Can We Have Political Beliefs With No Free Will?
Part 1: The Case For Determinism
By Wil Forbis
May 1, 2018
For many years, I was something of a libertarian, though a more accurate title would be the neologism “liberalitarian”. I voted Democrat in every presidential election of my life except for one where I voted for Libertarian Harry Brown. (This was the 1996, Clinton versus Dole election.)
I still think there's something to the libertarian perspective. It has a belief in the ability of man that I think, upon seasoned reflection, is true. People do prove themselves capable when asked/forced to make the important decisions over their lives. The libertarian view has always been, to me, a hopeful one, an optimistic one. And I have always resented two of the bugaboos of libertarians: sermonizing social conservatives and finger wagging, hyper-moralistic liberals. Both are groups more than happy to tell you what to do and how to think, and I loathe that tendency in the way a more avowed libertarian would.
That said, my main problem with libertarianism these days is that it believes we have agency over our actions, that we have free will. And I have come to the conclusion that free will doesn't exist.
I realize I'm in the minority with that view and so my first task is to convince you that I am right (as I am, about most things.) Then I can explore how a lack of free will is a problem for not only libertarianism but all modern, mainstream political philosophies.
Free will has been attacked and defended from a number of vantage points throughout history. Often you get the sense that the attackers and defenders are talking about different things so I should clarify my terms. I use free will to mean what it does in popular discourse: the notion that a person controls their own actions and makes their own decisions. As such, they can be praised for good decisions and blamed (and punished) for bad ones.
(If you get out on the internet (always a bad idea) and read various philosophical texts on the subject you’ll see plenty of critiques that my above definition is too simplistic or vague to be useful. Since I don’t want to turn this brief article into a dissertation weighed down with pages of caveats and explanations, I’m going to stick with my defintion. It works for my purposes here.)
We all feel like we have free will. In day-to-day life, I feel like “I” make my decisions, and I’m happy enough to blame people who make bad decisions, particularly ones that inconvenience me. But my argument is that this feeling of free will is an illusion. What’s the justification for this view?
Fundamentally, it’s Newtonian. Isaac Newton, as you doubtless recall, expounded the concept of classical mechanics, the notion that the world is made up of parts (atoms, molecules, chairs, mountains, planets, solar systems and so on) that affect each other in predictable, quantifiable ways. As a result, the physical world is deterministic and a person given the god-like knowledge of where every atom is and what forces are acting upon those atoms could predict the future movements of these atoms with complete accuracy. He or she could also “roll the clock backwards” and figure out where everything was at any point in the past. (But doesn’t quantum physics refute some of this? I’ll get to that down the line.)
What does all that have to do with free will? Well, free will is about human decisions, decisions being a type of thought. So what are thoughts? They’re a vague concept if you really think (ha ha) about it, but they seem to arise in our mind where we become subjectively aware of them. (By “subjectively” I mean that I can know my thoughts but never fully know yours---though scientists are working to change that.) Many people, if not most, presume thoughts to be the result of some non-material entity---a soul or ghostlike mind that inhabits and controls the body. Modern neuroscience is making pretty clear, however, that thoughts correlate to neural activity in the brain, to the electrical firing of neurons and the passing of chemical neurotransmitters between neurons.
Part of the reason neuroscientists think this is because of innumerable M.R.I. studies that show that certain, predictable networks of the brain light up when a person, say, thinks about cats or has a particular emotion. Scientists can also induce thoughts in people by stimulating part of the brain during open skull surgery. There are also the many observations of people who suffer brain damage and lose their ability to perform certain mental functions---to recognize faces, to read text, to create memories, and on and on. Clearly the brain is key to the functioning of our mind.
Neurons and neurotransmitters are physical objects---ultimately they break down to atoms. As such, they are bound to Newton’s mechanical laws which means their actions are deterministic---they can only do one thing based on all the things that have happened before. If our thoughts/decisions are caused by the deterministic action of brain matter, then there can only be one possible thought/decision that can occur at any particular juncture in a person’s life. Thus flies away the dream of free will.
The philosophical writer Thomas R. Wells puts it succinctly when he says, “If everything is caused by things bumping into other things, then so are our actions, choices, and even our conscious feeling of free will---making it seem rather unfree after all."
Let’s look at a few objections to this idea. The first might be called spiritualist. It’s the argument you hear coming from religious people as well as anyone who thinks there is some kind of nonmaterial “ghost in the machine” that controls the brain. We commonly call this ghost the soul, the essence, or the mind. There are a variety of arguments coming from this direction but they basically break down to the idea that the mind prompts the brain to do things, not the other way around. For example, the mind thinks of a cat, prompting the brain’s “cat thinking machinery” to activate.
One can critique this view in various ways. One way notes that, as aforementioned, when people have brain damage, they lose their ability to perform certain mental functions. Brain damage via strokes, accidents, surgical errors and whatnot, can destroy our ability to form memories, feel emotions, behave morally, plan for the future and much more. In essence, brain damage can destroy our very sense of self, a sense fundamental to free will. For free will to work conceptually we need a “self”---a unified persona---to be the one who freely undertakes an action.
We can also refer to the experiments of Benjamin Libet. I won’t get into the details (here they are) but the experiments involved scientists recording a person’s brain activity while that person was tasked with making a decision. The observers noted that a brain activity spike occurred before the person was consciously aware of making his or her decision, strongly implying that the mind comes after the brain, not before. (I explored that point in more detail in this article entitled "What is the Soul?")
Beyond spiritualism, another objection to free will points out that Newton’s deterministic model of the universe was overturned in the 20th century by quantum physics, a now well-substantiated theory that views the universe as being non-deterministic. That said, it appears this non-deterministic behavior only strongly applies to the sub-atomic realm (e.g. the level of electrons, quarks, etc.) It doesn’t have much play in the macro world ---the world of atoms and molecules, mountains and buildings and, of course, brains. And even if brains were non-deterministic, that doesn’t get us to free will. Let's say we were to observe quantum activity bubbling up to the macro world and having some effect on human behavior. That's not an observation of a willfull entity making decisions, that's an observation of chaotic quantum behavior. We're simply swapping out a puppet-master of Newtonian determinism for one of quarks and electrons.
Much more has been written about the debate over free will and if so inclined, you can seek it out. I will stop here and simply state that my strong suspicion is that free will does not exist. And this leads to the problems with popular political beliefs and intriguing attempts to address them that I will discuss next month in Part 2.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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