(this is the cover from Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, in case you don’t recognize it)
People have a strange relationship with free will, Christians especially. Christians believe that God gave us free will, but they define free will only as the capacity to choose good or evil, both having been created by God. Euthyphro’s Dilemma proves this to be nonsense, but let’s ignore that particular issue: it’s free will I’m concerned about here, not ethics.
So here we have two wildly differing conceptions of free will: the secular account, which is about the “capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives,” dixit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Christian account, that we have the capacity to choose between good and evil, but that everything else is predetermined or preordained by God (keeping in mind that Calvinists reject even that small amount of free will).
The problem with the Christian account is that it also incorporates a god that started everything. This means that this god created the free will of a rapist, for example, to rape his daughter. The Christian position is the equivalent of saying that having free will is worth the rape of a little girl (actually, a few million girls, if we’re talking about reality and not just one isolated scenario). We can extend this to all wars, all genocides, all torture, etc.
Based on this, I think it is never possible for a secular person, whatever eir ethical position, to come to the conclusion that it is better for God to have granted free will to humans if it comes at the cost of all the evil that humans do to each other. From a utilitarian standpoint, free will cannot possibly hope to compensate for such an incalculable and unimaginable amount of suffering. From a deontological standpoint, creating suffering is always wrong, notwithstanding the consequences of not creating it. From the perspective of virtue ethics, it’s hard to imagine how allowing people to do evil could possibly give them better character; at any rate, whatever positive point results from this could be implanted in humans by God anyway.
Now, if God is all-powerful, it could have created humans without the freedom to do evil. It will do no good for Christians to reply that free will is irreducibly good for whatever reason; God could equally have created us with an entirely different kind of free will. For instance, it could have created us with the freedom to choose between living in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere, or the freedom to choose to wear light colors or dark colors. These choices seem rather arbitrary, but so do ethical choices within the Christian worldview; if ethics are contingent on God’s will, then good and evil are nothing but arbitrary divine constructs, and are exactly as arbitrary as the hemisphere you live in and the clothes you wear (in fact, the latter seems even less arbitrary).
Of course, the real answer is obvious: without the free will to choose good or evil, there can be no need for motivation to choose good, and therefore there can be no need for Christianity. If everyone is okay, then there is no one left to sell salvation to. And if we’re predetermined, then there’s no point in selling salvation: people will end up the way God wants, and that’s that. No mere human preacher or missionary can affect God’s plans (of course Calvinists disagree, as they must- otherwise there would be no Calvinism).
The motive for Christians to believe in free will is therefore entirely memetic in nature. Belief systems survive better when their members are motivated to convert others, and necessary to that motivation is the belief that others can be converted in the first place.
But why do seculars hold on to free will as a concept? I believe the answer can be found in Zapffe’s Paradox. In his masterpiece of pessimism called The Last Messiah, Peter Zapffe expresses a paradox about the human condition which can be simplified as follows:
(1) We humans are meat puppets.
(2) Even if we know (1) intellectually, we are incapable of internalizing the fact that we are meat puppets. In fact, our consciousness is in large part devoted to ensuring that we are never able to do this.
We are condemned to walk the Earth alienated from our true nature, to kill each other in endless wars and genocides, to hate each other and dispossess each other, on the basis of values we made up so we can ignore the facts about our nature.
Some people will no doubt answer, sure we’re meat puppets, but we’re controlled by our soul/self/consciousness. But that is not at all what the term means; it means that we are controlled by nature. Evolutionarily, we are moved by genetics. Biologically, we are moved by hormones and brain impulses. Intellectually, we are moved by memes. Politically, we are moved by incentives.
There is no soul or self in the brain that is controlling anything, and consciousness is only devoted to giving the illusion of soul or self implicit in the belief in free will. When we say “I control my body,” we are, strictly speaking, uttering gibberish. There is no “I” or relation of ownership designated by “my,” and therefore no “control” relation; there is just a body containing a massive network of neurons which generates the illusion of “I control my body.”
