Social Question

ETpro's avatar

How should society change if science shows that human free will is just an illusion?

Asked by ETpro (34581points) December 7th, 2013

If we have free will, and someone chooses to make a living by home invasion and robbery, brutally killing anyone unlucky enough to be home at the time rather than leaving potential witnesses behind, society feels both the need and the right to punish such a person. The punishment meted out assumes that they could have acted differently, and consciously chose to ignore their better judgement. We acknowledge that if someone has a mental disorder that renders them incapable of knowing right from wrong, they should be treated differently than a criminal with a normally functioning brain.

For individuals with normally functioning brains, all the major religions condemn home invasions, robbery and murder as highly immoral, sinful, and if left unredeemed, cause for further punishment after death or denial of life in the promised land of Heaven, Nirvana or whatever. But if we learn tomorrow that free will is nothing more than an extremely compelling illusion—if science establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that our brains are nothing more than complex, totally-deterministic computers controlled by the laws of physics and not us—how could man’s law or God’s law reasonably hold us accountable?

What would necessarily change about law, sociology, economics, criminology, morality and religion if we learned that there is no such thing as free will? What if we find that the environment one grows up in, itself shaped by deterministic forces, coupled with the laws of physics; cause out brains to think what they do and we are no more in control of the thought process than we have control of the release of digestive enzymes in our guts? What would stay the same, and what should we change?

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37 Answers

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Were science to write a new law of the universe, confirming determinism, then science must acknowledge that Kant’s Categorical Imperative was determined to become an idea long before Kant ever existed. Therefor, the idea is not really from Kant, but instead, it sprang from the universe.

Thus the universe is capable of manifesting ideas. Thus the universe is sentient.

I’m determined to not allow wacky science twist reality on its head by suggesting the brainless cosmos is capable of expressing ideas, while mindful humans are nothing more than meat machines.

KNOWITALL's avatar

Choice is a main tenet of theism so it could change everything.

thorninmud's avatar

Isn’t this question inherently contradictory? If it’s a foregone conclusion that people will behave in a determined way, and since society is a product of human behavior, then society will simply change as it has been determined that it will change. Any notion that we are deciding how that “should” be is illusory, too.

If, on the other hand, we consider there to be some truth to the notion that we make societal choices, then how is that different from our individual choices?

Jaxk's avatar

Even the Matrix is governed by rules. Some can be bent and some can be broken but if we’re in the matrix dreaming that we’re in a matrix what rules pertain?

elbanditoroso's avatar

If everything is pre-determined, then please tell me who or what is predetermining it.

Because if someone or something is controlling everyone and everything’s existence, they are doing a shitty job of it.

That’s my issue with the whole concept of “god controls all”. if that were true, then god would get a D+ because he/she is lousy on the details, and not much better on the big stuff. I would expect that if there were a god, then the quality of the organization and civilization would be much higher than it appears to be.

To directly answer your question: the premise is false, so the resulting thoughts are tainted as well.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Is science really capable, by adhering to the rules of science to arrive at such a conclusion? The nature of the evidence required seems out of the reach of empirical science. Human thought and belief are very error-prone when examined by science. Tricky business.

Is not society then a construct that is itself merely an illusory result of deterministic processes?

flutherother's avatar

Is free will anything other than the illusion of free will? Attempting to define it as something more concrete gets you into difficulties. We choose something because we want it and so the choice is narrowed down from the start because things we don’t want are already excluded.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^^ If everything is pre-determined, then please tell me who or what is predetermining it.
I would certainly like to hear how other Flutheronians would answer that one.

filmfann's avatar

We acknowledge that if someone has a mental disorder that renders them incapable of knowing right from wrong, they should be treated differently than a criminal with a normally functioning brain.

Except in Texas.

MadMadMax's avatar

It’s relative.

There is no black and white.

A slave has virtually no free will at all.

A free person’s amount of freedom will depends on how independent they are, and that often depends on how much money they have to decide their own futures.

MadMadMax's avatar

“Choice is a main tenet of theism”

Tell that to the women in Saudi Arabia.

