Try this argument on for size: I am a smart, clever guy with an advanced degree in neurology and tenure. The brain is a biological machine. But I don’t understand how free will works. Therefore, free will doesn’t exist. Quod erat demonstratum!
That bargain-basement syllogism is akin to saying this: I am smart, etc. My automobile is an electronic/mechanical machine. But I don’t understand how my newfangled automobile runs. Therefore, my automobile doesn’t move. It only apparently carries me from place to place, though I remain still.
As asinine as these arguments are, they are convincing to some. For example, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and of the Wall Street Journal article, “Our Social Networks, Ourselves: Does free will even exist? Scientists are finding that we’re much more predictable than we think.”
Lehrer was able to write—but wait a minute; let’s be clear what is who and who is what. The label “Jonah Lehrer” sits above the article, but this label cannot be a person, a thinking entity with free will. It is instead a deterministic meat-machine that had no choice but to put together the string of words that found their way to print. Some of those words were these:
Although we can’t help but believe in our autonomy—free will is a fiction we need—this latest research suggests we’re not nearly as free as we typically assume.
The output “free will is a fiction we need” is evidently is a message to other meat-machines that if they thought they were thinking, they were mistaken. In fact, they cannot be “they”. If there is no free will, there is no “I”, no “we”, “you” is absent, and “they” is a misnomer. There are only objects.
Since this is so, those of us who claim to have free will can only wonder why the meat-machine Jonah Lehrer seeks to convince other meat-machines that their thoughts are not their own, but merely uncontrollable mental impulses. Has this Jonah Lehrer meat-machine somehow become a “he”, an entity with free will, a machine that was able to escape his biological limitations to become something other? A being that can look down on the rest of the machines and try to comfort them?
How did “he” manage this if he did not have free will? But perhaps it is merely a meat-machine after all, and those words have no meaning, they are just strings of letters and words, epistemologically blank. If there is no free will, it had no choice but to pen this string. Just as “I” have no choice to say these words.
But enough. The absurdity is evident. The only questions are why intellectuals like Lehrer come to believe they don’t exist (their meat exists, of course, but not their selves), and why they feel (for clearly there is a “they” to feel) they have to convince others that they don’t exist.
Lehrer cites “research” for why he says there is no free will. For example, work which shows, “Moods are also contagious. When a person is happy, nearby friends are 25% more likely to also be happy, according to research from Harvard Medical School. These viral emotions can even spread via online networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.” Harvard!
And how about this stunner: “According to the data, if a person becomes obese, the likelihood that one of his or her friends will become obese increases by 57%.”
In other words, if you tell a joke, your listener is “25% more likely” to be cheered, and if you hang around people who eat as you do, and those people are fat, you stand a good chance of packing on the pounds, too. Golly.
These and the other trivial facts Lehrer mentions as evidence that free will is a fiction were long known, of course, and known by every living soul. But they had never before been published in a medical journal by neurologists who were able to tie in Rudyard Kipling-like yarns about why what was obvious to all really meant we had no control over our own destinies.
Since your free will is absent, or severely stunted, you have no choice but to mimic the behavior of those nearest you. That is what those statistics purport to show. But left unanswered is the obvious question: who is making those close to you act as they do? Do they have free will? How do new behaviors begin?
Being able to guess your weight within 50 pounds by knowing only your zip code, or forecasting new movies you will like given recommendations by those with similar cinematic tastes are not monumental achievements in predictive science. And they are certainly not indicative that we don’t have free will.