Social Question

hominid's avatar

Would there be any negative impacts of taking down the concept of free will?

Asked by hominid (7357points) April 29th, 2015

It appears that most people already have some real sense that much of our beliefs, desires, and urges are not something that we chose. Take, for example, how many we view the concept of sexuality. We flat out reject conservative notions that homosexuality is a choice. And in many ways we do the same thing regarding much of our behavior and desires. But what if we were to ask people to consider all of these things together and at the same time?

What if we were to ask people when they chose their parents, the way they were parented, their genes, the country they were born, the time period, their height, their physical strengths and weaknesses, their illnesses, their likes and dislikes, who they were attracted to and not attracted to, what made them angry or happy or sad, etc?

Would this help us in the way that asking when we chose to be straight does? Could it help us be more empathetic? Would it help us re-evaluate the concepts of pride and blame?

And to bring it back to the original question – what could be the possible negatives? Would there be any?

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26 Answers

janbb's avatar

If there were no concept of free will, I don’t see how anyone could be prosecuted or incarcerated for performing “criminal” acts.

hominid's avatar

@janbb: “If there were no concept of free will, I don’t see how anyone could be prosecuted or incarcerated for performing “criminal” acts.”

The same way we do it now – except that we could dismiss with the notion of retribution. Instead we could focus on putting away dangerous people and finding ways of deterring crime.

ucme's avatar

This question is all over the place, like someone is acutely aware of their own intellect but wields it in such a cumbersome manner that renders it blunted & ultimately irrelevant.

Bill1939's avatar

I do not believe that at the instant one acts they have free will. All physical actions are products of instinct and experience that arise reflexively from the unconscious. Free will can only occur within one’s consciousness as thought. One can alter future responses by reflecting on previous behaviors, recognizing their origin, understanding the conditions that elicit them and envisioning desired behaviors. Though criminal behavior arises from unconscious impulses, an individual is legally responsible for their actions unless psychosis has rendered them unable to experience reality rationally.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

When people don’t believe they are responsible for their actions….they will cease being responsible. No free will needed for that to even happen.

kevbo's avatar

In my current practice, which is a strain of Hinduism, free will is an illusion and everything* is predetermined. the choice on gets is either to “subscribe to” or “disbelieve” the illusion in favor of realizing one’s true nature, which is “spiritual” and blissfully harmonious and eternal. (This is a simple description of how it works.)

The benefit of taking down free will is that it also takes down suffering. There’s no need for angst or agony over what to do or be, because a) the flow of life’s experiences are just served up of their own accord and b) they are illusory. Life is a movie played before a blissful observer. Jump into the movie and experience joy and pain. Step out of the movie and stay with bliss. Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

There is a caveat that saying this to certain people will give them a license to run amok. I’d say that is also predetermined, so not too worth worrying about.

There’s a quote I like that “we are all hell bound for heaven,” meaning over many lifetimes we evolve as a spirit body.

How does this affect how one regards other people? Now the being before me isn’t just a gay person or whatever. It’s a spirit body or a manifestation of consciousness that is playing out a series of experiences and evolving spiritually. Nothing manifested is an accident or mistake. The kaleidoscope of experience is illuminated by the same light.

So none of that is going to make sense if you limit your understanding of the self to a Cartesian derivation. You have to expand or stretch the notion of self for this answer to make sense.

thorninmud's avatar

The negatives would come mostly from misinterpretations of what this actually means. Many would see it as a denial of moral responsibility, or helplessness to effectuate change. In reality, that’s not at all the implication, and dropping the concept of free will has virtually no practical consequences, but seeing this is not easy.

CugelTheClueless's avatar

The negative impacts might depend on whether we really have it or not. Some of the above responses, and the OQ itself, seem to assume that we don’t.

Kropotkin's avatar

It reminds me of the argument theists make—without god they’d act immorally.

I’ve often made the argument that people are products of their circumstances and environment, and the myriad forces and experiences that shape a person.