KNOWITALL's avatar

,Admax It’s also true in Christianity. God gave Adam & Eve the choice remember.

MadMadMax's avatar

KNOWITAL No actually, I don’t remember what I didn’t see.

No offense but it’s a silly argument.

Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World

Members of the earth’s earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.

According to recently excavated clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, thousands of Sumerians—the first humans to establish systems of writing, agriculture, and government—were working on their sophisticated irrigation systems when the Father of All Creation reached down from the ether and blew the divine spirit of life into their thriving civilization.

“I do not understand,” reads an ancient line of pictographs depicting the sun, the moon, water, and a Sumerian who appears to be scratching his head. “A booming voice is saying, ‘Let there be light,’ but there is already light. It is saying, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass,’ but I am already standing on grass.”

“Everything is here already,” the pictograph continues. “We do not need more stars.”

Moreover, the Sumerians were taken aback by the creation of the same animals and herb-yielding seeds that they had been domesticating and cultivating for hundreds of generations.

“The Sumerian people must have found God’s making of heaven and earth in the middle of their well-established society to be more of an annoyance than anything else,” said Paul Helund, ancient history professor at Cornell University. “If what the pictographs indicate are true, His loud voice interrupted their ancient prayer rituals for an entire week.”,2879/

ETpro's avatar

First let me say that I’m an unrepentant compatibilists, and so I may not be the best spokesperson to argue determinism’s point of view. But fascinating though a free-will believer’s argument may be, if they miss the point of the hypothetical question or erect straw men to slay in the name of defeating determinism, I feel that I must defend the actual points determinism is making.

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies The argument seems to be a straw man for determinism’s actual claims. The bulk of neuroscientists today (Our own “Dr. Nikipedia“ included) are persuaded that the human thought process is entirely deterministic. But that doesn’t mean they claim the Emanuel Kant’s brilliant Categorical Imperative came into his head fully formed after flying around fully formed for 13.73 billion years, having been fully formed in the Big Bang. What they are saying is that Kant inherited certain genes that gave him far greater than average intelligence. He lived in an age when many philosophers were Utilitarians. Kant’s upbringing exposed him to philosophy and thought processes. None of those things were under his conscious control. They happened to him. Change any one even modestly, and he may never have issued his philosophical tour de force. The determinist would say that outside influences shaped Kant’s mind, and that even the thought to consider the Hypothetical Imperative came bubbling up from Kant’s brain. He didn’t make it arise, he responded to it when it impinged on his consciousness.

@KNOWITALL Indeed. If we truly have no free will, then no compassionate deity could condemn us for executing the program he wrote. There are many claims in the Bible that God knows everything that each of us will ever do before we ever do it. It’s fun to watch Christian apologists tie themselves in knots of contradiction trying to explain away how God can me omniscient and man can have free will, but the simple fact is they are incompatible. One or the other has to be false. Since the Bible states both are true, the Bible has to be wrong about one or the other. Of course, it’s possible it falsely states both.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

”...came into his head fully formed after flying around fully formed…”

”...outside influences shaped Kant’s mind…”

There in lies the rub. I don’t believe that ideas have form, or that minds have shape. This is what I believe the subject is truly about, that being materialism vs dualism. And unless the materialist is willing to entertain dualist ideals, then all discussion is waisted.

ETpro's avatar

@thorninmud I guess you are right if the determinists are right. We will collectively change society in whatever ways the forces driving us require that we do. But as a compatibilist, I felt quite at ease asking the question.

@Jaxk I am sorry, but The Architect forbids that I answer that question.

@elbanditoroso There is no inherent who in determinism. The initial conditions plus quantum indeterminacy guide, but not under any conscious control.

