The illusory desire for control.


From Everyday People.

I’ve written about why free will is philosophical and scientific nonsense. But there is a deeper problem with the concept of free will: it’s not even falsifiable.

If free will could be true, it would mean that we can “choose” between alternatives when confronted with a decision. In real life, we can’t prove this in any way because we can’t retake the same decision twice. Every decision is different, and we don’t have a time machine to go back to any decision we’ve taken in the past. So not only is free will not scientifically valid, but free will cannot possibly be scientifically valid!

Sure, one can still believe in free will even though it cannot be scientific. But the same can be said of other unfalsifiable belief systems like Creationism or astrology. So that’s not a particularly interesting question.

Here’s a more interesting question: why do they believe? The way they talk, I think the answer has to do with wanting to feel like you’re in control. They believe that without this belief in free will, humans must necessarily lose control over their morality and become depraved.

You will probably note that this is the exact same thing they say about atheists. I will address this later.

When I talk about “being in control,” I am referring mostly to two things: 1. understanding what’s going on and one’s role with a reassuring certainty and 2. being able to make choices based on these understandings (note: this is not the same thing as the control mentality I’ve discussed before, although obviously they are related). We’re talking here about control at any level: control over oneself, control over family, control over one’s environment, control over life, control over one’s future.

Take a simple example such as Christianity and the afterlife (which represents control over one’s future). The believer knows that there is a Heaven and a Hell, and that people go to either of them when they die. The believer’s duty is to believe in Jesus’ plan of salvation for them. By choosing to do so, one can ensure an afterlife in Heaven, with absolute certainty.

When faced with the rebuttal that ey might not actually go to Heaven, the believer has little response but to reiterate eir faith, because it is the faith that brings certainty. If one has faith, one will go to Heaven. The issue here is not to actually know anything but rather to live in the utmost confidence. Reliance on facts cannot bring certainty and therefore cannot fulfill the desired function of making one feel in control.

Perhaps the most recently famous case of an ideology which sells an extreme form of control is The Secret, which tells you that you can get whatever you wish for, if you wish for it the right way. Another such case is Scientology, which claims that at the highest levels you can achieve “cause over MEST” (mastery of matter, energy, space and time).

Of course such ideologies can never deliver what they sell. But it is also no coincidence that both ideologies are almost ridiculously optimistic, i.e. that suffering is secondary and that one can lead a charmed life, if one follows a certain method to the letter. Optimism, like positive thinking, always buckles under the weight of reality, and control provides the way to reassure oneself that everything is going according to one’s will.

Positive thinking is another ideology which relies heavily on control. I have previously highlighted the proto-fascistic language used to symbolize the amount of control a positive thinker must maintain. It requires the individual to repress natural urges and bottle emself up, a surefire recipe for loss of control and guilt.

Many conspiracy theories feed into this need also. It may seem strange to posit that believing that one is ruled by shadowy and omnipresent forces leads one to feel more in control, but it is the certainty involved in “knowing” the secret truth that is reassuring:

The power structure: government, academia, corporations… take your pick. Whatever flavor of paranoia you favor, it can fit into the widespread panic that shadowy elites are not just in control of your life but actively hiding the truth from you. Clearly, this reflects the complexity of modern society and the alienation many feel from the structures of power, which impact our lives from afar. Unable to understand how society actually functions, it becomes reduced to a conspiracy by powerful elites keeping us from our alien destiny. By revealing this truth, their power will evaporate and you, the powerless Everyman, can finally take your rightful place among the chosen. Yes, you, the lowly middle-class worker drone who hates big government and thinks that PhDs want to keep you oppressed, you too can commune with aliens and stick it to the Man.

Control implies reassurance through belief. In the case of failure of a traditional belief (such as the failure of Creationism), the one thing a control freak can never say is “I don’t know,” because this completely nullifies the effect of belief. Instead of saying “I don’t know,” the believer must either make up false data, or ignore the problem. In real life, individuals and groups will choose one or the other branch as the new tradition to follow (“theistic evolution” or “Intelligent Design”).