Then there are potentially indeterministic variables. At some quantum level, there could be a 50/50 probability of one event or another, and the eventual consequences of this would go into infinity. It could be the differences between choosing tea or coffee in a morning, or marrying an entirely different spouse.

Maybe there are parallel universes for every possible different decision we make.

I actually think when it comes to criminal justice, it may make for a more compassionate system with a focus on rehabilitation. We may still put people away, because they’re objectively dangerous—but if we’re to understand human actions and behaviours as things that just happen in the brain, and the brain itself being shaped by genetics and environment and the happenstance of life events, then it becomes difficult to blame an “individual” or to hold them “personally responsible”.

It would be a bit like blaming a river for flowing in an undesirable direction.

gorillapaws's avatar

The notions of “praise” and “blame” go out the window. “Jimmy, you were determined to get a 100 on your test. Billy, you were determined to get a 50. Equally good job guys.”

We might also have to reevaluate the concepts of “equality of opportunity” vs. “equality of condition.”

hominid's avatar

@ARE_you_kidding_me and @CugelTheClueless – I’m specifically referring to the common perception people have of free will, which makes little sense. There may be more nuanced versions which refer to the feeling of agency, but I don’t think that’s what most people refer to.

@thorninmud: “The negatives would come mostly from misinterpretations of what this actually means.”

I’m reminded of arguments against drug legalization that suggest that there would be a rather significant increase in drug addiction, etc while the society adjusted to access to substances. But that over time, we may see a decrease in use and addiction.
If a massive public campaign were to shatter common ideas of free will, would there be some initial challenges as people struggled with understanding what it really meant, etc., but that we would eventually see a move towards the positive? Or are you suggesting that there would be “no practical consequences” at all – positive or negative? @Kropotkin and @gorillapaws mention a couple of real benefits that could come from having the public look at the concept more closely. Right?

janbb's avatar

If we do away with the concept of free will (which I think is what you mean by the phrase “take down”), would we have to do away with the notions of agency and blame in police brutality? Would that just a be a product of their biology? Or are you saying we would be looking at issues more systematically than we do?

hominid's avatar

@janbb – If you are concerned about police brutality, which I assume you are – as am I – what do you mean when you talk about “blame” in this context? I assume that what you mean by “blame” is an attempt to find who is the person who is engaged in doing harmful things. In this case, we can identify that there are police who are causing harm. And in this case, they should be removed from the police force and likely removed from the population for safety. We don’t want to lock up “bad” cops because we think they are ultimately responsible for their actions. This doesn’t really matter. Our goal should be to stop the behavior, right?

“Blame’ in the traditional sense adds nothing to our project in trying to make a better society. It clouds the issue in anger and hatred, which are the result of not seeing clearly. And we then have to deal with a whole other issue – calls for retribution, which only make sense in the traditional idea of free will.

janbb's avatar

I guess I find the argument too hypothetical to really engage in it any further. I don’t have a problem with blaming people who do evil acts because I do think they have a choice at a certain point – no matter what determines it biologically or chemically. Maybe my mind is too practical.

Apparently_Im_The_Grumpy_One's avatar

The video you linked to has been bouncing around since 2008. It has been wielded in countless verbal tussles, placed on a totem, and shaken vigorously with no regard to the fact that it’s just a clever gimmick.

On that shaky footing, I’m afraid I can’t step forward for fear of falling, tumbling, crashing, banging, clanging (meow!), and staggering right on down that slippery slope (at the bottom of which seems to be a philosophy 101 question begging for hours upon hours of incredibly verbose tea-kettling).

thorninmud's avatar

For this to make a material difference, we would have to assume that people do certain things because they believe they have free will, in other words, that the belief itself is a conditioning factor that influences behavior. In that case, removing the belief would change behaviors. But the fact is that such a consideration never actually enters into behavioral motivations.

