Is Free Will A Myth?

Free Will is basically the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded, according to Wikipedia (seriously, I shudder to imagine how the world will be without Wikipedia. It’s so useful) It is when you can choose to do what you want when you want without any form of opposition or duress.

For a long time, at least since the Enlightenment when philosophers began popping up like flies, one of the most often-debated questions has been whether humans truly have free will. On one hand, humans have very strong feelings towards freedom. We love it so much. We hold it up as an ideal. We have killed each other over it. This our strong sense of freedom always leads us to believe that we have free will. We even believe that civilization as we know it depends on this free will and losing it will have calamitous consequences. We have built many aspects of society on the assumption of that we have free will – from our code of ethics to democracy to aspects of our religion to criminal law. If we take away free will, society stands on shaky ground. As my friend P says “I believe free will exists. The alternatives if it doesn’t, are too scary to consider.”

But is this belief in free will just in our heads?

Science these days has been bolder in claiming that there is really no free will, that all human behavior, from love to anger to chivalry to everything else, can be explained through precise clockwork laws of cause and effect and chemical reactions. This claim can be traced to 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’, where he laid out the theory of evolution. His cousin Francis Galton began to infer some radical implications. He said that if we have evolved, then our mental faculties (such as intelligence) were hereditary. And since we use these faculties (which, from evolution, some people are bound to have in a greater degree than others), our ability to choose is not free, it depends on our heredity*. Hence, according to his theory, Einstein’s descendants have a greater free will than, say, Trump’s.

This was obviously controversial then, but these days, not so much. Brain scanners have allowed us to peer into our brains when we make decisions and see intricate networks of neurons that fire when we make most of our decisions. Many point to the research and experiments of the American physiologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s**, which demonstrated that before a person does any action, say, moving her leg, electrical activity built up in the brain before the person consciously made the decision to move. The brain has already decided we would move before we make the choice (which is what free will is all about) to move.

It is also common knowledge that changes to brain chemistry can affect our behavior. We only need to look at the effect that weed and alcohol and so on have on us. Scientists have even determined that alterations in brain structure causes pronounced changes in behavior. There have been cases of normal people that become psychotic murderers or psychopathic pedophiles after developing brain tumours. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which we get from our cats, can alter your behavior and make you more peaceful or more aggressive.

The arguments and evidences above means that determinism is becoming very popular. Determinism simply says “Free will? That’s bullshit.”

But what happens when people begin to believe that free will is a myth? Won’t they become morally irresponsible? Well, leave it to psychologists to find out.

In 2002, two psychologists, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, came up with an experiment***. They asked participants to read a passage that argued that free will was an elaborate societal deception. They then asked another group to read a passage that was neutral on the topic. Then they tempted the participants. They made cheating easy on a math test, and people in the first group were more likely to cheat. The groups were also told to take a certain amount of money from envelopes. The first group were more likely to pilfer extra. Another psychologist, Roy Baumeister****, found that students who didn’t believe in free will were less likely to volunteer to help a classmate, and were less likely to give a homeless person money. In essence, people who didn’t believe in free will were more likely to behave immorally.

Also, Baumeister found that those who didn’t believe in free will had more stress, unhappiness and a lesser commitment to relationships. They had a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. It made them less creative, more likely to conform, and less willing to show gratitude. Another study last year even linked diminished belief in free will to poor academic performance.

Therefore, we can say that the conclusion is that it really does not matter if free will exists or not, what matters is whether we believe it exists.

I just realized that this if these studies are really true, then this post may have made you unhappy, immoral, uncreative and academically dense. It has made you an asshole in essence. But the good thing is that at least, you learnt that people have names like Schooler and Baumeister. So that’s a win for you. Yay!

*‘Hereditary Genius’ by Francis Galton, 1869.

**Libet, Benjamin; Gleason, Curtis A.; Wright, Elwood W.; Pearl, Dennis K. (1983). “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential)”. Brain. 106 (3): 623–42. doi:10.1093/​brain/​106.3.623. PMID 6640273.

***Vohs, K. D.; Schooler, J. W. (January 2008). “The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating”. Psychol. Sci. 19 (1): 49–54. doi:10.1111/​j.1467-9280.2008.02045.x. PMID 18181791. S2CID 2643260

****Baumeister, R. F., Crescioni, A., & Alquist, J. L. (2011). Free will as advanced action control for human social life and culture. Neuroethics, 4(1), 1-11