I struggled to make the essence of my previous post read as simply as I saw it. I feel I failed, so I’m going to take another shot at this. The following excerpt from the article The Decider […Informing the debate over the reality of free will], is my launch pad: “So brains are programmed to produce behavior that serves those ends—or seek substitutes that stimulate the same neural systems”.
Wouldn’t the notion of free will itself be a “substitute that stimulates”? After all, the thoughts we think stimulate our underlying personal needs, whatever they may be. The question then becomes, what neural systems do notions of free will stimulate?
Consider briefly the key role that free will plays in social interactions. These interactions hinge greatly on a perceived responsibility group members feel vis-à-vis their social obligations to the group. A belief in free will serves perceived responsibility perfectly. Free will gives us the perceived rationale upon which we can judge others, and ourselves, placing praise or blame as we see fit. ‘Minding each other’s business’ turns the wheel of natural social interaction.
Imagine how unnatural life would be if we actually could “judge not others”, “throw not stones”, “love our enemies”, and the rest. Such supremely spiritual ideals in fact fly in the face of nature. Humans, like all other animals in nature, do throw stones, do judge others, and do hate their enemies. The only difference is that other animals do so spontaneously — in the moment. They don’t harbor this negativity; they can’t dwell on it over time. Humans can, and do, due to the disease that chapter 71 points out, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
The belief in free will gives us the rationale we need for harboring resentments, for dwelling on remembered wrongs. If I think you have free will, then I can blame you for not doing the right thing. I can feel justified to ridicule you for not measuring up to our current cultural standards of goodness, beauty, truth, and countless other virtues. Conversely, if I feel you lack free will, I have to bite my tongue. You obviously can’t help being you, and for that matter, I can’t help being me. Alas, I expect we can never fully achieve such impartiality. Like all social animals, we need to pass judgment, praising or blaming the other fellow. Such favoritism is the social glue that binds.
However, there is still hope! Personally speaking, although I still judge others, the aftereffects I feel die quickly now that a belief in free will is not around to keep fanning the flames of praise and blame. Come to think of it, Christ must have been speaking to the nonsense of free will when, dying on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”