What If No One Believed in Free Will?

Would there be terrible consequences?

Illustration: María Elena (Mani) Hinojosa

Nihilism

If we were to conceptualize free will, and then meaning and morality, as mere human constructs — ultimately pointless constructs, even — probably our human nature could withstand the assault, in the sense that our thirst for life, our desires and ambitions, our sense of meaning and purpose would be little affected. Some ideas are too abstract, too removed from how we experience life to have a significant impact on our psychology.

Apathy and fatalism

Why bother with anything if our fate is already determined, if one has no control over it? So the argument goes. But not much, if anything, would change in our day-to-day life from a denial of free will. Here too, our human nature would see to that. We’d still have our wishes and motivations, not to mention our bodily needs. Even in the unlikely event that we were succumbing to feelings of despondency, the minute we were hungry (for example), we’d rise from our philosophy-induced slumber and go look for something to eat.

Our system of justice would fall apart

Even though I think our nature would effectively combat any incipient feelings of apathy and nihilism resulting from our dismissal of free will, we’re certainly not impervious to ideas, even rarefied and “unnatural” ones (I readily admit that the idea that free will is an illusion falls in this category, as it is decidedly counterintuitive).

Conclusion

It appears, then, that the doom-and-gloom arguments often brandished against doing away with the notion of free will do not hold much water. If anything, we might become less judgmental and more understanding of one another, and we’d likely reform our criminal justice system to make it more rational and humane. Even so, it’s not at all certain that our interpersonal relations would be much affected. Some of our emotions are too entrenched in our nature for us to subdue them at will, however much we may want to do so following what we’d consider a more rational approach. If someone took advantage of us, for example, would we be better able to control our consequent anger just because we now understand that there is no free will? Not likely. And it’s not even clear that controlling our anger would be a better response. Indeed, our anger signals that we’re not to be messed with. It acts as a powerful deterrent. It may thus be the most rational response, after all. Assuming we could manage to adjust some of the emotions that we tend to naturally feel in our personal and direct relations with others, it may not be easy to determine for which ones we should strive to do so upon the acceptance that free will is an illusion.

PS: A catch-22?

Whether one believes in free will or not, there seem to be circumstances in which something of a paradox may arise: Suppose that, before committing a crime, a person is certain that he’ll get caught and that the consequent penalty, of which he’s fully aware, will cause him considerably more suffering than whatever satisfaction he expects to obtain from the intended crime; yet he chooses to proceed all the same. In such a case, it would seem logical to conclude that the person was insane or not in control of his faculties and should therefore be, if not exonerated, at least given a sentence far less harsh than the one corresponding to the crime in question. Yet if that became common practice, the deterrent effect of the originally intended penalty would disappear; so, unfortunately, it must prevail (no leniency) — however unjust it may seem.

Interested in natural selection, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, science in general, human nature, consciousness, philosophy and ethics.

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