The Most Dangerous Idea

Philosophy and Humanity’s Most Dangerous Idea

I recently submitted a paper on inter-religious dialogue. The paper was accepted for publication but one comment made by one of the reviewers was disturbing. It was in response to this sentence in my paper:

Fruitful dialogue and relations between religions is possible only with a willingness to question one’s own assumptions and an openness to the ideas and experiences of other people.

to which the reviewer replied:

“One cannot choose to be open or tolerant, it’s a result of neurochemistry that human beings cannot influence.”

The reviewer demanded I remove my sentence. I refused. The editor backed me up.

Let the reviewer’s comment sink in. This person, allegedly a professional on-faculty philosopher, not only believes human beings cannot choose to not be intolerant to others, he wants to censor a mention that we can be.

This person believes that we lack free will, that we cannot even question our assumptions and beliefs. Everything about us, this person claims, is determined and we cannot influence it. This view that we lack free will, that we are helplessly the result of chemistry or external events, is not unique to this person. It is a belief that some people have chosen (yes, I mean that word) and it has bubbled into the mix of philosophical debate for a long time.

The Dangerous Ideology of Denial

The implications of this person’s view are chilling and shows how the idea that humans lack free will is the most dangerous idea humans have invented. The reviewer implies (backed up in several other comments) that we cannot promote dialogue and understanding between people. This person’s view is that fruitful dialogue and relations between people either happen or they don’t based on people’s chemical makeup. We cannot affect it. People who refuse to listen and consider other points of view cannot help it. Bigots cannot help being bigots, they may be born that way.  They also cannot change. They cannot even question their bigotry. By extension–we cannot question their attitudes and actions.

Denying free will denies most everything that makes us human. If we couldn’t change anything about ourselves, we’d just be automatons. If we could not change anything about ourselves, then what the “we” refers to would no longer have any meaning. It implies that many if not all of our thoughts and feelings have no meaning. Ethics itself has less meaning if it has any: no one chooses their behaviors and therefore no one deserves praise or blame for them. Denying free will means that telling people certain actions are good or bad is meaningless because people are unable to choose their actions. It means that you do not create anything, you contribute nothing because you do not do anything, in fact, there is no you. What you think is you is just passive chemical reactions. These thoughts about you make some people gleeful, and they are sharpening their attacks on my article right now. They love the idea that you have no free will.

Why would some people chose to believe there is no free will? A clue is that no one claims that they lack free will, only that other people lack free will. Their belief that others lack free will means that they do not have to listen to others thoughts and feelings because those thoughts and feelings are just determined events lacking meaning. You complaining of injustice has no more worth than the sound of dripping water.

This is why the denial of free will is the most dangerous idea. If they can convince you that you have no free will then they can convince you to accept any injustice they inflict on you. If they can convince you that you that your thoughts and actions are beyond your control, they can convince you to think and do what they want you to think and do. The claim that “you have no choice” is used from abusive individuals to oppressive governments to convince you that you must do what they want you to do. If they can convince you that your feelings are not your own, they can get you to let them control your feelings. If you fall for the denial of free will then fighting for your rights is a waste of time: it is all determined, no one has free will, your lack of rights is basically set in stone. Nothing happens because people tried to make it happen. Suffering and tragedy must be accepted. If they can get you to believe the absurdity that you have no free will, they can get you to accept atrocities.

The worst use of your free will is to choose to believe that you lack free will.

The denial of free will is philosophically indefensible, as William James showed. It also is a hypothesis that cannot scientifically be proven or disproven (blips on a monitor do not tell us what is happening, just what affects it has). This isn’t stopping an army of neuroscientists and cognitive scientists armed with the ideology of determinism to try to convince you that you have no free will. They will tell you that love, charity, sympathy, and other positive qualities are just caused by brain chemistry and structures. Two examples that occurred this week as I am writing this: If you feel no sympathy for homeless people, one neuroscientist said, not your fault, your brain causes it. The statement was eagerly covered by major newspapers. Another neuroscientist claimed political extremists are created by the brain reacting to social conditions. Again, the corporate media loved it because “you have no choice” is also a tactic used by advertisers to convince people they must buy things. This last belief about extremists is the type of belief the reviewer had chosen: one is an extremist or not based on chemical reactions in the brain and one cannot change that.

