The convenient delusion we human beings possess objective Free Will is a handicap that, at the very least, ironically threatens to prolong the irrelevance of our stunted individual lives.
The whole argument about non-existent of free will is a trojan for the scientific method and a necessary scepticism about received wisdom (in whatever form). It’s a Trojan because the argument itself is somewhat disingenuous: the absolute non-existence of free will in the context of our evolved consciousness bound within finite brains is an easy and logical observation. It’d be rather a failure of imagination and a misleading conceit to presume anything otherwise, in some divine or transcendent way (i.e. defying empirical explanation). Yet this conceit seems all too commonplace – a stumbling block most seem unable to resist bumbling into, scatter gunning tautologies as they try to evade looking the conceit square in the eye. On the other hand, the absence of absolute free will is – at this stage in human evolution – little more than a helpful humility, sobering the conceit and perhaps directing more minds into a gradual confrontation with a possibility that cuts the legs from under religion in a far more profound way than mere logical address of the thousand idiosyncrasies that can’t be reconciled and chase the role and relevance of the deity back into the stubborn viscera. Free will undermines from a different angle.
But it’s still no more than a trojan observation, at its heart, far easier to tackle head-on than by refusenik evasion. Why easier to meet head-on? Because if one shakes off the conceit of some wonderful transcendent property defining emergent consciousness and simply takes to heart the possible truth “there is no free will in biological or mechanical systems alike” and accepts it as fundamentally correct (to the best of all empirical observation, experiment and inference) we can move onto the next practical question: “so what?”.
There may come a time when we’re able to quantify and categorise and map the entire substrate network of 120 billion synapses in a way that encompasses all our actions, feelings and motivations as the bald interplay of evolved neurological contra-indications. We may be able to “know” all the variables in a such a way to lay bare the whole mind: yours, mine, everyone’s. We can abandon the conceit of exceptionalism, as individuals, whatever ambitions we might retain about the potential for humankind to make progress. So what? The aspiration that’s a natural corollary of being agnostic to the very existence of free will can drive us forward regardless, thanks to the scientific method as it must be applied to tackle this most monumental of sacred cows.
But in the here and now: no free will – so what?
It’s perfectly plausible we are an interim stage of human development – a caterpillar finally gathering enough knowledge (energy) to begin the cocoon that’ll transform us into some unknown future butterfly (if all goes well). Right now, though, we must be pragmatic; because there’s nothing else we can be. No free will? Very likely. The impression of free will? It’s enough. It’s all we’ve got, anyway. It’s not a choice, at this point in the human narrative. Reality is a complex narrative engendered mostly by the brain and partly by an impression of the objective physics of the universe in which we live.
The only thing that matters when it comes to the existence of free will is how our mind’s mediate action in the least constrained, less prejudiced, less shackled way; because it’s only logical to assume there’s more thinking power in more neurons (i.e. more people) involved in the task of pushing the envelope; driving humanity forward and being as little mired in the accidents of our primate (primitive) genesis. Obsession with religion, the conceit of a benevolent creator (externalising – howsoever eloquently debated – fairly drab, needy and perfectly understandable aspects of our monkey brains), banking on free will as if it matters – for one’s self-worth, perhaps? – is a foundation of quicksand. It’ll cling and cloy for generations more, retarding human progress by denying our species the full quota of open minds bent on the practicalities of building some future that COULD transcend; if not the universe, then certainly the limitations of our hard-won inheritance we’re born doomed to care about and be limited by, but ultimately must overcome.
The absence of free will is, as I say, a trojan subject with a bigger role (one hopes) in throwing off the shackles we’ve carried down to the present right alongside our genes. Life’s still brief. Time isn’t. It’s ironic that the conceit of free will and divinely-legislated self-importance is neatly counter-balanced by a new, healthier conceit: that what we are isn’t what we must always be, what we know now isn’t the limit of what we could know. It’s a faith, of sorts, but like the absence of any evidence of a deity, there’s anything but an absence of evidence of the creative invention of the human being.
It’s as plain as a Bulgarian pin-up.
It’s so overwhelmingly demonstrated it’s as reliable a paradigm as one of the beautiful examples of creativity married to scientific methodology – in the face of received wisdom – the theory of evolution by natural selection. It’s just high time nature wasn’t doing the snail’s pace selection – her criteria isn’t fit for the task of knowing the universe better – and we don’t need to pretend we have some objective god-given free will to accelerate the species wheresoever it’s going; to make our short sloppy lives a little less irrelevant in the godless grand scheme of things…
p.s. there’s nothing more glib than the self-satisfied apologists for everyday life (theirs, of course) putting the humdrum biological imperatives on a pedestal merely because it passes the time most pleasantly. That thinking leads to making an opiate of comfort and satisfaction; and this, more deep-rooted than any particular religion, is an eloquent id in ego clothing (to borrow a clumsy Freudian distinction).