I am like a puppet sitting here. It’s not just I; all of us are puppets. Nature is pulling the strings, but we believe that we are acting. If you function that way, then the problems are simple. But we have superimposed on that a ‘person’ who is pulling those strings.
U. G. Krishnamurti
The answer to my question is that people hold on to free will because we can’t really grasp anything else. Sure, a person like me can intellectually say that there is no such thing as free will and that I am a meat puppet, but there’s no way for me to integrate such a belief. It will always remain solely an intellectual exercise.
But why would anyone consciously (no pun intended) hold on to free will as an intellectual conceit?
During the fourth season of the show Angel, a being from another dimension called Jasmine comes to Earth. She is able to take over the will of any human who looks at her, even through a television, and, by taking over their will, brings about a world without war, genocide, or crime. She consumes human beings once in a while to keep her powers running. Angel and company finally manage to stop her reign and kill her, because gosh darnit if they’ll let their free will be taken away by some being from another dimension!
The salient question, though, is why? What is so terrible about the Jasmine-run Earth? She does kill innocent people, but she kills them a few at a time, which must be contrasted with the tens of thousands of innocent people who die every day at the hands of other human beings or as a consequence of institutions made by human beings. From a utilitarian standpoint, which I assume the writers of Angel held because it is after all the dominant view, it’s clear that a Jasmine-run Earth is incredibly more favorable to human life than our Earth. But even from a deontological standpoint, Angel’s decision to stop Jasmine is extremely difficult to defend, perhaps even impossible.
Although Jasmine was narratively presented as evil, the show was on the whole ambiguous in that it did linger on the fact that killing Jasmine meant the perpetuation of incalculable suffering to humanity. But the fact that Angel and friends decided to stop, and later kill, Jasmine does send the message that it was ultimately the right, if agonizing, thing to do. This implies that free will is so valuable that it’s worth the horrible deaths of millions of people, as well as the mental anguish caused by physical or mental abuse, the hardships of poverty, malnutrition, mental problems, and other results of inequality, and so on. But nothing is worth that much, especially not something that we can’t actually have anyway!
But then again, it is perhaps not surprising that it is the things we make up that are worth the most to people… Just think about how many people have died on the basis of imaginary religious debates; because the imaginary can have a pull on us that no mere existing thing can, because only the imaginary can have this sort of must-preserve-at-all-costs fanaticism superposed on them.
Angel: “Thousands of people are dead because of what you’ve done!”
Jasmine: “And how many will die because of you? I could’ve stopped it, Angel. All of it. War, disease, poverty. How many precious, beautiful lives would’ve been saved in a handful of years? Yes, I murdered thousands to save billions. This world is doomed to drown in its own blood now.”
Angel: “The price was too high, Jasmine. Our fate has to be our own, or we’re nothing.”
Angel, Peace Out
In what may be a Freudian slip on the part of the writers, Angel is being accidentally honest in calling what he is fighting for fate, meaning the unavoidable or predetermined outcomes. This fate is really all we have. But what does it mean for it to be “our own”? What is this ownership claim that Angel is fighting for, and which he thinks is worth the lives of billions (according to Jasmine, anyway)? It is really nothing more than a metaphorical ownership claim by nature, which molds our fate on this Earth, against the direct ownership claim of Jasmine. But Angel makes no claim of comparing the two: he simply asserts that humanity’s fate must be “our own,” that is to say, nature’s doing, or just forget about it. This is a hopelessly muddled rationalization.
Narratives like that presented on the show Angel serve the important function of obscuring the fact that we are meat puppets, by reaffirming that no, indeed we are not, and that if we ever could become that way, we should choose not to be. Free will fanatics can watch it and think “I’m so glad we’re not meat puppets!” and people who think humanity got a raw deal can think “too bad we’re not meat puppets.”