Coming back to the issue of depravity resulting from loss of control, I’ve mentioned that free will proponents and religious people share the belief that once you abandon their pet belief system you will lose control of yourself, murder, rape, steal, and so on (that is to say, you will no longer be a moral agent but be reduced to what they see as an animalistic state, even though other species can be moral agents too).

What’s interesting is that it seems to me that the believers implicitly prove that their supposed control is really entirely subjective. Some free will proponents argue that even if free will does not really exist, we must still promote it as a concept because otherwise people will go rampant. So they admit that it is the belief, not the fact of the matter, which retains control. Likewise, religious believers claim that atheists are evil even though [they also believe that] God exists. How is that possible unless it’s the belief that’s operating, not God?

Of course it seems obvious to us that control is subjective. The concept of losing control is hard for people to imagine, but it remains solely in the imagination. Despite the belief that people can “lose control” and become animalistic, there really is no such thing as a nihilist. There are people who claim to be nihilists, but as far as we can tell they behave more or less like everyone else.

The thing about deconversions to atheism and determinism is that they are not a loss of control but a loss of meaning. And a loss of meaning is always temporary, because the creation of meaning is second nature to human beings. We do it all the time whether deliberately or nilly-willy, and we even have whole masses of people whose job is solely to do this for others. It does not take long for a new atheist or determinist to realize the meaning vacuum, and then to start filling it up (so what happens after we die? how does the universe work?).

The human mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If nihilism actually means anything, its meaning must lie in that short, unstable period between abandoning one framework of meaning and replacing it with another or others. Such a state cannot be permanent.

I do want to make clear that I am talking here about illusory mental control which really refers to meaning. I am not talking about actual control over one’s bodily or mental functions. That’s an entirely different issue, and one which is genuinely worrisome and scary.

I think we can observe from true believers that control does not work. The more people obsess over being in control, the more that need controls them in turn. The attempt to control oneself leads to obsession which leads to compulsion. The supposed signs of “loss of control” are observed in all kinds of people, including true believers. All that is left is a hollow shell of the procedures which supposedly bring about control, such as religious rituals, self-censorship, aggressiveness and passive-aggressiveness, and childish dogmas.

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8 thoughts on “The illusory desire for control.

  1. Marco den Ouden March 22 2014 at 22:56 Reply

    Interesting points about religion, self-help philosophies and conspiracy theories, especially the latter. But your central thesis, that there is no free will and everything is deterministic, begs the question. Why bother writing this in the first place? Following your logic, you wrote it because you had no choice. And following your logic, anyone who reads it will either agree or disagree, not because of the power and persuasion of your reasonong, but because it is predetermined that they will either agree or disagree. And given the other moral causes you endorse such as anti-natalism, feminism, etc., what’s the point at getting morally outraged at natalists, chauvinists, capitalists, etc? The people who believe those things don’t choose to believe those things. They just do. So my belief in free will is nothing that should raise umbrage by your logic. I have no choice but to believe in it.

    • Francois Tremblay March 22 2014 at 23:11 Reply

      I’m not sure what your point is exactly. Of course no one has any “choice.” So…? If you’re asking the old “how can we change anyone’s mind,” I’ve already answered that question:

      http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/free-will-as-an-ideological-weapon/

      “Another argument used is that if determinism was true, then we couldn’t change our minds, or alternately that there is no point in doing anything because fatalism becomes true. From a determinist perspective, this is a bizarre argument; everything is in a state of flux, everything changes, so why wouldn’t human minds change as well? Under determinism, it is unchanging minds that would be surprising, not changing minds. Under the free will perspective, however, it’s hard to understand why people would change their minds, since they are not subject to physical change, or why proponents do not think fatalism is an issue.”