@Dr_Lawrence It’s actually not at this point, and that is why I have not let go of my compatibilism. We are now able to us MRI to watch simplistic decisions being made in the brain, and time how long before the individual is aware of the decision, and how long till they act. When asked to do very simplistic tasks, the MRI shows that the decision is made well before the person pushing the button knows they have decided. They “think” their free will was in control, but it was obviously not. Being a programmer, I would assign a simplistic task like pushing button A or B within 3 minutes to a very simplistic program. If I had the luxury of 100 trillion synapses (modern supercomputers have about 1% of that) I would probably already have a hardware routine designed specifically to randomly do something within a defined time limit, and I’d pass the routine to it. So it doesn’t surprise me that on simple operations like pushing button A or B, the brain decides before the subject knows it. I think strict determinist have some proving to do to show that this applies to complex thought. Certainly, deterministic influences play a role in what complex thought we can and can’t tackle, but that doesn’t rule out agency via free will. Work is underway to sort it out.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

fyi… my son has a degree in neurophysics having co-authored a number of peer review papers with top neuro scientists (with a specialty in inflammazomes). We talk about this stuff all the time. Not all neuro scientists believe in determinism.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Compatibilists are sometimes called “soft determinists” pejoratively (William James’s term). James accused them of creating a “quagmire of evasion” by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism.[6] Immanuel Kant called it a “wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery.”[7] Kant’s argument turns on the view that, while all empirical phenomena must result from determining causes, human thought introduces something seemingly not found elsewhere in nature – the ability to conceive of the world in terms of how it ought to be, or how it might otherwise be. For Kant, subjective reasoning is necessarily distinct to how the world is empirically. Because of its capacity to distinguish is from ought, reasoning can ‘spontaneously’ originate new events without being itself determined by what already exists.[8] It is on this basis that Kant argues against a version of compatibilism whereby, e.g., the actions of the criminal should be comprehended as a blend of determining forces and choice thereby misusing the word ‘free’. To take the compatibilist view, Kant proposes, is to deny the distinctly subjective capacity to re-think an intended course of action in terms of what ought to happen.[7] Ted Honderich explains his view that the mistake of Compatibilism is to assert that nothing changes as a consequence of determinism, when clearly we have lost the life-hope of origination.

KaY_Jelly's avatar

We already know everything is governed by rules.

Just thinking here…Anorexia and bulimia is highly controlled by an individual who has, what it seems to me, a secluded version of something they think is humiliating enough for them to desperately try to control their food intake and in turn, with or without really knowing, they also are controlling their digestive enzymes by forcing malnutrition.

Yes, anorexia and bulimia are actually symptoms of psychological issues like bipolar which has the signs and ironically the feelings of being “out of control” in everyday emotional life. Could this make people want to be “in control” in this manner? which to the average person they may see that coping mechanism as abnormal or a death sentence, but to the anorexic or bulimic they actually see themselves as very scheduled an very in control.

But now forgive me if I fail to see that psychological issues like bipolar are hardly even close to the mentioned “committing homicide” or “home invasion”, so mental illness must have categories, although people who have been plagued with bipolar mental illness have done horrible things.

But then do we have to talk about the sane people with extremely high IQ’s who commit heinous acts?
And then it becomes obvious that this is prevalent in our society and it could be the reason why we need the justice system so that we can actually at least try to make some sense of it and get some justice for victims because it is true that not everyone is going to and even sometimes can possibly due to illness follow all of the rules, so we have to do something to keep order.

I am no professor but this is my version of a Religion and history lesson if you are interested. :)
Even if we go back to the time of Jesus we see that He was put to death by Pilate the Roman procurator of Judea for being the “King of Jews”, and if you don’t believe that well it is actually a part of history because Pilate was referred to in other sources of the time and even mentioned in an inscription found at the site of ancient Caesarea in Israel linking Jesus’s death with Pilate and according to those who have seen the inscription it asserts that Jesus didn’t simply die but He was killed. So when you think of it He must of been doing something pretty serious for Pontius to warrant the death penalty especially the way he killed Jesus and Jesus must of actually had the people believing in Him, even back then.

In my opinion Jesus was wrongfully executed and there was obviously some sort of hearing for that, we do that today and like back then we still aren’t perfect now. Jesus’s story is not just about Him being killed for our sins but it is also about the way Jesus was killed.

Those with proper Roman citizenship (which my guess is Jesus wouldn’t of had since he was supposedly born to a virgin that is just a wild guess I really do not know.) were supposed to be immune from crucifixion but they could be executed by other means, crucifixion was not only supposed to be frightening and painful but the most shameful of deaths and it was reserved for those who were perceived as raising their hand against Roman rule or those who in some other way seemed to challenge the social order….Hmmmm, I wonder what Jesus could of done to deserve that?