There isn’t anything that I would do differently based on how I see this matter, and I don’t suppose that I’m different in that respect from everyone else. And if behaviors wouldn’t shift, then why would institutions geared to influencing behavior shift? They’d still have to work with the old tried and true motivational factors: positive and negative reinforcement. These talk directly to the limbic system, where “free will” doesn’t even have a seat at the table.

I don’t consider that my dog has free will, so my interactions with him don’t assume that he does. But if I ask myself what would change if I were to presume free will on his part, I find that nothing would, really.

hominid's avatar

@thorninmud – But you likely don’t spend a considerable amount of your day hating people and trying to figure out what kind of punishment people deserve, right? Is it possible that you’re underestimating how committed most people are to the idea that people are free to do other than they do, and that this results in spending considerable time engaged in mental activities that make little sense except for some kind of libertarian view of free will? Look at the whole death penalty sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It would seem that we can do away with this – and a ton of the anger and hate – if we loosen our grip on free will. Dzhokhar did a horrible thing, and for that he will be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

Out of curiosity, when was the last time you really believed that when someone did something, there was a someone there that was the ultimate agent? That the person chose A, but had the ability to choose B? That’s a strong influence that can really inform our moral intuitions. This has to have an effect on behavior, right? At the very least, if we look at the justice system, wouldn’t it make sense that we would do away with the whole concept of punishment, some things would change?

thorninmud's avatar

As you probably suspect, I don’t support the death penalty (just getting that out there). But I’m pretty sure that two major rationales for the death penalty would not be affected by the free will question.

First, I don’t think that the desire for “eye for an eye” justice is amenable to considerations of free will. The retributive impulse is a reaction to the offender’s intentions, and intentions don’t depend on free will. For instance, even if you don’t believe in free will, you react differently toward someone who harms you by accident than toward someone who harms you intentionally. You recognize that one can have intention even without free will, and it’s that intent to harm that provokes in you a visceral antagonistic response. Even if you consider that the intentions are determined by non-volitional factors, the intention is no less offensive.

And then there’s the question of deterrence. Granted that there’s good reason to believe that the death penalty doesn’t really have much, or any, deterrent effect, still the basic principle that a threat of unpleasant consequences will shape behaviors seems to be valid regardless of what you think about free will. I see my cat consider jumping up to the kitchen counter, then abandon the scheme when he remembers the spray bottle. I don’t have to posit free will to understand this.

hominid's avatar

^ Great response. This makes sense.

Note: This could be the result of being that obnoxious new guy on the block that just discovered something new, feels that it has a great effect on him personally, and is shocked to find that those who have known it all along are not moved.

I have notes from old college journals that have me wrestling with this issue in an indirect way. Now that I feel that I left the idea of free will behind completely, I do feel a shift. Of course intention is what matters. But if we are not in a position to understand our own – or anyone’s – intention, then it creates an immediate and palpable ease. And while I seem to engage in the habitual building and re-building of a “self” which is becoming harder to define, seeing the fact that we don’t have the free will I believed in much of my life allows that activity of self-building to stop (or pause). And in that pause, I can’t help but feel flooded with empathy and far more connected than when I am maintaining it through delusions of free will.

I guess I’ll come around to just accepting it and will likely not feel so strongly about it – eventually. But for now, I can’t help but see everyone (my wife, for example) struggling and suffering precisely because she holds onto the idea that we are the author of our thoughts. It separates her from other people, and it seems to keep her from being compassionate to herself.
Got to run. The kids are expecting me. Thanks everyone for the great insight.

Bill1939's avatar

@kevbo I agree with much of what you have written, however I have questions about “The benefit of taking down free will is that it also takes down suffering.” I see a difference between desire and free will. Free will makes it possible to see that desire leads to suffering. Without free will, how is one to seek and discover their spiritual nature? Without free will one is a prisoner to impulses arising from instinct and social inculcation. Once one has become one with their spiritual nature, their path will be free of the need for choice and the exercise of free will cease.

thorninmud's avatar

@hominid There definitely is a shift that comes with an experience of “no-self”, but there’s more to that than a deterministic view of human psychology. You can pretty easily make a reasoned case for determinism, and many, many people nowadays accept that. But if you stop at buying into the logic of the proposition, that’s not where the shift happens because it lacks the force of experience. This is what I meant by saying that dropping the concept wouldn’t have any fundamentally transformative power.