      Furthermore, you say:

      “And following your logic, anyone who reads it will either agree or disagree, not because of the power and persuasion of your reasonong, but because it is predetermined that they will either agree or disagree. ”

      Why do you assume that my reasoning is not part of the causes that will make people agree or disagree? That’s a bizarre assumption to say the least.

      It seems to me like you think “determinism” is some kind of thing external to us that makes us do things. I actually have an entry in the queue about this view of things. But let me say this right now: “determinism” is not a thing you can beat. It’s cause and effect. And everything we do is part of cause and effect.

      “The people who believe those things don’t choose to believe those things. They just do.”
      “So my belief in free will is nothing that should raise umbrage by your logic. I have no choice but to believe in it.”

      Again, what’s your point? Simply repeating that you didn’t “choose” something doesn’t prove anything beyond the fact that I shouldn’t blame you for it. I don’t blame you for it. So what? I never blamed you for anything. I’m still going to explain my reasoning anyway.

      BTW, my answer to the question you sent me will be on the next entry,

  2. Marco den Ouden March 25 2014 at 8:27 Reply

    That’s an interesting and subtle argument. I’ll have to think on that a bit.But without the idea of free will, that we are free to choose our paths and destinies, that we can choose to do good or evil, do concepts like personal responsibility or accountability have any meaning? Can we condemn a murderer, rapist or thief if they were moved by forces beyond their control? Does the concept of crime even have any meaning? Can we hold people accountable for their actions if they are not responsible for their actions? And how can they be responsible for their actions if they have no control over them? But if we concede that they do have control over their actions and are responsible for their actions, haven’t we conceded the concept of free will?

    • Francois Tremblay March 25 2014 at 13:09 Reply

      “But without the idea of free will, that we are free to choose our paths and destinies, that we can choose to do good or evil, do concepts like personal responsibility or accountability have any meaning? Can we condemn a murderer, rapist or thief if they were moved by forces beyond their control?”

      We can’t blame anyone for anything they do, no; beyond that, certainly I condemn people’s actions when they are wrong, but the condemnation is based on ethical standards, not blame.

      “Does the concept of crime even have any meaning?”

      Sure it does, as a mechanistic way of describing people’s actions.

      “Can we hold people accountable for their actions if they are not responsible for their actions?”

      I would think by definition those two phrases mean the same general thing, no?

      “And how can they be responsible for their actions if they have no control over them? But if we concede that they do have control over their actions and are responsible for their actions, haven’t we conceded the concept of free will?

      Personal responsibility exists in the sense that we can identify which person does what action and thus point out who’s responsible for some effect. Nothing in that implies free will. If you mean something else by responsibility and control, then you’d have to explain what you mean first.

  3. Marco den Ouden April 23 2014 at 23:20 Reply

    Just came across this article a friend posted on Facebook. Thought you might find it interesting even if you disagree with it. The article suggests that a sense of a deterministic world or one of free will is related to whether we have a fixed or a growth mindset. I rather like the author’s chart outlining the difference between the two mindsets. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/

    • Francois Tremblay April 24 2014 at 0:15 Reply

      Not following you. How does aversion to risk or change, or affinity with risk or change, correlate with having a deterministic or free will worldview? Let alone one’s view on “intelligence,” whatever that means.

      I do think that people who advocate free will tend to be religious (and therefore averse to change in general), and people who advocate determinism tend to be more scientifically-minded, although the correlation is weak.

  4. cyanidecupcake April 28 2014 at 1:33 Reply

    Meh, that silly title, like it’s such a mystery – The “Secret” is the same ol’ sympathetic/wishful thinking espoused in Christianity and New Age philosophies alike, in a new package!
    Also, here’s something about Scientologists: http://lsd.dula.tv/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/im-a-scientologist.jpg

    • Francois Tremblay April 28 2014 at 1:42 Reply

      Of course everyone hates Scientology. It’s the worse religion ever made. I still love it though, roughly in the same way people are fascinated by Adolph Hitler or Monsanto. :)

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