Yesterday I posted my review of the book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” by neuroscience professor David Eagleman. The book overturns many commonly held ideas about free will and personal responsibility. Another good introduction to Eagleman’s ideas can be found in his Atlantic Magazine article titled The Brain on Trial.
The belief in free will often gives many people an excuse to ignore downtrodden human beings while saying that people in poverty deserve their fate since they made “poor choices” in life. Professor Eagleman, on the other hand, offers a science-based message of forgiveness and rehabilitation while simultaneously protecting society from violent people. In this post, I’m going to describe the benefits of giving up obsolete ideas regarding free will. Giving up the belief in free will can paradoxically lead to improvements in willpower.
I used to believe that taking total responsibility for everything in life was an empowering stance. Now I realize that genes, childhood environment, and even fetal environment determine many aspects of a person’s life before they’re even aware of who they are. I’ve found that giving up the idea of free will can be incredibly liberating. Believing that free will doesn’t exist takes a heavy weight off your shoulders. Knowing that mistakes aren’t your fault is more valuable than believing your successes are due to hard work. This is due to the psychological principle known as loss aversion, where most people are more motivated to avoid losses than to seek gains.
Many societal discussions revolve around choice, such as the importance of making “good choices” and the dangers of making “poor choices.” People sometimes look down on others and ridicule other people’s decisions as a mechanism for reassuring themselves that they made the right decisions at crucial points in life. The anxiety over constantly making decisions and worrying about making the right ones causes many people great distress. They’re worried about making bad decisions and losing their livelihood or being shunned by other people. To deal with the anxiety of perceived total personal responsibility in a world with a disrupted social fabric and inadequate or unscientific social safety nets, probably half of the country is on psychiatric drugs:
Except for a small number of Mormons, the other half of the country is on different drugs – like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of politicians and pundits telling people that the solutions to their problems revolve around taking personal responsibility. Decades of moralizers telling people what to do hasn’t reduced binge drinking or obesity or the dropout rate or percentage of births outside of wedlock. Improving the prefrontal cortex and dopamine system has a greater impact on a person’s life than just telling him or her to be more responsible.
Paradoxically, the act of disbelieving free will may actually give people more will power and control over their life, as the following neuroscientist explains:
• Free Will is in the Brain (warning: this post may change your brain)
Other people with knowledge of the brain – like psychology professor Jesse Bering – have referenced a study that discusses the potential dangers inherent in giving up the belief in free will:
My rebuttal to that study is that it’s like most psychology studies, which means that it involves undergraduates in an artificial environment. Secondly, relying on the illusion of free will and expecting people to behave morally is probably less effective than structuring societies and pharmaceutically engineering the brain in a way that makes morality the most effective and pleasurable option.
Luckily my unconscious brain has figured out that there are three important strategies in life which are key to operating in the absence of free will.
1. Ensuring survival of yourself and the human race: All other strategies are irrelevant if a person ignores self-preservation. Life would also be inadequate without other people.
2. Being nice to people: This doesn’t mean being a pushover. Being nice in this context means behaving in a way that maximizes the chances of positive reciprocation.
3. Basing decisions on scientific evidence: Scientific causality determines everything that happens in the world, such as the use of energy and natural resources, the outcome of status games among people in business, physical and mental health, etc.
Another strategy that may be important at various times involves paying lip service to the idea of free will and maintaining the illusion while in the company of believers. This involves being a social chameleon around people like powerful politicians and religious leaders. This would involve pretending to endorse the importance of personal responsibility and accountability, while actually knowing the truth.