The experience of no-self does have this facet of recognizing that there is no autonomous, independent, personal self authoring thoughts and making choices. Along with that, though, is the recognition that everything, including “my” thoughts and behaviors, is the activity of the undivided whole. This is a much bigger and more transformative insight than acknowledging the logic of determinism. But neither is it unrelated. See what I mean?

obvinate's avatar

It depends on what you consider to be a negative impact. The most immediate negative impact that I can see is that taking down the concept of free-will would be based on a lie. It is true that beliefs are preconditioned, but, that does not mean you cannot chose to change them. You can. It is true for desires as well, but, you can chose to control the desire. Therefore, while a homosexual desire may/may not be chosen, the ability to chose to not act upon it is still an option. This same answer applies to all of your other examples except for height.

The basic idea here is by selectively destroying your undesirable preconditioned veil through introspection, you make yourself the first and central cause which means you’re now doing the determining instead of your past. You create your own new values and the ripples begin with you. It is up to the individual to decide what preconditions are useful to project them forward to build upon an object/objective and which should be destroyed. This process is apart of being intelligent. The efficiency depends on IQ levels since not all minds are created equal and so this process is not ubiquitous, otherwise, intelligence would not be such an effective and decisive element in nature. This brings me to another negative impact.

When an abstraction is combined in ways that do not correspond to anything in the sensually perceived world, or when it is constructed using abstractions which are not immediate, or not tested by continuously juxtaposing them to the sensually perceived world (reality), then they are disconnected from reality. The term for this disconnect, always in degree, is fantasy or delusion. In other words, a fantasy is a projected object/objective which has no reference to any natural phenomenon but is an amalgamation of different elements in your preconditioned past united in ways that do not correspond to anything in the phenomenal world. Although, this can be a form of creativity, but, if it is taken literally, then it becomes a failing often paid by death. Of course in our modern sheltering systems that aim to prevent/protect people from consequences, the greater negative impact would result in dysgenics. The prior negative impact being the deliberate prevention and deterioration of individual fitness that accelerates self-destruction/death.

Empathizing does not require preconditions and it doesn’t correlate with any action/inaction. With this type of view, I would imagine there would be much more blame/personal accountability.

obvinate's avatar

Here are some studies that found negative impacts when the concept of free-will was taken down.

Study 1

Study 2

Study 3

Study 4

Study 5

Study 6

Kropotkin's avatar

@obvinate I was already aware of some of the studies on this, but there’s a flaw with most of them.

They’re typically based on “inducing” a perception that free-will is untrue, or “undermining” the belief in free will.

I don’t see how most of these experiments have much real word relevance, and they definitely do not investigate any long-term effects or how a more thorough understanding of the debate and a sincere disbelief in free-will changes people’s behaviours and perceptions.

Only one study you linked didn’t manipulate people’s perceptions or undermine free-will. It was the one looking at belief in free-will and other correlates. And here we find:

“FWB is associated with traditional conservative attitudes, including authoritarianism, religiosity, and belief in a just world.”

“Belief in free will is associated with a conservative worldview, including such facets as authoritarianism, religiosity, punitiveness, and moralistic standards for judging self and others.”

Which is no surprise to me at all. It’s just that authoritarianism, conservative attitudes and belief in a just world have all sorts of negative facets to them. Bob Altemeyer covers a lot of this in The Authoritarians

obvinate's avatar

Interesting, my free-will is associated with cynicisms, part of which is asceticism/self-mastery (personal development), self-efficacy, self-sufficiency, indifference, hostility and ridicule towards political and social conventions/institutions that are mostly anti-nature and anti-reason. Finally, an awareness of, and criticism of conformity.

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