The Dangerous Doctrine of Free Will

Why does a gunman shoot?

Posted Feb 15, 2018

A man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch and an optimistic believer in the will's freedom after it. ~ Aldous Huxley

On February 14, 2018, a certain Nikolas Cruz triggered the fire alarm at a school in Parkland, Florida, and then shot and killed 17 students as they tried to leave the building. Another day in the United States on America! For me, this one hit close to home because my niece and my nephew were among the surviving students. They had to run for their lives. Now, families are devastated, survivors are traumatized, prayers are said, politics are done, more arms are sold, and then we wait for the next shock to do it all over again. Is this what Nietzsche meant by the law of eternal recurrence?

Psychological science has much to say about the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of the perpetrators, the victims, the politicians, the pundits on TV, and the rest of us. This is because psychological and other behavioral sciences study the causal networks of the natural and the cultural world. What they find is complex and attention spans are short (another finding). People love their shortcuts—brief, off-the-shelf statements that sound like explanations but aren’t. Of these, the doctrine of free will is the most pernicious (and most readily encountered in the self-satisfied person; see epigraph). It has become a cliché to say that virtually all humans believe in free will, indeed that they can’t help but believe in free will, which is in odd contraposition to the doctrine itself. People feel that they have a choice in many behavioral matters, and after they did one thing, they often remain convinced they could have done the other. They find it even easier to assert that others could have acted differently, especially when what they did do was destructive or despicable. It is rarer to claim that a person who did good could have freely chosen to do bad. Interestingly, and in direct opposition to the doctrine of free will, many rescuers and lifesavers maintain that they did not have a subjective experience of choice—that instead they simply did what needed to be done. In contrast, evildoers are strangled with the doctrine of free will. Why did they choose evil? They didn't have to! 

The clinging to the doctrine of free will justifies and rationalizes punishment. If it can be said that the evildoer freely chooses evil, without being coerced or conditioned, then the evil choice is truly his, and we can (freely) proceed to wreak vengeance. Few ask what free will means. Think about the implications of the hard libertarian view that free will is an uncaused cause. It cuts off the causal chains of nature and culture and has the person start fresh. He can choose between evil and good. Liberated from the shackles of prior causes and not being subject to chance, he makes a free choice. Because we cut off the past so that we can assure pure freedom, we cannot ask “he makes a choice based on what?” If we did, we’d be looking to the past, and that is where the causes live. All we can say is that it is he who is making the choice, but we must grant that this is incomprehensible. The presumably free choice does not allow us to infer anything about the person’s character, psychology, identity, or attitudes, for that would lead us down the path of explaining his behavior in causally determined terms. The doctrine of free will asks us to believe in a free floating cause of a behavioral act, a cause without history, and more importantly, without a future. If the person chooses evil again and again, a causal pattern emerges and the individual acts can no longer be said to be free.

This is why it is extremely odd that the doctrine of free will is invoked to justify punishment. Why would we punish a person who acted once in a manner that could neither be predicted nor be used to predict his future behavior? Strangely, many of the same people who cleave to the doctrine of free will, will also claim that evildoers are evil people, that is, that they are bad in their essence and character. Hard as it is to admit this, but the idea that there are constitutionally bad people is more readily reconciled with science than the idea that there are people who at time T freely chose act A, and that there is nothing else to be said about it.

Granted, I have described—and ridiculed—the most radical version of the doctrine of free will. I reckon if you want to be a libertarian, don’t be half-baked about it. Attempts to describe free will as a faculty that sneaks in here and there and now and then whenever it finds a bit of wiggle room raises more questions than it answers. The wiggle-room variant of free will is a theory of subtraction and such theories are negative. They do not tell us what free will is; instead they assert that there must be something in the space that we cannot explain yet with the workings of necessity and chance. And what that third thing might be, they cannot say—only that they love it very much.

Could the Florida gunman have chosen not to go on a rampage? Many will think that they answer is “of course!” partly because we ourselves cannot imagine that we would go out and aim a gun at children. But this is worse than saying “we do not know.” The doctrine of free will is as paralytic as it is false. If you truly believe it, how do you get up in the morning to face your fellow humans? And, more poignantly, how do you explain your own actions to yourself? How can you do this if you are not allowed to refer to your desires and moral convictions, all of which were bred in your personal past and which make you who you are?

From all this, I conclude in the plainest of language that Mr. Cruz is bad and that guns are bad.

Note: As comments by gun enthusiasts are beginning to trickle in, let me say this: The ancient Greeks—may god sanctify their bones—introduced the rack as an instrument of torture. During the middle ages, we saw much use of it. Today, we abhor the rack as a relic of a darker time. The rack was designed to inflict pain and kill. Ditto guns. You cannot caress a person or animal with a bullet. The goal is to disable or kill. Once we agree that disabling and killing is as bad as torturing, we will realize that the gun is as bad as the rack. The reply, of course, is that you can use a gun to defend against other guns, whereas you can't use a rack against other racks. But if we get rid of guns as we got rid of racks, there won't be any need for guns as a defense against guns.

The Onion. This satirical treatment of the presumed intractability of mass shootings is remarkably close to my analysis of the implications of the free will doctrine. Since you can't predict it, there's nothing you can do—and therefore no action you need to take. How convenient.

LMSW. I ran into a psychotherapist the other night. She felt we have free will, which I assured her we do not. 'What drives behavior then?' She asked. 'The Id?' So I said, 'Well yes, among other things.' And by the way, if you believe in free will, why don't you just tell your clients to get a grip and 'do the right thing?'