No Room for Free Will

By Chris Leavenworth


People tend to be uncomfortable with the notion that free will is an illusory construct. I’ve had discussions with people who have gotten legitimately angry in their defense of a concept for which they could not provide substantial evidence. Many people hinge their whole worldview on free will, and to lose it, they fear, would be to pull the rug out from under their lifelong values.


For the religious, denying free will implies that man has no real choice in his own sin, and yet he still must answer to God for his fixed transgressions. For the ones who find comfort in control, denying free will implies that we are all ultimately powerless to our nature and external circumstances. To the dualist, it implies that our identity is completely physical. To the egomaniac, it implies a great deal of humility.


To a Rush fan, it means Geddy Lee’s poetic lyrics for one of their best tracks is about an existential fantasy. That was the hump I had to get over.


People hold onto the idea of an inner-arbiter, the type that manifests its own unique set of values and characteristics on carbon-based life forms and calls all the shots. This could accurately be called DNA. Despite the evidence, simplicity and beauty of its implications, for most people, DNA isn’t a satisfactory answer.


Every decision a person makes, for better or for worse, begins as a thought.


If we’re willing to admit that a thought doesn’t arise in a vacuum, and that the outcome of a thought depends, at the very least, on the overall condition of the brain making the thought, and its predispositions based on prior and present experiences, how much room is really left for free will?


One of the most common leaps people make when defending free will is that if it doesn’t exist, and all our choices and actions are inescapable, then crime shouldn’t be punished and no one can be held accountable for their actions. Even if that was true—that no one is truly liable for their decisions because they can’t possibly be avoided—I don’t see how it then proves free will. It would just mean we’re going about things awfully wrong.


I don’t believe that to be the case, though. If someone breaks the law or hurts somebody else, they should be held accountable. If a person cannot deviate from the bad choices or actions they’re determined to make, it’s not a reason to assume we all want to live in a world where it’s tolerated. Anyone that can appreciate a civilized society should understand the sense in that.


Although it’s necessary that crime be punished, it never truly corrects the wrong to a victim, and rarely does it prevent the offender from committing the crime again. Promoting better circumstances for people to not commit crime in the first place would seem much more favorable than waiting around for crime to happen.


Recognizing that crime, just like everything else, is determined by fixed circumstances that can be altered leads to improved conclusions about how to prevent it. This can be said about most all human behavior and tendencies. Understanding the conditions and factors that influence thoughts can greatly improve a person’s potential to make better decisions, form better habits, and live a healthier and happier lifestyle.

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