Anyway, my own personal idea is that we must all be here for a reason and we are all here to suffer. I think we have to be here for some reason, otherwise it makes no sense to me, yet we are driven with these feelings of the idea of immortality and that we want to live on forever and even some scientific evidence that spirits may actually exist and we are curious about death and even driven by the fear of death, all of these things we feel are strange emotions for creatures who could possibly disappear into nothing after all of this magical beauty we see happening around us.

If choice were an illusion what would the magic of it be?

Where would it be in the starfish? Or in the seahorses? Or in the daylight or the darkness? Or in daylight savings or in the beautiful Big Ben clock? We know right now that it all exists in a manner that is governed by rules, regardless of it being an illusion or not one has to wonder who built the “illusion”. I know for certain who built the clock but the grand ole question that eludes all time is there a who that actually created all time since we do know there are rules to everything and Big Ben just didn’t build itself.

I can see magic everywhere. I can also see that magic is all governed by rules and it’s very real, at the end of it all for me, personally, it’s about how do I follow the rules and what are they. I’ve come to find out through searching and what I believe logically makes the most sense for myself so I have made that choice but ironically according to the choice I’ve made from what I know of Christianity, which is the choice I choose to follow, God wants us to choose Him, so He has given us the tools but then He sets up road blocks and various strategies for us to hit or run into to see how we will cope and to see if we will call upon Him and if we are faithful to Him which in turn He can then deem us acceptable or not into His Kingdom of Heaven. This all leads right back to Jesus who I believe was God in human form being murdered for our sins.

“1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.”:

Quotes like these get me every time:
“A euthanasia establishment, equipped with a suitable gas, would allow the humanitarian and economic disposal of those who have killed, committed armed robbery, kidnapped children, robbed the poor or seriously betrayed public confidence,” Carrel wrote in L’Homme, cet Inconnu. “Would the same system not be appropriate for lunatics who have committed criminal acts?”

But then later in life experienced a healing of Marie Bailly, “Alexis Carrel refused to discount a supernatural explanation and steadfastly reiterated his beliefs, even writing a book describing his experience,[23] though it was not published until four years after his death. This was a detriment to his career and reputation among his fellow doctors..” the power of prayer!

Prayer is the force as real as terrestrial gravity. As a physician, I have seen men, after all other therapy had failed, lifted out of disease and melancholy by the serene effort of prayer. Only in prayer do we achieve that complete and harmonious assembly of body, mind and spirit which gives the frail human reed its unshakable strength.

~Dr. Alexis Carrel

whitenoise's avatar

To me the interesting seemingly paradoxical element is that without a certain level of determinism, Free Will cannot exist even though determinism seems to suggest there is no true free will.

If the now is a direct consequence of how things were just before now and if what happens next is a direct consequence of how things are now, then all must be predetermined. After all, all our ‘now’, is a direct consequence of our past and thus so will be our future. This view leaves little room for free will. Our current and future will would, after all, just be a consequence of how things used to be.

Without Determinism
Without that link between now,the past and the future, though, there is no free will either. If our ‘free’ will isn’t the consequence of our past thought processes, then how could it even be possible to have a will? That will would be the consequence of what, exactly?

Quantum, randomness and likeliness
I am grateful that our world has something called randomness and quantum mechanics that lean into that concept. That allows us still to think of our future as a direct consequence of the current, but not in a set kind of way but in likeliness. On a quantum level there is predictability, but no certainty of the current, nor the future state of things. The result is that there still is a link between our past, the current and the future, but that the future isn’t set…

Now for all intents and purposes, we may find that our thought processes offer far less of a free will then we imagine ourselves to have. We may end up finding out that we are far more driven by circumstance, genetics and hormones and rather more rationalizing than truly rational. Even if that were true… I feel that notion would offer us little guidance to go with. We might as well go with the illusion and act as if our will is truly our own and truly free.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

There would be little if any change as the consequences of one’s actions might be an illusion yet just as real from our everyday perspective.

ninjacolin's avatar

I’ll follow @KaY_Jelly‘s lead and say a bunch of stuff and would love to discuss whatever catches your interest. For starters:

@ETpro & @thorninmud“if the determinists are right. We will collectively change society in whatever ways the forces driving us require that we do.”