Horror stories also serve the same purpose, including stories about insanity, demonic possession, zombies, vampires, werewolves, body snatchers, and more technological forms of mind control (talking about zombies and vampires, it is perhaps no coincidence that Jasmine’s “true form” while human is that of a rotting body, or that Angel used to be a vampire). They become a class apart, a class of “monsters,” which stands in opposition to us, selves that are fully in possession of their own bodies. This makes us feel better about ourselves, that no matter how badly off we are, we still have metaphysical freedom. Unfortunately, we actually are monsters as well, made all the more pitiful and ridiculous by the fact that we don’t even know, and can’t know, that we’re monsters.
This is also why people have such a knee-jerk reaction against the idea that computers are intelligent or could become conscious; if a mere “deterministic,” “mechanistic,” “programmed” computer can become conscious like us, then it’s only a skip and a hop from concluding that we are probably “deterministic,” “mechanistic” or “programmed” as well (which of course we actually are). So this possibility must be rejected out of hand.
Talking about television shows, you probably know the famous quote, “I am not a number, I am a free man,” from the show The Prisoner. What is not often quoted, however, is that the reply is derisive laughter. The pretense of a prisoner to actually be a free man is just a joke to the jailer. The difference, of course, is that a prisoner can eventually escape or leave, but a human being cannot become something other than a human being (transhumanist wet dreams notwithstanding).
As described in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Peter Zapffe has identified four mechanisms by which human beings push away awareness of their own nature:
(1) Isolation- Denying that there’s anything wrong with life (a favourite of all natalists).
(2) Anchoring- Buying into all the value systems and games that society offers us, be it religion, capitalism, patriotism, the family, procreation, the law, politics, etc. as well as following all the false identities they impose on the players.
(3) Distraction- Mindless entertainment, like sports, advertisements, television in general, pornography and other diversions, coverage of elections, coverage of wars, church, sex, spectacles, false slack, etc.
(4) Sublimation- Using the negative aspects of life as means of entertainment, “forming the conspiracy of creating and consuming products that provide an escape from our suffering in the guise of a false confrontation with it” (dixit Thomas Ligotti). The horror genre in general is in this category, as well as what one might call the macabre.
This ultimately encompasses all that we do as a society. It’s not really that we consciously try to escape our nature, since doing so would defeat the point, which is to keep it as far away from our thoughts as possible.
Any belief this entrenched cannot be taken lightly, and people will always rationalize some objection to it, no matter how silly. When you talk about free will not existing, there is always the eternal objection that without free will there can be no moral responsibility or reason to stop criminals, which is a very strange argument. If there was a runaway train about to crash and kill hundreds of people, would we argue that the train’s lack of free will precludes us from stopping it? Would we stand and argue whether the train was “responsible” for careening out of control, whether the cause was internal or external, whether the train was being selfish? No, such talk becomes absolute nonsense once we abandon free will.
A famous recent study demonstrated that people who were told that they did not have free will were most likely to cheat on an exam. This has led some free will fanatics to proclaim that morality is under threat. And yet the more obvious explanation is that someone who is not so invested in free will, will also be less invested in following the rules of the game. This of course is not an acceptable explanation.
Since I used to hold to a weak version of free will, I suppose I should argue against myself at least a little bit. Certainly the concept that there is no free will can be bewildering. For instance, how can one express a valid argument without consciously putting it together, and how can one know that it’s valid?
But there is somewhat of a misunderstanding in such a question. The argument is constructed and it can be examined and found valid. The work is just not done at a conscious level. All that we have access to, as conscious beings, is the end result of the construction. Our brain forces us to rationalize it as a conscious process in order to maintain the illusion that we are in control.
None of this really makes much of a difference. Free will is a delusion, but we can’t really understand what it means to not have free will. As far as we know, we are the creators of our own thoughts and choices, and there seems to be no way to dispel that illusion, or at least no practical way. So this realization can only inform us at an intellectual level. None of us will ever have the option of helping or stopping a Jasmine. Our fate will remain what it is. There is about as much point trying to fight this as there is trying to live on air or sunshine alone. We can see the strings connected to our limbs if we care to look, but we will never feel them.