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11. FREE WILL Previous | Next

Your decisions are not your own

EVERY day, we live under the spell of an illusion: that our conscious mind is autonomous, and in control of our bodies and decisions. We think we have free will, yet as neuroscience digs ever deeper into the mystery of the human brain, that delusion becomes harder to justify. We are, as one neuroscientist told me as he used a powerful magnet to take control of my body’s movements, brain-machines.

This runs contrary to our every impulse. Our gut instinct, our experience, is that we make the decisions to move, to think, to eat, to steal, to lie, to punch and kick. We have constructed the entire edifice of our civilisation on this idea. Is science wrong when it says free will is a delusion? If not, what does it mean for our sense of self? And for our morality – can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control?

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Location:Selden, NY
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#1 - Posted: 08/08/2008 19:30

The problem here is that we forget that we are not just composed of body and mind. Yes, the mind is dependent on the brain. But we have something that transcends both mind and body, and that is our spirit, the dwellingplace of our conscience. The Bible says (God speaking): "My commandments are written on your hearts." That means that each human being has an innate sense of right and wrong, I don't believe there is an excuse for the various "rages" or "temporary insanity" etc., that are often used in court cases. If we get off the merry-go-round that our fast-paced society has us on, and reflect on "doing unto others as we would have them do unto us," we might be better able to control our impulses. Science that says free will is a delusion is way off the track, and a dangerous notion, as it removes all need of a moral code. Can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control? In most cases, Yes, because they had subconscious control, by way of their conscience.

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#2 - Posted: 11/08/2008 14:38

How does it remove need of a moral code? Moral codes arose to help societies work, to prevent individuals from being entirely shortsightedly selfish all the time. They're still needed.

I wonder if the realisation that there is no absolute free will might help us refine our moral codes? If we're not distracted by notions of blame (and thus revenge)...  

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#3 - Posted: 11/08/2008 22:37

I am not a scholar so I will not act like one. I hope to approach this discussion from the angle of logic (hope that is not a bad word here). If "Free Will" means that you have complete control over your thoughts, decisions, and actions, then I have to say we do not have it. I, for one, can not control the thoughts that sometimes pop into my mind. For example, if someone does something that makes me angry, I think angry thoughts. If someone says or does something that is humorous to me, I think humorous or happy thoughts. I have not sat down and consciously decided what stimuli will or will not trigger either of these. I do, however, have control over how I react to those stimuli. Sometimes it is not appropriate to react to either anger or humor due to location, circumstance etc. I do realize that there are people who are not as in control as others. Some of these, however, do choose to seek counseling. Therefore, I personally define “Free Will” as the ability to decide what I will or will not do in reaction to my thoughts. Call “Free Will” what we may, it still does not relieve one from the responsibility of their actions, barring any "valid" mental disorders. I think HELPTOWRITE is addressing the fact that if this is not true and no one can help what they do in response to their thoughts, then we should do away with laws and regulations for, in that case, it doesn’t matter whether the law exists or not, a person will do what they will do. Also, it is not fair to punish those who are not responsible for their actions, hence we have the, much abused, “not guilty due to insanity” plea. If one is not capable of consciously deciding to not be “entirely shortsightedly selfish all the time”, substitute thievish, murderous, etc. for selfish, a fear of punishment for breaking a code/law against those acts will not be a deterrent. Thus, the time spent writing such codes/laws would be better spent elsewhere. I know that, in spite of having such codes/laws in place we still have our share of these acts committed. However, I suggest that the rate of these acts would increase dramatically were those codes/laws removed entirely. Likewise, I suggest those rates would drop were they enforced the way they should be. I am not suggesting this will stop people from wanting to commit these offenses, but it will help them in deciding it is not worth the risk to do so. Free Will? Limited Free Will? Neither? In any case, are we Free of the responsibility for what we choose to do?

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#4 - Posted: 05/09/2008 16:48

I can't agree that a leaning towards selfishness/murder or whatever means you shouldn't be punished for it - even if it is an overriding compulsion. We have to accept that, even if free will is an illusion, those whose mental state makes it impossible for them to live happily alongside others, have to be somehow removed from our society, whether by incarceration or hospitalisation. Either way, it's the removal of freedom. Otherwise, society breaks down. The interesting thing is that this seems like the one anomaly where a scientific "truth" might be best ignored. Though it's not exactly scientifically justifiable, don't we have to pretend people do have free will in order for society to work?

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