Several times on this blog I have mentioned that Free Will is largely an illusion, but I have never delved deeply into the subject. I intend to rectify that situation today. What is Free Will?
the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion
There are two levels to which Free Will applies, the individual and the collective (society, nation, culture and so on.) I do not intend to talk much about individuals today, except to say that in so far as most "decisions" are made in unconscious, which by definition is outside of awareness, Free Will does not exist in those cases. At least to those of us who a psychologically inclined, it is clear that individuals much more often than not have little idea what they are doing or why they are doing it, despite constant human chatter which explains next to nothing. The untrustworthy, slippery Ego, the aware part of the psyche which chatters, the source of all that meaningless babbling one sees on the internet and in daily human interactions, fools itself into thinking it is running the show, but that is mostly an illusion. That said, there is what I would call trivial Free Will in individual decision-making—am I going to do my laundry today? Will I apply for that job? Will I go talk to my girlfriend about things she does that bother me for reasons I can't quite pinpoint? (Maybe you've hooked up again with a person just like your saintly but troublesome Mother, but that tendency is outside of awareness.) There are a million other trivial examples. Most of the important stuff happens outside awareness. Psychological studies, starting with people like Freud and Jung, have made this fact abundantly clear in the last century. Yet humans act as if these findings do not exist. Imagine that!
At the level of societies, you can see what little Free Will exists in political decision-making. In the modern world, there are basically two kinds of complex societies (with many subtle variations). In traditional societies, which are historically vestigial and almost invariably politically repressive, the will of the society is the will of the leader or small group (oligarchy) which runs it. In this case, the Free Will argument reverts back to the case of the individual leader(s), who are strangers to themselves in the sense just discussed. For example, these people do not know in any deep sense why they believe power is their birthright, or, in other cases, why they are hopelessly driven to acquire, maintain and wield it. If there is an oligarchy, as in China, small group psychological dynamics will affect decision-making, but these dynamics exist largely outside of awareness. I will therefore dismiss this case and move on.
In "advanced" modern societies such as the United States (or Sweden, or South Korea, etc.), politics confers the appearance of Free Will, but discretion in politics is also largely an illusion because the scope of decisions which can be made is disappointingly small. Yes, it is true, laws are passed, human "rights" are granted or taken away, certain behaviors are discouraged and punished, policies are enacted, and so on. But it is here that we must remember the definition of Free Will given at the outset—the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate. Unfortunately, all the fundamentally important "decisions" humans might make conflict with biological necessity (fate).
I will illustrate what I mean through a list of crucial examples.
Human violence — Surely it not necessary to argue that humans are violent, aggressive animals. Violence is perpetrated by individuals and collectives (organized war). Can humans or societies refrain from violence? Do they have Free Will in this regard? In rare cases, they can, both in individuals (pacifists) and states (neutral Switzerland). By in large, however, neither individuals or states will refrain from violence if they have convinced themselves that aggression is called for (leaving out crimes of passion). In modern societies, the situation is complex. I covered this subject to my satisfaction in Thinking About The Nation State, so I suggest you read it.
Technology über alles — The love of technology is so central to the human enterprise that it is hard to know where to begin. Once invented, if successful, a technology is always mindlessly adopted, regardless of any destructive consequences it might have when applied. This consideration alone tells us Something Deep is going on, and largely removes Free Will from the picture. Think of it this way—technologies might be invented but simply rejected as undesirable (e.g. robots replacing humans who need work, nuclear weapons). Yet, this kind of rejection never happens!
An equally compelling argument regarding technology concerns how problems are solved. One example which is widely applicable to other things will suffice. As you may know, the world's fisheries reached "peak fish" sometime in the 1980s (if the exaggerated Chinese data is corrected). That obviously poses a big problem for humankind. There were two responses, both technological in nature, although a third option was available. First, there was the invention and widespread adoption of aquaculture (fish farming) accompanied by "improvements" to fish-catching technology (bigger boats, sonar, more effective nets, etc.). The road not taken required a behavioral change—refrain from overfishing the oceans to let fish populations recover, establish protected areas, and so on. Needless to say, the only "behavioral" change humans can implement is to apply more and "better" technology to fix their self-created problems. (Actually, there was another important behavioral change—fishermen harvested unexploited or deeper waters, which amounts to more of the same behavior which created the problem in the first place.) All these considerations strongly imply that Free Will is not operating in this overfishing example, and many others we could bring up, for example, in mitigating global warming. This is why I am very confident that geo-engineering will eventually be tried on a very large scale—humans particularly love Heroic Technology. See my post Horseshit Stories.
Inevitable Social Inequality — Both the anthropological literature and honest observation of the current state of the world are quite clear on this point—social inequality in large, complex human societies is an inevitable fact of life. No amount of "progressive" legislation has changed the situation, nor will it change the situation in the future. Social inequality, expressed through money, power and status, is universal and pronounced everywhere we look, which strongly indicates that we are looking at something which is deeply rooted in Human Nature. Social inequality is what I term an emergent (latent) property of the human animal in the sense that it was only after the creation of large, complex societies during the Holocene (as Hunter-Gatherer societies were replaced) that this tendency become obvious. Even if "progressive" policies were to hold sway temporarily, as they did in the United States in the decades just after World War II, the tendency toward great social inequalty eventually reasserts itself, as it has in the United States. To be fair, "progressive" policies do have a limited scope which has been successfully applied—the worst abuses, like slavery, were abolished, and other desirable outcomes like freedom of religion & speech, were established, at least for now. However, these limited "victories" do not entitle us to conclude that Free Will is operating in the choice of the kind of society humans will live in. Humans have never been able to implement an equitable social arrangement in a large, complex society. That this is possible is the central delusion of "progressive" politics.
The Growth Imperative — Of course, this is the Big One, and one look at this curve proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I have often argued on DOTE that making babies and increasing their material comfort (i.e. their survival chances) are biological imperatives which are non-negotiable. See my post Is Global Economic Growth Persistent? I will not rehash those arguments today. The only (minor) exceptions I can think of which conflict with that view are China's "one child" policy, which was implemented by an authoritarian communist government when China's economy was resource-constrained, or infanticide in similarly constrained human societies (e.g. historic India), or other measures like abstinence and prolonged nursing (pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers). When not resource-constrained, human populations and consumption will grow. There is also a relationship between fertility and living standards where greater material prosperity slows the rate of child birth. Thus there seems to be a sliding scale
procreation <——> wealth/consumptionwhich needs to be explained. (An increase in one correlates with a decrease in the other.) I will need to comment on this another time.
Generally speaking, once a pattern of behavior is established, if it is rooted in biological necessity, it will not and can not be changed. Therefore, Free Will simply does not apply. For example, climate activists argue reasonably enough that the remaining exploitable hydrocarbons must be left in the ground. They are laboring under the illusion that Free Will can (and will) be exercised in this case to prevent a future climate catastrophe. But those hydrocarbons give modern societies the energy they require to function and grow, and without that energy the very existence of those societies is in doubt. Those hydrocarbons will be exploited if they can be. And if those hydrocarbons run out, humans will burn trees, other biomass, or any other flammable thing they can to keep warm and keep the lights on. You might look at my post The Inherent Contradictions Of Pro-Growth Envionmentalism. Case closed.
Surely I would have to write a book to properly flesh out the limits of Free Will in human action. However, I am confident that if I did write that book, I would strengthen, not weaken, the case I've made today. Humans like to think of themselves as self-determining beings with the wherewithal to decide their fate at every step of the way. Simply put, this happy delusion is not the way human life works. Just because humans don't think of themselves as limited does not mean they are not.
I will leave it at that today.