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I Will Choose Free Will
Do we become meaner people without free will?
I recall there being debate on now Senator JD Vance's motivations when he switched from being a Trump skeptic to supporting MAGA. One of the responses was that he had always held that belief and had never changed it.
I’ve heard this again and again about people who might have been a good politician that somehow changed. They didn’t change, some will assume. This is the way they have always been.
Such a viewpoint is unsettling since it essentially disproves the notion of free will and the ability of individuals to make decisions.
The writer and philosopher Luke Burgis is never an easy read. He seems to operate about two or three levels above my intellect. That said his latest essay on the loss of free will in modern society is a worthwhile read because he is able to encapsulate what I’ve been seeing in the wider culture: that belief that people have free will, the freedom to make choices, even the freedom to make mistakes. That will lead our society down some dangerous roads, according to Burgis. In the following quote he talks about how this can remove any sense of moral responsibility, referencing the great 2002 movie Minority Report:
There is an ethical implication to agnosticism on this issue because it calls into question the degree of one’s moral responsibility of any action. If there’s no free will, every solution must be a top-down one. If people aren’t free to choose, then “people don’t change”—they can’t change. It’s fair to write them off forever or make irrevocable choices in relation to them. A society that loses its belief in freedom loses the ability to believe in conversion. It loses hope. It’s not a huge step before we have real-life pre-crime units.
Moral responsibility is non-existent and our criminal justice collapses. A person can justify any action because they were “born this way.”
The denial of free will is probably behind the view that if you’re born with a certain color of skin you have blind spots that you are incapable of seeing or escaping from unless you submit to programmatic training by the people who accuse you. You’re not free to know the truth because of your racial identity. Your ignorance is determined. At the very least, it must be assumed.
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You see this very much in how we have come to view race in recent years. The move to get rid of testing at some schools might be on the surface in an effort to bring some equity in education, but it can also be seen as seeing African American kids as incapable of being able to pass the SAT or an entrance exam because of our background and history. It’s also used when it comes to whites in that they are no longer viewed as able to change and grow when it comes to race. Whites no longer have a choice in being non racist, but will always been the oppressor. In both instances neither black nor white has agency. We are simply a product of our past.
A 2016 article in the Atlantic argued that there probably isn’t such a thing as free will, but also said it is dangerous to let go of this illusion. Philosopher Stephen Cave shared a story of two psychologists who in 2002 decided to try out a test: what would happen if one didn’t believe in free will? The results?
When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that “people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.”
It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts.
Another study shows how humanity becomes rather dark when we no longer think we have a choice in our lives:
Another pioneer of research into the psychology of free will, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, has extended these findings. For example, he and colleagues found that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a classmate than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, those primed to hold a deterministic view by reading statements like “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion” were less likely to give money to a homeless person or lend someone a cellphone.
Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that “all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,” those subjects came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Early this year, other researchers published a study showing that a weaker belief in free will correlates with poor academic performance.
The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.
It’s ironic that the cover story for this 2016 edition of the Atlantic focused on “The Mind of Donald Trump.” As I read these descriptions, about what happens when we don’t believe in free will, I felt like I was reading something describing our 45th president. The last 8 years have shown us a man that is ruled by his baser instincts. He is deterministic in his outlook. People, including himself, are not capable of change or improvement. The past determines the future. If there is no free will, there is no consequence for our actions. If there is no free will, there is no thinking about legacy or history because you are who you are and nothing will change that. If there is no free will, you don’t “become president” or grow into the job, because who you are now is who you will always be. Without free will, there is no incentive to be better because you already believe you are the best.
But Donald Trump isn’t as much the cause, but the symptom of something wrong in our world. A world of determinism is a world where there is very little civility and respect for differences. Go on social media and you can see how much it is ruled by a herd mentality. There is very little room for nuance or persuasion. A recent argument on Twitter focused on Harlan Crow, the subject of a Pro Publica investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas receiving trips from Mr. Crow. The debate has moved to the fact that Mr, Crow has a collection of Nazi memorabilia which has led to the charge that Crow is a Nazi sympathizer. People who know Mr. Crow rise to his defense offering a far more nuanced story and sharing that the man is not a sympathizer of the Nazis, but Twitter has piled on. The whole thing was based on people’s priors: they have a view of conservatives as racist, and they don’t think conservatives can’t not be racist, so Mr. Crow has to be a lover of one of the most barbaric regimes known to humanity.
No one wants to give Mr. Crow the benefit of the doubt. Social media in its current configuration made it easy for us to not allow for a deeper explanation, but to go for what we feel. Instead of seeing Crow as a man that made choices or as a man that is more than a label, we cling ever more deeply to that label, deeming him just another hateful conservative that won’t ever change.
On the other side, the recent expulsion of two African American Democrats from the Tennesee legislature for pulling a protest on the House floor is something that probably wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. Maybe there would have been a slap on the wrist, but that might have been the extent. Not that long ago, going after the original three and expelling just the two black lawmakers while not expelling the white female lawmaker would have caused Tennesee Republicans to quickly backtrack or even not contemplate it at all because they didn’t want to appear racist. But now? It doesn’t matter. Now, no one cares if it looks racist because no one believes there are any consequences from the action. If there is no free will, why worry about reputation?
Burgis ends his essay by saying that without free will there is no love. I’m pretty sure he isn’t referring to romantic love, but to love in a social sense: respecting others, seeing someone as having God-given value, caring for those less fortunate and so on.
If we become a society that gives up on free will and if these studies show that when free will is in doubt, then we can expect a society where there is less care for others. It will be a society without a heart.
Did J.D. Vance change? Was he swayed by darker forces to give up walking the straight and narrow? I’d like to believe so. I’d like to believe he was someone that was tempted and became corrupt rather than someone that was always corrupt. I have to believe this because I want Vance to be responsible for his actions. I want to believe this because I want to believe there is still some belief that we are responsible for our actions. I want to believe this because I want to know there is still some love left in our world.