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Free Will Is an Illusion, so What?

What are the implications?

Interested in these topics? Go here.

Like dominos, thoughts and actions are shaped by forces outside our control.
Think of someone that you dislike. Let’s call this person X. Now, imagine that you were born with X’s “genetic material.” That is, imagine that you had X’s looks, body odor, inherent tastes, intelligence, aptitudes, etc. Imagine, further, that you had X’s upbringing and life-experiences as well; so, imagine that you had X’s parents growing up, and that you grew up in the same country, city, and neighborhood in which X grew up, etc.

Would behave any differently from how X behaves?

Most people realize, perhaps after a moment of startled pause, that the answer to the question is “No.”

The question helps people realize that their thoughts and actions are determined entirely by their genetic and social conditioning. In other words, it helps people intuitively grasp the idea that free will is an illusion.

Over the past few decades, gathering evidence from both psychology and the neurosciences has provided convincing support for the idea that free will is an illusion. (Read this and this, but for a contrarian view, also read this.) Of course, most people can’t relate to the idea that free will is an illusion, and there’s a good reason why. It feels as if we exercise free will all the time. For instance, it seems that you are exercising free will in choosing to read this article. Similarly, it seems that you exercise free will when you deny yourself the pleasure of eating tasty-but-unhealthy food, or when you overcome laziness to work out at the gym.

But these choices do not necessarily reflect free will. To understand why, consider why you sometimes deny yourself an unhealthy-but-tasty snack. It’s because you were, at some point in your life, made to recognize the long-term negative effects of eating such food. Perhaps you noticed that consuming unhealthy food makes you feel heavy, or that regularly consuming such food makes your blood pressure shoot up. Or perhaps your doctor told you that you need to stop eating unhealthy food; or maybe you read about the negative effects of consuming unhealthy food in a magazine. In other words, you deny yourself the pleasure of consuming unhealthy food because of exposure to external inputs—feedback from your body or from others—over which you had no control. Had you been exposed to a different set of inputs—e.g., despite consuming unhealthy food, your health did not suffer, or your doctor never dissuaded you from eating unhealthy food—you wouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of eating tasty-but-unhealthy food.

If you think carefully about any decision you have made in the past, you will recognize that all of them were ultimately based on similar—genetic or social—inputs to which you had been exposed. And you will also discover that you had no control over these inputs, which means that you had no free will in taking the decisions you did. For instance, you had no choice in where, to whom, and in what period of time, you were born. You also had no choice in the kind of neighbors and friends to whom you were exposed during early childhood. You therefore had no choice in how you made your decisions during that time.

It might seem, at first blush, that many of the decisions you made later—during late childhood or adolescence—were based on free will, but that is not the case. The decisions you made during late childhood and adolescence were based on the tastes, opinions, and attitudes you had developed in your early childhood, and on those to which you were exposed through your family, friends, media, or the natural environment. And so on, which means that the decision you now make are based on the tastes, opinions and attitudes you have developed over the years or on those to which you are now exposed through contact with the external environment. Looked at in this light, belief in free will is itself a consequence of genetic and social inputs: without the development of the neocortex and without exposure to the idea of free will from societal inputs, we wouldn't believe in free will.

Thus, although it might seem like you exercise free will in overcoming temptations or in overriding self-centered interests, this is not the case. Free will is equally uninvolved when you give into temptations and when you curb them.

If free will is an illusion, what are the implications? How should we think or behave differently?

There are two incorrect and two correct conclusions to which most people arrive when they are introduced to the idea that free will is an illusion. The first incorrect conclusion to which many people arrive is the following: “if free will is an illusion, it is OK for me to give into my impulses and temptations.” Several studies have shown that when people are told that free will is an illusion, they are more likely to cheat and less likely to work hard. It is easy to understand why people have this reaction to the idea that free will is an illusion: if giving into temptations is no more or no less an act of free will than is curbing them, why struggle to overcome the temptations? 

This way of thinking, however, is incorrect because, although curbing temptations doesn’t involve the free will, the consequences from curbing temptations are very different from those that arise from giving into them. Thus, whether or not you act of out of free will in denying yourself the unhealthy-but-tasty cake, you will still have to face the health consequences of eating unhealthy meals. Likewise, whether or not you acted out of free will in committing a crime, you will still have to face the consequences of your misdeeds. So, from a purely consequentialist perspective, it makes sense to sometimes curb your temptations.

The second incorrect conclusion to which people arrive is related to the first: “if free will is an illusion, there is no use in punishing wrong-doers.” Again, it is easy to see why people think this way. If others did not have a choice in how they behaved, how can they be held culpable? However, although wrong-doers did not have a choice in how they behaved, their behavior still has real and important consequences for the others around them. And more importantly, we know that one of the ways of changing people’s behaviors is by exposing them to a set of external inputs—including punishments—that steer them in a different direction.

Punishments can be like signposts in a maze that help redirect people toward desirable behaviors
Thus, it makes sense to mete out punishments to wrong-doers, so as to dissuade them from committing similar types of misdeeds in the future. 

This brings me to the first of the two correct conclusions to which people should—but rarely do—arrive after realizing that free will is an illusion.

This conclusion concerns how we treat others for their misdeeds. Although, for reasons explained above, it is important to punish wrong-doers, those who realize that free will is an illusion should mete out the punishments with compassion. Understanding that free will is an illusion means recognizing that people behave in the only way they know how. As such, it is important to realize that, when people act in harmful ways, it is because they are ignorant of the forces that actually shape their thoughts and behaviors.

There are two main reasons why one should be compassionate even towards those who commit misdeeds, such as hurting others. First, those who commit misdeeds are also hurting themselves. As results from research on emotions show, selfish or hurtful acts generally stem from emotional negativity. In other words, it is those feeling angry, insecure, and stressed—and not those feeling happy, secure and relaxed—who are likely to behave badly. And second, those who behave badly are setting themselves up for negative outcomes in the future. In other words, because those who commit misdeeds are currently suffering from emotional negativity or will suffer from negative outcomes in the future, one should be compassionate towards them. 

The second implication centers on the attributions that one should make for one’s successes and failures. As is well known, people generally tend to take credit for their successes, and tend to blame others or the circumstances for their failures. 

Those who recognize that free will is an illusion will realize that their successes and failures have much more to do with “luck”—the set of genetic and social inputs to which they have been randomly exposed—than with their “self developed” talents and consciously-made choices. Crediting luck for one’s successes leads one to experience an entirely different set of emotions—gratitude, elevation, love, etc.—than does taking personal credit for them. Likewise, recognizing the role of the inputs that led to failures promotes learning and wisdom. By contrast, blaming others for failures leads to the experience of anger, and the sense of entitlement that, as I discussed in an earlier article, leads to negative consequences and divisiveness.

So, overall, contrary to what one may initially think, realizing that free will is an illusion should lead to greater maturity, compassion, and emotional stability. Hopefully, the ideas in this article serve as the external inputs that steer you in this positive direction. 

Interested in these topics? Go here.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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