The experiments carried out in the 1970’s by the American neuroscientist, Benjamin Libet (1916 -2007), are often cited as evidence that we do not have free will. Libet found that unconscious electrical activity occurred in the brain before we became aware of a decision to act. Significantly, however, he also found that the conscious mind was able to veto those unconscious decisions. In fact, he regarded his findings as compatible with, but not, of course, proof of the existence of free will.
Despite the longstanding scientific and philosophical debate about free will, every society assumes that we do have it and are, therefore, personally responsible for our actions. Nowhere can we stand before a judge, admit to malfeasance, and successfully argue that we are guiltless because determinism made it inevitable. Nor can we expect to avoid censure if we claim the same after behaving anti-socially. The assumption of free will is a cultural universal. Without it, no-one would take responsibility for their actions or be held accountable for them, and society would very quickly collapse. The assumption that we have free will creates societies in which some of us have the luxury to doubt it.
Support for the existence of free will comes from the fact that our social and psychological nature has evolved over millions of years and is very unlikely to have evolved in a way that contradicts reality.
For the individual, accepting free will means accepting that we have some power to change ourselves and the world around us. Because we are conscious creatures and aware of ourselves, we can change ourselves through a process of internal feedback. It would enable us to criticize our own attitudes and behaviour and try to control or modify them. Furthermore, most of us have consciences which reward or punish us, psychologically, for our actions.
On the other hand, the denial of free will can lead to a state of powerlessness and despondency and, ultimately, to mental ill health. Research in 1979, by Seligman et al, has also shown a significant relationship between helplessness and depression. Accepting free will is the mentally healthy option, therefore.
Again, our psychological nature has also evolved over millions of years and, it too is very unlikely to contradict reality.
Whether or not the universe is deterministic, we are presented with a series of seemingly random events, some of which present a risk, some of which present an opportunity but most of which are neutral. However, we are not entirely the victims of random events and merely blowing about like leaves in the wind. Rather, the way in which we respond to them affects the outcome. We have needs which give us a predisposition to act when an opportunity or risk arises. In this way we steer our surroundings from a state of relative chaos and unpredictability to a state of greater organisation and predictability. Our anti-entropic behaviour tends to create organisation and predictability whilst everything around us tends to destroy it. This strongly suggests that the universe is non-deterministic and that we have free will.
Consequences of the Denial of Free Will
None of this evidence proves that we have free will, of course. There is no definitive evidence one way or the other. However, the denial of free will does have consequences.
Recently, there has been a tendency among scientists to favour the determinist view which holds that the world, including the decisions we make, are predetermined and beyond our individual control. We do not know whether the universe is deterministic or not. Again, there is no irrefutable evidence one way or the other. However, we do have opinions on the matter. Although most scientists and philosophers try hard to be objective, they are still subject to unconscious beliefs, biases, and attitudes. Although probably more resistant, they are still exposed to the Zeitgeist, vested interests, peer group pressure, cultural influence and groupthink.
The deterministic view may, therefore, be gaining traction for cultural rather than scientific reasons. For example, it may be a reaction against Christian beliefs, which include the divine nature of free will. It may be because determinism benefits the status quo and an inequitable consumer economy, as I will describe below. Or it may be a combination of such factors. If so, then we should consider who may benefit and who may not.
In 2003, the sociologists Colin Barnes and Geof Mercer found that a sense of powerlessness is most likely to be experienced when there is a sharp divide between those wielding power and decision-making authority and those of subordinate status. The article below gives several practical examples:
Significantly, in 1975, the psychologist, Martin Seligman, developed the theory of learned helplessness, whereby people who feel unable to exert some control over their lives cease trying to do so. Other research has found that a sense of powerlessness is closely correlated with acceptance and justification of the status quo.
In summary, determinism implies a lack of free will. Accepting a lack of free will gives one a sense of powerlessness. A sense of powerlessness means that one is more accepting of the status quo and less likely to strive for change. So, those who benefit from a belief in determinism are those who benefit from the status quo.
If we accept the determinist argument and behave as though we have no free will then we will not make the effort to improve ourselves or our society. If we do behave as though we have free will and, rightly or wrongly, try to improve matters, then there is no risk of having thrown away something of enormous value due to a belief which may have been propagated in the interests of a few.