Free Will: Live ‘as if’ You Are Free?

photo: Sergey Kokinsky

Free will is one of those topics that provokes strong feelings and endless arguments. Most people are sure they have free will but I say it’s an illusion and we are better when we learn to live without it.

The dilemma is clear  – as Samuel Johnson reportedly said in the 18th century: “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.”  In the 21st century neuroscience seems to be making the dilemma even more stark. But it is not only philosophers and scientists who agonise over freedom of the will. To my surprise I discovered that my 90 year-old father worried about it too.

My Dad was not well educated. He left school at fifteen, fought in the Second World War, came home to take over his father’s printing business and, as far as I know, never read a book the rest of his life. He did not share my mother’s strong Christian faith, which provoked endless arguments between her and me, nor did he seem to enjoy discussing life, the universe and everything. Looking back I see him as a straightforward, honest and kindly man, a father I could admire, but not one I could share ideas with.

One evening I was sitting by the fire with him, trying to make cheerful conversation before I set off to give an evening lecture.
“Where did you say you were going dear?” he asked for the third or fourth time. “To Sharpham House. It’s a Buddhist centre near Totnes”. “Why are you going there?” “I’m giving a lecture on free will.” “Free will? What is there to say about that?” I struggled to think how to explain the problem of free will to a man of ninety who had advanced dementia, just about knew who I was and lived in a world that had shrunk to his bed, his fireside chair, and the daily paper he could only stare at.
I did my best. I said that my body and brain are clever machines that can function perfectly well without needing an inner me, or spirit or soul, to direct them. So there’s a problem – I seem to be in control but I cannot really be. This is, I said, what I was going to be talking about. To my complete surprise this set him alight. He was quite sure that he had, or was, such an inner spirit; it stood to reason, he said. I asked him where this spirit came from, and he said from God. I protested that this is not an answer. There is no God and spirits would have to be magic, and he came back with a comment I have never forgotten. “If there is no spirit then why do we want to be good?” He didn’t ask why we are good or bad, or what is the nature of morality, he simply asked “Why do we want to be good”.

Copyright: Jolyon Troscianko

This thought struck me so hard because I have often come to a similar point in my own, very different, struggles with the problem of free will. For most of my life I have assumed that free will is an illusion. I have worked hard to live without it, but this can lead to a simple fear – what if I behave terribly badly? What if I give up all moral values and do terrible things – what indeed are moral values and how can I make moral decisions if there’s no one inside who is responsible. This fear is probably the main reason why so few people really try to live without free will. Like my Dad, they want to be good, and fear that if they stop believing in a self who chooses to do the right thing then they will run amok and all hell will break loose.

Is the fear justified? No. Evolutionary psychology provides reasons why we want to be good, such as nurturing instincts shaped by kin selection, and the desire to earn brownie points in the game of reciprocal altruism; memetics provides other reasons, showing how altruistic memes can spread so successfully; and most of us have been trained since early childhood to behave at least reasonably decently. So it may just come naturally to us to want to be good, even though we so often fail. If this is true, this common fear is no excuse to carry on living in delusion.

Arguably some of our most cruel and selfish behaviour is caused, or at least exacerbated, by clinging to the false sense of an inner self who has consciousness and free will. In this case we may behave better, not worse, if we could throw off the illusion.

My Dad stopped at his question about goodness. Many people cannot accept his answer and want to go further, but in my experience most do not dare give up free will altogether. I have taught many students who have struggled with this. And I was lucky enough to be able to interview top neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers for my book Conversations on Consciousness. I asked them all whether they had free will and was amazed by the number who said they intellectually reject the reality of free will but still carry on their lives “as if” it exists. Again and again I have been told that it’s impossible to live one’s life without the illusion, and that everyone who lives happily and sanely must live ‘as if’ they are free.

I say they are wrong. It is hard, but not impossible, to give up doing.

What do you think?


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