Free will is an obsolete and unscientific concept, as described in my post The End of Free Will. It can also become a cruel concept which is used to blame people for circumstances beyond their control. The interactions between genetics, family environment, and other environmental influences shape the condition of the brain. The state of the brain then determines how individuals act and how they respond to events in their lives. Even if people believe in free will, and assuming they are mentally healthy and not delusional, they still have to come to the realization that there are certain biological constraints on their decisions. Nothing is impossible, but many wishes are improbable. Here’s an example to illustrate the most basic principle of biological constraints on human decision-making: why do people choose to die of natural causes when they reach a certain age? They don’t. Death from natural causes happens when cells and organs wear out.
In terms of human behavior, personality is directly connected to the architecture of the brain (PMID: 22140453). Prenatal exposure to toxins like BPA have been proven to change behavior in mice (PMID: 21980460) and workplace exposure to BPA has deleterious effects in humans (PMID: 20467048). Poisoning by lead and other heavy metals can cause aggressiveness (PMID: 20058837). Further information on the link between biological factors and crime can be found in my notes from the book Biological Influences on Criminal Behavior. Organisms like parasites can also change human behavior, such as the role of toxoplasma gondii in personality disorders (PMID: 20608475) and in negotiation problems (PMID: 20608476). The book Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders describes the impact of genetics on career outcomes. These examples illustrate biological effects and constraints in action. There are thousands of studies just like these in the scientific literature that describe biological and environmental influences on human behavior.
An excerpt from the book The Robot’s Rebellion describes the endgame of accepting the idea of evolution through natural selection and sexual selection. This endgame is that human behavior is totally driven by the impulses of genes to survive and reproduce. The genes don’t necessarily do what’s best for continuing human progress; they do what’s best for themselves. The idea that people are totally responsible for all of their actions is being disproved every day:
• A study suggests that an individual’s personality is set for life by first grade.
• Political beliefs are largely determined by genetics.
• Many decisions are unconsciously driven by what the brain is sensing.
• PET scanning validates the idea that personality traits are connected to neurochemistry.
• Several seconds before making a decision, the outcome can be predicted by unconscious behavior in the brain.
• More than 60 percent of antisocial and criminal behavior is linked to genetics.
• Dr. Juliano Laran shows how consumer choices are affected by being presented with certain words.
• The ability to control impulses is affected by blood sugar levels.
• The research of Dr. James Fallon shows that genes and brain damage can predispose someone to psychopathy.
• Brain scans by Dr. Kent Kiehl show that psychopaths have abnormalities in the paralimbic system.
• Damage to the frontal lobe and temporal lobe can lead to a variety of behavior changes.
• Some case studies illustrate the ways brain diseases can lead to bizarre behavior.
• According to Dr. Nora Volkow, drug addiction reduces the amount of free will that people can exercise due to changes in regions of the brain and neurotransmitters.
• Against Depression by Dr. Peter Kramer describes the ways depression is associated with physical changes to the brain. He mentions the research by Dr. Grayza Rajkowska that shows cellular abnormalities in the brains of people with depression.
• There are correlations between sizes of brain regions and personality traits.
The following example describes one of the major flaws in the concept of personal responsibility. Even though I’ve learned about many promising techniques for preventing cancer, it would be incredibly stupid and cruel to tell a cancer patient that he or she made poor choices in life by having a social life instead of searching PubMed all the time. People can reduce their cancer risk by doing several common sense things like avoiding smoking and refraining from binge drinking. They can also follow more counterintuitive strategies like taking curcumin – a spice few people outside of India may have heard of – as well as consuming supplements and chemicals with anticancer properties. This strategy still has flaws. Even when a person seemingly does everything right, there are still genetic and environmental factors out of one’s control (for now) that may lead to tumor growth. Even though it’s a cultural taboo to blame cancer patients for their illness, many people unknowingly take a similar approach when they blame others for making mistakes in life, even as scientific research continues to describe how genetic and environmental influences unconsciously determine an individual’s actions. This is the “just world” fallacy in action. This means that if you do everything seemingly in the right way, but unanticipated or unavoidable mistakes happen anyway, people will still blame you.
Nothing has helped me more in dealing with frequent self-criticism and negative emotions than giving up on free will. Antidepressants, dietary changes, supplements, exercise, and meditation were all helpful – but none of them had an impact as powerful as giving up on free will. Knowing that everything you do is just a result of interactions between genetics and environmental influences can help reduce self-criticism. This is described further in my post Liberated by Giving up Free Will. Giving up free will also opens up more cognitive bandwidth to Live Scientifically.
Many people who are mentally healthy and optimistic tend to blame external circumstances for their problems in life, even as they give lip service to individuality and personal responsibility. This is described in psychology professor Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism (notes here). Even if people claim to believe in personal responsibility, many of them still blame the government or banks or competitors for their problems in life.
The fact that people still go against things that are in their long-term interests is an indicator that relying on personal responsibility alone can’t accomplish much in terms of running a society. Humans beings are primates who share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos. All three of those species have automatic and unconscious drives that influence every facet of their behavior.
Each year, I read hundreds of nonfiction books and skim through tens of thousands of scientific findings. I still can’t make optimal decisions all the time, or even decisions that are better than people who are more genetically gifted in terms of personality and intelligence. I explore a massive amount of research and information far beyond what the average person is expected to learn. If I still can’t make good choices, what hope do regular people with families and social lives have? Even the act of making choices depletes willpower, as described in research on decision fatigue.
