I’ve been thinking about the issue of free will and how the concept is useless at best and damaging at worst. Free will is often used to blame people for things beyond their control. Observers often have cognitive biases that lead them to falsely and cruelly assume that each individual is totally responsible for everything that happens to them in life. My previous writings on free will are linked in the post Exploring the Illusion of Free Will. This post is going to get very morbid and demoralizing, but I’ll offer a potential solution at the end.
There are many arguments against the illusory concept of free will, but I’ve found one question goes directly to the heart of the matter.
That question is:
“Why do people choose to die?”
The fact is, the vast majority of people who die do so as a result of heart disease, cancer, other diseases, accidents, or violence. The people who die from these causes don’t actually choose to die. Their tissues and organs accumulate wear and then reach the point of irreversible damage. Most importantly, the brain dies. The rest of the body then goes with it. Examining childhood illness also illustrates the big lie of free will. Why do certain children choose to get leukemia or brain tumors? They don’t. Children with cancer didn’t choose to receive the genes involved in malignant disease. They didn’t tell their stem cells to malfunction. The tumors resulted from genetic and environmental influences outside their control. Death illustrates the most basic biological limitation on human behavior. Now consider that there are many other biological limitations and influences on human behavior.
1. Brain mapping research involving fMRI, SPECT, and EEG measurements has mapped the human brain’s responses to stimuli.
2. Neurological studies describe how damage to the brain affects behavior and decision-making. Millions of people have personal experience with how brain trauma and neurodegenerative disorders can change the behavior of family members and friends.
3. Genetic studies have identified the heritability of many traits associated with diseases.
4. Behavioral genetics research has identified genetic networks and genes associated with personality traits and psychiatric conditions.
5. Environmental toxins like endocrine disruptors influence hormones.
6. Hormones influence behavior in various ways.
7. Heavy metals, such as lead, impact brain-related traits like intelligence and impulsivity.
8. Research on life forms (like Toxoplasma) describes the effects of other influences on behavior.
9. Studies in psychology illustrate the ways in which a person’s unconscious mind and environment affects their behavior.
10. Studies in social psychology describe how real-world social networks affect behavior.
11. Research on biological evolution describes additional influences on human development and behavior.
Truly having free will would mean being able to influence the millions of potential causes of behavior. That seems unlikely. True free will would also mean being able to overcome death. The reality of death brings two major realizations:
1. Human beings are primates controlled by biology and physics, leaving them with no free will in the end.
2. Life is pointless since everybody and their families will die anyway. Even if a person’s accomplishments live on, it won’t matter to the person who died. They’ll still be dead.
Something I try to keep in mind is that just because something isn’t currently available, it might be possible in the future with advances in science and engineering. While free will doesn’t exist in today’s world, enhancing human intelligence with artificial intelligence might eventually allow people to identify and manage the millions of influences on their behavior. Preliminary software exists to help decision-makers overcome cognitive biases and other forms of inaccurate information. The research on decision support systems and expert systems over the last several decades provides a useful starting point.
I’m not saying that The Singularity is necessarily an inevitability. A research project of this magnitude requires vast investments and the efforts of many people. Artificial general intelligence is not something that people can simply hope comes into existence. AI research has succeeded in some areas but has also fallen short of some of its promises thus far. Investing in artificial general intelligence is still a better use of government and corporate funds than waging war or engaging in other forms of wasteful spending that are irrelevant or even harmful to human well-being.