Absolutely. In the determined universe, those forces have already forced you to ask this question. (As evidenced by the existence of the fluther question) In turn, our brains can’t help but begin to imagine the implications of cause and effect and how we might utilize them, as we would any tool, to create something nearer to utopia.

I find it hard to say what improvement society as a whole might gain. I think society generally tries pretty hard to function in fairly goal oriented, deterministic ways. Instead, I see value for individuals, which might translate up to the whole of society. Mostly, I expect it to make us more effective and efficient in our use of blame where we don’t try to torture people who do “bad’ things but rather focus on rehabilitating them and informing them of alternative behavior options that might bring about more desirable results. For example, I don’t think prison should be so far removed from university.

Actually, @ETpro shared a Daniel Dennett video with me some time ago and I’ve been writing a reply that I have never sent him. I may as well share some of it here. You may want to watch it first. Anyway, starting around 8:30 in the video, he argues that retributivism (ie. Retribution) is somehow the ideal over consequentialism. I find that horribly untrue as long as you consider all actions a consequence in themselves, that is, as long as you are thorough. For example, there’s nothing wrong with brain washing, really. Assuming brain washing is somehow inherently amoral is I think a classic libertarian appeal to consequence. It’s assumed that indoctrination is a violation of freedom! But that’s their only objection and it’s hinged on the concept of free will. It looks something ghastly like this:

Everyone has a right to free will.
Indoctrination reduces an individual’s access to free will
Therefore indoctrination is a violation of human rights.

(I’m sure if this argument were made any more studiously it would only serve to further highlight its faults)

The whole problem being that there is no free will to defend in the first place (as Dennett agrees in the question period at the end of the video) and so there is nothing to gain by discouraging a pursuit of something we could lovingly refer to as “kosher indoctrination.” You may as well consider CBT a violation of free will and amoral or any institutional learning really.

This world needs more innovators. I think if more people realized that causes have effects, they might try to cause more desirable effects in our world. Instead, people tend to assume that the world is full of bad people and that’s why things are the way they are and nothing can ever change. People tend to believe that evil people commit their acts because they freely choose to and they neglect the fact that they only do what they do because they DO NOT see any other way as being plausible.

To some extent, I do think Christian proselytizers had the right idea, despite having atrocious and undesirable methods. The world needs to give up on giving up on people’s potential; It’s defeatist and as the philosophic deterministic proofs tend to show, it’s also wrong.

SecondHandStoke's avatar


Everything that has happened as well as everything that will happen already exists.

And it all will until the demise of our universe causes the material of time to fully degrade.


Adam and Eve are metaphor for the first humans with brains complex enough to fully comprehend that actions have morally significant consequences.

ETpro's avatar

The thought to ask this question arose as I began reading Sam Harris’s book, Free Will. I just finished it today, and posted the following review on Goodreads.

Free Will by Sam Harris

Sam Harris’ book, Free Will is a tiny tour-de-force of logic. I still want to be a compatibilist, but how can I? Harris has proven to me that even that desire arises into my consciousness unbidden from the hidden recesses of my brain. I am not down in there programming synapses to make it arise, I’m what becomes aware it has arisen. I could write much more about this book, but since Sam Harris kept his narrative short, I will follow his lead. Why should I do that? Because the thought to do so arose unbidden from my mind. I could ask for other thoughts to arise, and they would. But they would still be controlling me, and not the other way around.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

DWW25921's avatar

If free will wasn’t a reality but just an illusion, would it matter for those who believe it? I don’t think people would change. Personally, I couldn’t care less what science comes up with at this point. I really don’t think anything would change at all. All it would do is amend an official description of something and we all would be exactly the same for it.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

ET, this (your conclusion) sounds very similar to my old thought/spirit mind/soul rap.