Maybe it’s time to realize that free will and personal responsibility are unscientific folktales. Those beliefs are simply an extension of the just-world fallacy that believes people are responsible for everything that happens to them. In reality, genes and early environment shape a huge amount of behavior. People didn’t choose their genes or the place they grew up. A person’s current environment will continue to shape their behavior through cultural messages and social networks.
One of the best ways to explain why bad things happen to good people in interpersonal situations is to embrace the idea that people aren’t responsible for their actions. Evolutionary biology indicates that natural selection and sexual selection have operated over millions of years. People are motivated to pass on their genes. Evolutionary psychology extends the idea further and considers that nearly all human behaviors result from the desire to pursue strategies for survival and reproduction.
Science seems to be proving the following ideas:
• Human beings share a common ancestor with primates like chimpanzees and bonobos. Humans still share 98% to 99% of their DNA with earlier primates.
• Many beliefs and desires operate outside of conscious awareness. Studies of twins separated at birth show that many beliefs and behaviors have a genetic basis.
• Hormonal events in the womb can determine personality traits in adulthood such as aggression and markers associated with high social status.
Knowing that human beings are animals makes it easier to deal with the conflicts that happen in interactions with other people. Conflicts between yourself and heterosexual people of the same sex can be explained as intrasexual rivalries, where other people seek to denigrate putative rivals as a way of enhancing their status in competition for mates. Rejection by heterosexual people of the opposite sex can be explained in terms of maintaining insufficient status or beauty to gain their attention and commitment.
An article in Nature News (Taking Aim at Free Will) describes the scientific research that undermines conventional ideas about free will. I’ve linked to scientists who are skeptical of free will in a previous blog post titled The End of Free Will. Some physicists allow room for quantum effects to give human beings a greater freedom of choice. Many prominent biologists are skeptical, including DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick who wrote an entire book about the topic titled The Astonishing Hypothesis.
The article in Nature News is organized to showcase the competing ideas of neuroscientists and philosophers. I place myself on the side of the scientists and will bet against philosophers any day of the week. Science focuses on explanatory and predictive power that leads to useful outcomes. When was the last time a philosopher stopped a pandemic or developed a treatment for heart disease?
Dr. Roy Baumeister is one of my favorite social scientists. Unfortunately, his research shows that disbelief in free will can lead to increased aggression and reduced helpfulness. A summary of the research is at this page on PubMed:
I still think that giving up on free will is a necessary step in transitioning society from its current state to a more compassionate place to live. When we realize that people aren’t responsible for their actions, we can develop science-based methods of structuring incentives and influencing human behavior in a way that leads to health and prosperity for everyone.
The key to destroying the belief in free will is to put the belief in personal responsibility and an individual’s ego in direct conflict. This sense of self-presentation leads people (as long as they don’t have depression) to downplay their role in mistakes they’ve made. When somebody expresses a belief in free will or personal responsibility, the key to helping them give up that belief is to convince them that they aren’t responsible for their shortcomings in life. The key is to structure social messages in a way that minimizes an individual’s role in life outcomes.
If this messaging strategy is successful, depressed people will the only ones who will continue to insist that free will exists. Due to problems with their mental illness, they will continue believe that everything is their fault until they get help. If you don’t believe in free will, it’s harder for others to damage your sense of self. If someone tries to insult you based on a personality trait, you can just say something along the lines of: “Cool story, bro. It’s just a result of gene-environment interactions.”
People can change, but they need to do it in science-based ways. Those ways include strengthening the prefrontal cortex through brain training exercises. Another strategy is taking medication that allows a patient to increase the gap of time between feeling an impulse and acting on it. What would it be like to have a government that’s knowledgeable about the latest advances in neuroscience? A person’s brain impacts everything they do. If an individual has a healthy brain (limited or no exposure to toxins, injuries, diseases) he or she has an increased probability of having a healthy life and positive impact on the world.
How does this affect the way a society is governed? This debate has been going on for years, and I don’t have the answers. But I suspect it could become the most important issue in government and law. Most people probably don’t want the government mandating what is considered a normal brain. However, it’s also important to take into account that a lot of people and families could have dramatically better lives if they had opportunities to improve the health of their brains. Much of the suffering in the world could be reduced if people with damaged brains could receive treatment and other forms of help before they self-destruct or harm others.
Unfortunately, many organizations still celebrate the illusions of personal responsibility and individual accountability. With this in mind, it can sometimes be important to pretend to believe in free will, just as it can sometimes be important to pretend to share certain people’s beliefs (namely beliefs that match those of individuals in positions of power). This is for the purposes of becoming a social chameleon, at least momentarily. This is still only a last resort and assumes the only way to survive requires impressing certain stakeholders to earn a living wage. I don’t claim to like this Machiavellian approach. It may just be necessary sometimes to mimic others’ beliefs to increase the odds of surviving in an unfair and unscientific world. This strategy of hiding true beliefs about free will could be useful as long as it’s in the service of surviving long enough to eventually make the world a more compassionate place.
Aside from believing that every human being should have the right to assistance in being healthy and cured of disease, I don’t really have many other moral beliefs. The Care dimension of Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory is really the only one I care about.
It’s time to give up the unscientific ideas of free will and personal responsibility.