Free will and social order

While it seems obvious that you do what you want, some neuroscientists doubt that. Free will is an illusion, they say. Nothing you do is a matter choice but chemical reactions. Just as your computer responds to clicks of the mouse, you are only reading this because biological stimuli. Triggers beyond your control made you read this. We are pushed around by chemical reactions –simply automatons.


I have trouble with that idea. While brain science is advancing at a spectacular rate, where is the state of consciousness or the capital of the mind? It stretches credulity to maintain that I didn’t choose to write these words, this column, on this day. The notion that I am nothing but a “meat machine” is ludicrous.

But let’s set all that aside for now. Instead, let’s look at how the belief in free will affects the way we function in society. After all, the belief in free will doesn’t depend on its existence.

Doubt in the existence of free will could be dangerous, say behaviourists. Researchers at the University of California found that students who thought they were not responsible for their actions (that free will doesn’t exist) cheated on exams 50 per cent more than those who believed in free will.

Others at Florida State University found that doubt in free will released an urge to harm others. In an experiment, free will doubters were ready to punish obnoxious members of their group more than free will thinkers were. The obnoxious members were actually researchers and they only appeared to be harmed by the test subjects.

Some neuroscientists have found that ethical behaviour is eroded by the perception of no will power, report Professors Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs in Scientific American. They discovered this by looking at a particular brain pattern that occurs before you make any motion, such as reaching for a cup. Subjects who didn’t believe in free will had fewer such brain patterns and were less able to inhibit impulsive reactions.

If people are not responsible for their actions, social cohesion is threatened. If I recklessly run over someone in my car, I can claim that that it is not my fault any more than the car’s. We are simply both machines responding to inputs.

Studies of group dynamics reveal that the assumption of free will is vital to order. Society depends on consequences for bad behaviour. The professors conclude:

“Why? Because these experiments confirmed what human societies have found over and over again throughout history: when laws are not established and enforced, people have little motivation to work together for the greater good. Instead they put themselves above everyone else and shirk all responsibility, lying, cheating and stealing their way to societal collapse.”

Free will may have no basis in science but belief in it does. Current societies are not equipped to deal with citizens who are not responsible for their actions. Perhaps future enlightened societies will function without the threat of consequences but for now we need members who believe in free will.


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