The Politics of Free Will

11 Apr

The Politics of Free Will:  The ideological implications of either too easily accepting or rejecting the idea of “free will.”


A fascinating conversation about free will is taking shape over the blogosphere. Sam Harris’ book of the same name has touched off a rather thought-provoking debate regarding what FREE WILL is, if it is, and how it fits in with what we know of the natural universe and how we understand our own experiences as human beings within that context.  I tend to agree with Harris and Coyne about “free will” as we know it being “illusory”, but am sympathetic to the position of Daniel Dennett as well (that some form of free will is indeed compatible with determinism and the determining influences of nature in our world).  More than anything, though, while I’m more critical of the free will principle than I used to be, I do have at least one misgiving about either affirming or denying it as a concept. … The free will issue is a complicated affair, both existentially and normatively. … Accept or reject it too easily, and/or too readily, and you reap the political and ideological consequences for doing so.

Take an ax to it too easily and you risk justifying an out of control totalitarian impulse in society.  That’s not the explicit intent of its detractors who are merely looking at it from an epistemological and scientific standpoint (rather than making a sociological determination and value judgment about our world in light of their philosophical position); but if people don’t have free will, then this necessarily implies a rethinking of freedom and democracy and the social order of the West.  No “free will” means we have to rethink political freedom and how society should respond to personal liberties in modern life.  Society in such an instance has rights to bypass freedoms/liberties if we don’t have a real choice on matters of individual health, what we do in our personal sphere of day to day living, and so on. Reality being “reality” and truth being “truth”, if there is no real free will, then we don’t have any right to any sorts of freedom impinging on the ‘way things are’ in the world. Without the endowment of free will, the state can put a check on our freedoms and our capacity to exercise them in certain cases where our personal rights butt up against a perceived social good or the idea of a higher moral good that most citizens in a society have agreed on as being right (i.e., smoking laws, code enforcement, etc.)  While, in many cases, this is a good thing … how far can and will it be carried if science can even make a plausible case in demonstratively taking apart free will as a concept? … That’s the first problem in drawing out the implications of this issue over free will and considering its social consequences from a denialist point of view.

However, push the free will envelope too much and you fall into the libertarian trap of ceding too much power to the capacity for individuals to determine their own personal ends without the input of the greater social community.  It’s Ayn Rand all over again, and it comes about through placing too much credence on the power-to-will/will-to-power in society.  … Worse, if Randian Objectivism wasn’t bad enough, by the time you do reach questions of the social good in society, guess what? … It doesn’t matter if individuals fall through the cracks in the climb to success or particular minority groups are marginalized in the competitive drive to eek out a living … if you didn’t ‘make it to the top’, by this libertarian reading of freedom and free will, then you deserve to be poor or be marginalized. … And, that is why a serious re-consideration of personal responsibility, individual freedom, where they arise from, and what their true conditions are is vitally important here.  The “responsibility” bandwagon can only be carried so far, and it’s dependent on the basics of this notion of human freedom and free will.  If free will is mitigated by social circumstances, upbringing, the state of our minds, our evolutionary heritage as animals, and the laws of nature … then so too is this idea of human achievement. There is no responsibility without a true response-ability, and if the latter is conditioned by the determining influences of our world, then a perceived moral culpability for ‘not being able to make it’ or ‘fight your way to the top’ is unjustified.  … That’s the lowdown on granting too much credence to the power of free will.

And, while I’m certainly happy that fair attention is being paid to the free will debate, not enough people are thinking about it from these essential cultural and political dimensions.  It’s fine to analyze it from a scientific point of view or a philosophical-epistemological one; but until you actually focus on what it means in an ideological sense or in terms of the social and political realities of a country like the United States (just to give one example), you haven’t really covered the full implications of what it means to affirm free will or reject it.

The free will debate isn’t merely academic.  There are some really serious issues to saying either that it exists or doesn’t exist.   One way or another, there are definite consequences to picking one side or the other in the fight over free will. Fail to attend any of them sufficiently with an adequate amount of forethought given to each, and you risk serious repercussions for society as a whole and for its individual citizens in their day to day lives.


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