Free will is an illusion

Philosophers have debated the existence of free will for centuries. Most of us take it for granted that we have free will and conduct ourselves accordingly. Even those who believe we do not have free will behave as if they do.

As we learn more about how the brain functions, it is harder and harder to truly believe in absolute free will. Every day I am confronted in my office with people who behave in ways that even they believe are irrational. There are all sorts of situations in which people do things they do not believe in, do not want to do and yet cannot stop themselves from doing. These mental states come in many guises and may be described as compulsions, addictions, mania, and psychoses to mention only four clinical states. People who behave in socially unacceptable or even criminal ways while in these conditions are often granted some clemency in recognition of the fact that their behaviour is beyond their control. When their behaviour runs afoul of the law we sometimes diminish their responsibility in view of their lack of control. But these are special, relatively uncommon situations.

But how uncommon are they really? The more we learn about the workings of the human brain, the more we realize that a great deal of everyday human behaviour is strongly influenced by a combination of genetics and environmental influences over which the individual may not have control and may not even recognize as influencing their behavior. Of course, many take advantage of this fact in marketing, politics, scams and propaganda.

But it can and has been argued that all human behaviour is determined by combinations of factors over which the individual has no control and often no awareness. We know from experimental data that people can be induced to behave in predictable ways by manipulating environmental conditions in accordance with well-established principles. We know that much of human behaviour is influenced by unconscious factors and that our conscious world only represents a small portion of what is actually going on in our lives. Our conscious world is not even necessarily accurate.

It is commonplace for us to provide explanations for our behaviour that satisfy our need for an explanation but which actually have nothing to do with why we actually do something. It is common in psychotherapy and counseling for therapists to provide explanations for clients or to lead the client to recognize reasons for their behaviour that have no validity in fact. Past life regressions are an obvious example but much more garden-variety examples are also prevalent. When someone gets depressed it is natural to look around for a reason. It is a rare person who cannot find a stressor they can link to their mood, but often these attributions are wrong. This sometimes becomes obvious when a diagnosis and pharmacological treatment are arrived at that completely reverse the depression. When the individual is no longer depressed, the previously identified causes are often repudiated.

Few people today would accept that they have no free will, but many philosophers and scientists are coming to that startling conclusion. The acceptance of this position will have profound implications for judicial concepts of responsibility and punishment. It will be difficult to punish people for things over which they have no control. We may still need to protect ourselves from dangerous offenders but our moral judgments and retributive justice system may have to be revised. Our jails are already filling with the de-institutionalized mentally ill and many already feel a revision is long overdue.


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