Your decisions are not your own
Our gut instinct, our experience, is that we make the decisions to move, to think, to eat, to steal, to lie, to punch and kick. We have constructed the entire edifice of our civilisation on this idea. But science says this free will is a delusion. According to the worldâ€™s best neuroscientists, we are brain-machines. Our brains create the sense that somewhere within them is the â€œyouâ€ that makes decisions. But it is an illusion; there is no ghost in the machine. What does this mean for our sense of self? And for our morality â€“ can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control?
The most interesting part of this story is that the Times linked back to a previous article on the question, first published in 1877:
That brilliant speaker, Professor Tyndall, lecturing at Birmingham the the other day, adopted frankly the theory of necessity, and in the name of conscience dismissed free-will henceforward from all civilized society. To the obvious remonstrance of the murderer against his punishment, that we hang him for what he could not help, the Professor answers in these words,—“We entertain no malice against you, but simply with a view for our own saftey and purification we are determined that you, and such as you, shall not enjoy liberty of evil action in our midst…You offend, because cannot help offending.
Professor Tyndall was merely stating consequences that follow from the deduction that if all things are material, and we are material, and that since all material effects have causes, all of our actions are thus materially determined. That is, we cannot have free will. We act as we do because we cannot help but act as we do.
Not much has changed since Tyndall held forth. Now we have C. M. Fisher in the journal Medical Hypotheses wondering how free will can be possible since we have neurons, which he has cleverly determined are material, and since they are material etc. He says, “This has implications for voluntary behavior and the doctrine of free will.” Doctrine?
How do neurons cause things to happen without will? A common view is provided by John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. Haynes used a magnetic phrenology machine to show that areas of the brain “light up” before people say they are aware of making a decision. Therefore free will might be an illusion.
Other scientists have also discovered material neurons: for example, Princeton’s Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen (quoted here):
…the law’s intuitive support is ultimately grounded in a metaphysically overambitious, libertarian notion of free will that is threatened by determinism and, more pointedly, by forthcoming cognitive neuroscienceâ€¦. The net effect of this influx of scientific information will be a rejection of free will as it is ordinarily conceived, with important ramifications for the law…[And on crime] demonstrating that there is a brain basis for adolescents’ misdeeds allows us to blame adolescents’ brains instead of the adolescents themselves.
You get the drift by now: when people do bad things, it’s not their fault. They were made to do evil by their selfish genes (as Dawkins would say) or by their oblivious neurons (as many scientists say).
Thus, when I say C.M. Fisher is a fool, and when I suggest that Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen have unnatural relations with horses, it’s not my fault. I cannot help but write those words, just as Greene and Cohen cannot help hanging around stables.
I couldn’t even stop myself if I wanted to. Worse, there is no “I” to stop. The “I” that is typing is just a mass of tissue following a predetermined path.
Since it is not the perpetrator’s fault for raping your daughter (he had no choice), these Enlightened folks conclude we cannot punish them. It would be the same as punishing a cloud for dropping unwanted rain.
Every modern argument against free will reaches that same “progressive” conclusion: bad people should not be punished. Only our old friend Professor Tyndall was wise enough to see the flaw in that ridiculous argument. The criminal does evil because he cannot help himself, but since there is no free will, “We punish, because we cannot help but punish.” Everybody does what they do because they have no choice.
If there is no free will, we cannot change our behavior to take account of the enlightened non-punishment idea. No one can change their behavior to account for anything. Every action is set. There is no way to stand outside of our genes/neurons to direct them in an enlightened manner to do our bidding. Even college professors, even those at Princeton, are stuck in an eternal rut.
Because we cannot see how there could be free will given the implications of certain theories and beliefs only means that all or some of those theories and beliefs are wrong or incomplete. It does not mean that the observation of free will is in error.
This is not the place to say why free will is possible (please don’t mention the study of movement in discrete units). Free will is obvious. And it is even obvious to those people who say there is no free will.
If you disagree with me, pause for a moment and consider that “I” cannot help saying what I am saying, so there is no use for you to tell me I am wrong.