How would we behave if we truly believed free will did not exist?

London 2012 Olympic gold medal, free will
If free will does not exist, then we should not praise good behaviours.

Can we behave as though free will doesn’t exist? What would we do if we believed that all human behaviour (and everything else, for that matter) was determined by causal chains which stretch back to the Big Bang? What would we make of other people’s behaviour? Would we still judge them for bad actions and praise them for good actions? Would we ever punish any criminals? Would we award prizes to those who’ve performed well?

Scientific evidence

After all, if we don’t believe in free will, all of these actions are not caused by the person themselves. They are caused by a series of causal chains affecting their bodies, brains, and everything else around them, which stretch back a great distance into the past. Unless we’re willing to state that souls or other spiritual entities exist and have some as yet unknown effect on causality, all the best scientific evidence we have points to the fact that free will is illusory. Plenty of people in the world believe this to be the truth. The problem is, however, that these same individuals walk around judging people, praising people, assigning moral and political responsibility as though everyone still has free will. Why?

Can we act as though free will doesn’t exist?

Mugshot of John Hinckley Jr.
John Hinckley Jr. famously pleaded insanity after shooting Reagan.

There is, perhaps, one way which we can behave as though free will doesn’t exist. Consider this: it is commonly understood that if a person lacks the ability to control their behaviour, then their punishments for criminal activities are significantly reduced. This usually means that if a criminal can be legally classified as insane, then – rather than being imprisoned – they are treated and rehabilitated. If we apply this argument to all criminals (given that no one is in control of their actions) then rather than attempting to punish, we should attempt to treat and rehabilitate every single criminal. This seems like a plausible thing to do. It is, at least, possible in practice.

However, truly behaving as though free will doesn’t exist would mean ceasing all praise and blame for every single person in the world, even yourself. Our entire system of moral and political responsibility, including all praise and blame, would have to go. You only have to think about this for a second to realise the havok this would wreak. Image everyone displaying utter indifference to every possible behaviour in the world. It doesn’t bear thinking about.


Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes of Sinope

Of course, not everyone believes that free will does not exist. It is only a minority of people who hold this belief. If these people were to behave as though moral and political praise and blame are worthless, however, they would likely be classified as insane; individuals unfit for living in normal society.

There have been instances in the past of people behaving in line with their (seemingly) outlandish philosophical beliefs who would, in contemporary thought, be regarded as insane. Perhaps the most famous is Diogenes of Sinope, an Ancient Greek philosopher. A widely reported anecdote states that:

he destroyed his only possession, a single wooden bowl, on seeing a peasant boy drink from the hollow of his hands. He used to stroll about in full daylight with a lamp, because he claimed to be looking for an honest man. He lavishly praised the virtues of dogs (which eat anything, make no fuss about where to sleep, perform natural bodily functions in public without unease, and know instinctively who is friend and who is foe), all of which makes them superior to humans in his view. At one time, he poured scorn on Plato’s characterization of man as a featherless biped, by bringing a plucked chicken into the lecture room. He is also credited with the first known use of the word “cosmopolitan”, claiming to be a “cosmopolites” (“citizen of the world”).

He showed his rejection of “normal” ideas about human decency by eating in the street, masturbating in the marketplace, urinating on those who insulted him, defecating in the theatre, and pointing at people with his middle finger.

I remember reading another anecdote some time ago, again from Ancient Greece, in which a follower of Zeno of Elea (famous for his paradoxes of motion) was wandering around the streets waving his arms around, shouting that everything was an illusion because motion could not exist. At one point in this frantic outburst he dislocated his shoulder. A doctor came to his side, but before putting his arm back into its socket said something along the lines of:

I’d like to put your arm back into its socket, but Zeno teaches us that at the smallest moment in time, everything is neither moving to where it is, nor moving to where it is not. I cannot move your arm to where it is not, because no time elapses for it to move there; nor can I move it to where it is, because it is already there. At the smallest instances of time, your arm is motionless. If everything is motionless at every instant, and time is entirely composed of instants, then I can’t move your arm back into its socket.

Bust of Zeno of Elea
Zeno of Elea

The anecdote concludes with the follower of Zeno giving up his beliefs on the spot and begging for the doctor to put his arm back into its socket.

Neither of these anecdotes may be wholly true, but they illustrate a point well. Individuals may feel very strongly about certain beliefs (including the non-existence of free will) but acting on these beliefs can lead to behaviour that would typically be considered to be insane. If beliefs could lead to behaviour that contradicts too much with societal norms of human behaviour, then in order to exist functionally in that society, it is best to avoid acting like you have these beliefs.

Innate moral responsibility?

It feels like there is more than this, however. It doesn’t seem right that everyone who believes that free will doesn’t exist only keeps giving moral and political praise and blame because they don’t want to seem insane. They just naturally keep acting as though free will exists.

I’ve studied free will and moral responsibility over the years and long ago came to the conclusion that free will cannot exist. Yet I still walk around approbating moral praise and blame and always have. It would just feel wrong not to. It feels almost like I’m unable not to. There is a feeling of innateness here; perhaps moral responsibility is, in some fashion, hardwired into the human brain?

Moral responsibility module

There could be a moral responsibility mental module. A module is a computational system in the brain that is hypothesised to both aid and constrain cognition. The best example of a module is the language acquisition device (first proposed by Chomsky), which was proposed to explain several strange features of language learning and use.

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky

Children learn language very quickly, with little or no explicit tuition and from relatively little data. Furthermore, once a child has learned a language and grown into an adult, the task of learning a second language becomes extremely difficult and the process becomes very slow, with lots of tuition required and a need to be exposed to very large amount of language data. Chomsky argued that this could be explained by an innate mechanism that contains a large amount of grammatical parameters and directs a pre-speaking child towards important features of the language data all around them in the first few years of life. This is referred to as the “critical period” for language learning. Once it has passed, the language acquisition module becomes inactive, making it very difficult to learn a language later in life.

Importantly, modules are supposed to be specialised (they only process a single kind of information), informationally encapsulated (they don’t need any other mental systems in order to function), and fast in their operation (very fast, i.e. a split second). This is important because if a moral responsibility module exists, then it will operate quickly in response to moral behaviour regardless of an individual’s other beliefs; exactly what I have been discussing. Essentially, this module would constrain cognition in a way that forces people to make moral responsibility judgements despite other beliefs they may have, such as free will not existing.

So there we have it: people can say what they want about free will, but they will undoubtedly find it impossible to stop behaving as though others have free will. Their moral responsibility modules will take care of that.

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