed:
And the first morning of creation wrote,
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read. (Rubaiyat of Umar Khayyam) V 53

In a recent article here I maintained that Free Will is an illusion. Free Will is ingrained in our psyches and in society for generations. Most folk don’t grasp the idea of Free Will, because they are aware that they make decisions and then proceed to conflate the two ideas. It is a counter-intuitive concept. Living without Free Will does not come naturally to us, particularly as one of its consequences is a lack of moral responsibility. 

I believe that the illusion of Free Will is an adaptive trait that remains in our population in order to sustain our concepts of morality and make group living operable. But what if we had a society in which the non-existence of Free Will was accepted? How different might that be relative to present society? If, as I contend, Free Will does not exist and never existed, then present society has actually been built on the absence of Free Will, just as it was also built on the absence of an interfering god. The Free Will illusion, I believe is even more ingrained in the human psyche than the god illusion.

In a society without Free will there would be neither blame nor praise and most importantly a realization of the major part played by luck in our lives through both nature and nurture, by way of our genes and our environment.

The principal argument against the acceptance of the absence of Free Will in a society is that it would bring about the downfall of human civilization, because nobody would be morally responsible for their conduct. Without moral responsibility what can prevent the social order from collapsing they ask?

In relation to society this is the only argument I will deal with here, as this illusion is currently a philosophical issue only, and in the present time extremely unlikely to change laws, policies or society. As Free Will is neither widely understood nor accepted I believe that society is not yet ready to let go of it’s illusion. In fact in present society it is probably still a necessary illusion. It is only if people can live without the concept of Free Will on a personal basis first that society might be changed.

Further on I will deal with the absence of Free Will at a personal level.

If we are not then personally responsible for our actions how can society deal with this fact? Do murder, rape, pillage and mayhem follow? Actually no. All that would be required would be a change of mindset. Society as presently organized would not require much change. The principal change would be in the area of law and penology. Accountability or answerability would be to society. This is different from personal moral responsibility. The governance of any society requires accountability or answerability. In such a society we would be liable for the consequences of our actions, but not morally responsible. Those who break the laws or interfere with the rights of others or violate community norms, rules or standards would have to be curtailed, but not in a revengeful or punitive manner. This curtailment would have a rehabilitative or deterrent value and not be retributive. Punishment would be justified on consequentialist grounds not on prior events. Society has to be protected to ensure that peace and order prevail. Deterrence would be required but it wouldn’t be seen as punishment but as correctional. The deterrence would need to ensure the rule–breaker is capable of understanding the potential consequences of his or her conduct and can be influenced by the deterrence. Every effort should be made to help these persons function in harmony with the rest of society. 

One of the practical consequences of accepting the non-existence of free will is that we would no longer accept revenge as a factor in punishing people who commit a crime. Deterrence would still be a valid argument though, as would extracting a dangerous individual from society. Such individuals must be prevented from doing more harm by putting them somewhere safe, or by encouraging that person to change, by re-educating them or by dealing with whatever behavioral problems they have. We would also need to discourage others from doing the same socially unacceptable acts. Being presented with the knowledge that a particular action may result in a particular punishment may be sufficient to alter a wrong trajectory of action. It is completely reasonable to act against wrongdoing in any society whether one accepts Free Will or not.

Among those who try to live their lives free of the illusion of Free Will are the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the psychologist Susan Blackmore. The Stoics also argued that affirming determinism could result in a profound sort of equanimity. From a personal point of view, the difference between genuine free will and the illusion of free will is pretty meaningless. Life basically continues much as before just as it does without god.

When you live without Free Will some aspects of your mindset change with the realization that you are not responsible for your decisions or their outcomes, including the guilt you feel when you let people down, your need to defend yourself against criticism, not putting yourself down, your need to talk about yourself, boasting, your sensitivity to insult or rejection, being willing to be emotionally honest, your grasping for power, or admiration for those who have power, among others. You realize that life’s outcomes are determined by disparities in nature and nurture. Realization of the illusory nature of Free Will is really quite liberating. You are no longer so concerned with making the wrong decision. You can live in the moment. It makes your emotions easier to control. When you understand that people behave the way they do because of factors beyond their control it becomes harder to hate them for their actions. If one seriously accepts the illusory nature of Free Will then emotions such as resentment, anger, spite, vindictiveness and scorn rarely arise and when they do they retreat more quickly. Guilt, shame, fear of failure and much anxiety fall away. You become a better person.

One of the arguments against the illusion of Free Will is that if we are not morally responsible we will go around pillaging, murdering raping etc. and that people will no longer consciously control themselves. This is untrue. As a species we have evolved a natural reciprocal altruism. This means we are consciously aware that we will be treated as we treat others.

Another issue that arises relates to meaning in our lives. In a deterministic world we are not praiseworthy for what we do, because our actions or deeds are caused by events beyond our control. But achievements and life-hopes are not necessarily tied to praiseworthiness. If one sets out to achieve a goal and accomplishes it, then this is still an achievement that was desired even though one is not praiseworthy for it. A further issue which arises relates to whether life would have any purpose in these circumstances? But we give life purpose ourselves whether or not we believe in Free Will.

In a deterministic world some might argue that our actions are just part of a course of events and our efforts would not affect it. That they are not in control of their own fate, and without free will all they have and all they have accomplished are not of their doing but merely a result of circumstances. Determinism and fatalism are not the same. People are also causes. Our deliberations, actions and decisions are determined but causally effective, and they can and do influence the future. This is confusing determined and pre –determined. Our actions are not written by the fates. Our genes and our environment determine them, and our environment is changing constantly. Although luck plays a large part in life, our actions and decisions do have consequences for our lives.

There are other points of view and arguments against a society in which Free Will is accepted as illusory, but there is no space in this article to deal with them.

Personally I find peace of mind in the notion of determinism and lack of Free Will as in the Desiderata, be at peace with yourself, “and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the world is unfolding as it should.” Everything that happens does so for a reason and it could happen no other way.

If we realize that Free Will is a nonsensical concept, we should be more compassionate. If someone does something bad to you, you’re less likely to get angry with them. Free Will is not a necessary foundation for morality and responsibility. Codes of morality, legal doctrines, and the language of responsibility are all useful behavior patterns that result in, or are meant to result in the reduction of anti-social behavior and are likely to remain whether the term Free Will has a meaning or not.

Gary Watson in “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil” quotes Einstein:

I do not at all believe in human freedom in the philosophical sense. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity, Schopenhauer’s saying, “a man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants”, has been a very real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing well-spring of tolerance. This realization mercifully mitigates the easily paralyzing sense of responsibility and prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it is conducive to a view of life which in particular, gives humour it’s due.

A Society without Free Will would leave the important things in life intact, such as morality, preventing human evil, as well as fulfillment and meaning in life. We would resist anger, blame and resentment, but we would still feel pain, sadness and regret when wronged.

⏩ Noel Byrne is a retired Civil Servant and a Humanist, with a principal interest in Philosophy, and a particular interest in Ethics and Morality.

2 comments:

  1. This is an excellent piece.

    Thanks to Noel for writing it and to TPQ for carrying it.

    Quality stuff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My sentiments also Ramon - I very much admire Noel's writing on these matters.

      Delete