Commentary: The Myth of Free Will

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Most secularists have made the transition from a god- or gods-centered universe to a nature-centered universe without any supernatural beings or supernatural forces. Unfortunately, many seem to have been left with the idea of a supernatural individual free will, perhaps a residual of religious ideas. The idea is that each of us has some mysterious ability to “do other than” what the forces of nature intend.

Most people are probably too busy to think about the question of free will, just as most religious people are happy with their beliefs and don’t bother to think of any alternative.

Many scientists, particularly in the hard sciences, seem to accept the idea that we live in a deterministic, yet largely indeterminate, universe. One thing follows another according to the laws of nature, although often not with predictable outcomes. One recent treatment of this is Until the End of Time (2020), by the physicist Brian Greene, who references Daniel Dennett and others on the subject of free will, and comes to his own conclusions. Another example, from psychologists and neuroscientists based on their studies of the brain, is Daniel M. Wegner’s, The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002, New Edition 2017).

Other social and medical scientists have come to similar conclusions and, even in the legal realm, the idea of individual responsibility has been brought into question. We are starting to understand that most criminal behavior has causes rooted in the environments in which the individual is raised, or sometimes in their genetic makeup, resulting in anti-social behavior.

On the other hand, we have many successful individuals who attribute their success mainly to their own actions–the self-made man or woman. Most likely, these individuals have not carefully examined all that has led to their success–luck of birth, luck of associates and environment, and sometimes just plain luck.

If we carefully examine our actions (or reactions) and the reasons we take them, we can usually see that either there is a good reason or a supposed reason. In some cases, it may not matter which choice we make, we just “flip a coin”, and live and learn. There’s no “free will” involved. It’s just learned behavior or automatic, innate behavior.

When it comes to responsibility, “free will” can lead to irresponsible behavior as well as responsible behavior. Responsibility has to be a collective thing. As humanists, we know we are not responsible to any gods or “superior” human beings. We are only responsible to our fellow beings. We learn to cooperate to a greater or lesser degree. Our behavior is determined by the groups we associate with. Some “individualists” can be successful, but their success usually depends on their association with or exploitation of others.

We don’t usually think of animals as having free will, so the question is:  When in our evolution could this “free will” have arisen? Or, in childhood development terms: Are children born with “free will” or is this learned behavior?

Young animals and especially humans learn an incredible amount in a short period of time about how to interact with others and various environments. As learning and tentative decision-making increase, we all start to feel that we are controlling things to a lesser or greater extent. Is that real, or is it an illusion?

Human children may have some innate empathy or even altruistic tendencies. Or is that learned behavior? Animals also seem to have some empathetic tendencies, at least for their own “kind”.

In the end, we seem to have a natural tendency towards cooperation through learning and experience. We behave quite well in small groups, often in multiple groups. A continuing problem is that of understanding between groups so that we can all get along. Ideas of individual or group superiority are detrimental to that sort of cooperation. And, the idea of free will is an often-harmful myth that must be discarded.