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Monday, 13 February 2017

Free Will vs Determinism

In Philosophy, there are two conflicting schools of thought that try to explain human behaviour. Are we totally in control of our actions and our environment? Or is all behaviour the result of external factors and causal events that we have no control of?
Modern Psychology and Neuroscience has indeed convinced me (and shown) that human behaviour is determined by genetics, neurons in the brain, and environmental and situational factors. Sam Harris’ Free Will and Jason J Jacobsen’s Determinism both present well thought out cases explaining that free will is indeed an illusion and that all behaviour is determined.



We want to believe we have free will. Part of the notion of free will came from religion; God knows everything and can predetermine all of our behaviour, yet he gave us free will so if we behave badly and go against his wishes it’s all our fault. (Because that makes perfect sense). But nowadays people like to think we have free will because it seems to make sense. You wake up in the morning and you have a choice. You can go to work, you can lie in bed for four hours, you can kill yourself, or you can make a phone call. Most people probably fall somewhere within soft determinism/compatibilism; sure, external factors influence your behaviour, but ultimately the choice is yours. Right?

According to neuroscience this is incorrect. The brain has already decided our actions before we carry them out. We’re mostly not conscious of the actions our bodies are taking. We don’t think about blinking, breathing, digesting food – I’m not thinking about typing this article, my fingers already know what to do. Psychopathy, autism, alcoholism, depression, ADHD; these are all the result of chemical imbalances within the brain. There is still little known about the brain, but I like to think of the brain as the computer that controls everything. In this sense are we really not just being controlled by our brains?

As for circumstances; that is pretty self-explanatory. A black working class person born in London is more likely to vote for Labour. A white middle class person born in Oxford is more likely to vote for the Tories. If they don’t necessarily follow this it will be due to research, but again that will be situational; they may have a friend who introduces them to a different political school of thought. Everything that happens in the universe is the result of cause and effect relations, almost like a giant ‘join the dots’. One thing leads to another. With this in mind there really is no space for free will.

The key reason most people don’t like the idea of free will is because it doesn’t seem to hold people responsible for their actions. I disagree with this. Your brain is you. Your environment is you. You are your experiences. If you’re a psychopath, yeah it’s because that’s the way you’re brain is, but it’s still your brain. So no, it’s not that fault you’re born that way, but perhaps if we accept that that is the way some people are we are able to deal with the situation more rationally rather than trying to make a person change. For example, psychopaths tend to be good in business and leadership roles; rather than trying to make them be rehabilitated in prison, why not stick them on some business-like course whilst they’re in prison? That way, when they come out they could channel those guiltless ruthless brain cells into something useful. See post on sociopaths vs psychopaths

Nevertheless, even though we don’t have free will, it’s good to feel like we do. Otherwise we would never get anything done.

Do you believe we have free will, or do you root for determinism? Lemme know below!

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