Many thoughts create a mind. Many spirits create a soul. They are identical phenomenon but with different names from different disciplines.

You seem to conclude that your thoughts control you. I cannot disagree with that, but say it in a different way. It’s not so much that thoughts control your mind, but rather that thoughts create and change your mind. And I’d like to think that your mind decides which thoughts will be pursued, and to what degree.

Does Mr. Harris discuss non-locality at all? Or is he convinced, as you relate, that thoughts /desires arise “from the hidden recesses of brain”?

Sounds like an interesting read.

Response moderated
ninjacolin's avatar

Wow, @ETpro are you saying what I think you’re saying? If so, I’ll have the determinist overlords send you a bonus winning lottery ticket. Cause that’s usually what happens when you settle in to the determinist camp. :D hahaha, hopefully it doesn’t get lost in the mail like mine did. Well, I hope that’s what you’re saying, anyway. It would make me feel more sane to know that we agree on something like this. I like your above synopsis of Harris’ argument. The word “unbidden” is throwing me for a loop though. I think I get it but I’m still just hoping that I do.

I wanted to clarify a point from my post above. I said: ” Instead, people tend to assume that the world is full of bad people and that’s why things are the way they are and nothing can ever change” To be clear: I’m suggesting that the belief in free will deceives people into thinking that others make bad choices on purpose, for irrational reasons. Make sense? I’m saying “free will” is a fallacy that confounds people’s conclusions about motivations and hence about what to do with people who don’t behave the way you would expect them to. For example, @ETpro it’s the reason why I don’t accept that creationists are simply liars. I feel certain that, like me, they would admit to evolution if ever it really made perfect sense to them and I don’t fault them for not getting to that point “by now” or whenever would be convenient for me. Similarly, if I’m wrong about my religious views, I would hope no one holds it against me for not getting it by now. If there were such a thing as free will, however, i could easily assume that so-and-so is freely choosing to disagree with me about some debate despite being otherwise convinced.

ETpro's avatar

@DWW25921 That’s the OP. You answer me. Not the other way around. :-)

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies It’s a very interesting read. Sam Harris is a PhD in neuroscience so the doesn’t get into too much quantum physics, though he does touch on it. My own thoughts are that we have an enormous amount left to learn about non locality, and that learning process could well turn everything we think we know on its head. But to address your more mundane assertion, yes, thoughts come in, and other thoughts about them can modify them. But do not those other thoughts arise in just as mysterious a way?

@ninjacolin Yes, I’m saying exactly what you think I’m saying. You win.

My criticism of creationists does not extend to those who clearly believe. My concern is with the brighter, better educated that know they are spouting BS and know how to effectively do that to make a great living. I call that lying, or being a con man.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

” not those other thoughts arise in just as mysterious a way?”

Technically speaking, yes.

Linguistically, no.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I wanted to clarify a point from my post above. I said: ” Instead, people tend to assume that the world is full of bad people and that’s why things are the way they are and nothing can ever change” To be clear: I’m suggesting that the belief in free will deceives people into thinking that others make bad choices on purpose, for irrational reasons.
I think people make poor to lousy choices for selfish reasons; it is inbred and innate, people are born that way. You do not have to teach a 2 year old how to steal a cookie from the cookie jar and lia about it, or how to be stingy with toys and hit other children, you do have to teach them not to do those things.

I feel certain that, like me, they would admit to evolution if ever it really made perfect sense to them and I don’t fault them for not getting to that point “by now” or whenever would be convenient for me.
I believe there was a period we call evolution but how it materialized was far different than what is thought. Seeing the whole existence of mankind and how we needed plastics and fossil fuels, the dinosaurs were part of the design to fill a purpose. As a whole that area of dinosaurs is unimportant to saving my soul so I need not worry too much about how everything fit together.

ETpro's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies I don’t follow. Is it worth getting into?

SecondHandStoke's avatar

^^Funny isn’t it.

Young Earth Fundamentalists driving to church on fuel created far, far longer than 6,000 years ago.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^ That would be funny. I would have to sit that “milk Christian” down and point out some things in the Bible to him/her ;-P

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