If our society adopts the ideology pushed by the anti-free will gang then we will justify a barbaric and hierarchical brutality. It is no coincidence that fundamentalist extremism is often based on Calvinism or Wahhabism–ideologies that deny free will.  In the ideology of denial of free will, anyone whose actions are deemed antisocial and undesirable can be condemned as unreformable because they cannot change. These people cannot choose to be good and tolerant. Therefore, they must be dealt with not as moral and sentient beings but as things to be controlled if not eliminated.  Human beings ideologically reduced to determined objects can be treated like dirt–or rivers–things to be damned up, diverted, pushed around, or piled up wherever is convenient. That attitude is nothing new; it is what justified the choices to burn witches, condemn thousands to asylums, justify slavery and colonization, and so on. Denying a person has free will justifies any treatment of them, because that denial dehumanizes them.

The Denial Refuted

Fortunately, the denial of human free will is philosophically easily defeated, which is why people like the reviewer want to ban discussion of free will. A primary argument against free will is that material objects are determined by external forces and so are human beings. The argument goes that human beings can be influenced by external factors, therefore they are always determined by external factors. This is the naive argument against free will. It naively assumes that because it does not have knowledge of other peoples’ internal will, only of some of the circumstances around other people, that people act only in response to external circumstances. Such a lack of critical examination of human beings is unacceptable. Humans are complex entities and our theory must include that reality. Yes, human beings can be affected by external forces but that does not mean they are not also capable of self-determination.

Humans are free agents who possess a mix of qualities.  Some qualities can be easily changed, other qualities are rigid, and some qualities are in the middle that are difficult but not impossible to change. You cannot change your height, but you can change most of your attitudes–like whether you are willing to listen to someone. Similarly, agency is a matter of degree. It’s not something you either have or don’t. Agency is a continuum. Lower animals have some agency, but not as much as higher animals. A child has some agency, but not as much as an adult. Each person’s agency increases and decreases based upon their choices. If you take certain drugs, you decrease your agency. If you read good philosophy, you increase your critical thinking skills and this increases your agency. Your free will affects how much agency you have.

Your awareness that you can act to improve your life is one of your most powerful assets. The power that you have is why some people want to convince you that you do not have free will. If they can convince you that “you have no choice” you will not try to improve your life. You surrender your agency to the will of others.

The fact that your choices are influenced by biology, history, upbringing, and so on has no bearing on your free will. All of those influencing factors are you. You are not separate from them. They are influencing, maybe even coercive forces, but they are not controlling forces if you exercise your free will. Same with your subconscious–it influences but does not control you if you exercise your free will. Your subconscious is you influencing yourself. Understanding your motivations and drives allows you to actively work against them should you wish. You can exercise your free will on yourself. In fact we have a name for people who lack free will or agency to control themselves. We call them “insane,” among other names, meaning that we understand that they are powerless to escape from their state. “Insane” is clearly distinct from “sane,” however they are exactly defined, and “sane” includes the ability to question and chose.

Another primary argument against free will is the assumption that free will is an illusion. A famous expression of this was by Baruch Spinoza who said that “men think they are free because they are ignorant of the causes of their actions.” But this argument is self-defeating in two ways. First: Stating that free will is an illusion implies that you are imagining the concept of free will. But if an entity has no free will, how could it ever imagine such a thing? From its predetermined state, it cannot have a reference to the concept of free will.

Second: An illusion must be imagined by an entity capable of having an illusion. What sort of entity could have an illusion about whether or not it has free will? That entity would have to be consciousness. Some conscious entity must have an illusion and if so capable, must also be capable of questioning the illusion and apprehending what is real. But a lack of free will implies a lack of consciousness–that an entity is unable to chose to question itself or its experience. Clearly, we human beings are entities who can question ourselves and our experiences and are capable of having illusions and of apprehending reality. We must therefore have free will and the illusion is that we do not. The very debate over free will is itself a defeater of the denial of free will.

Finally, how could the denial of free will take into account a person’s capacity to engage in rational deliberation over a decision that includes a person’s acknowledgement of internal biases and external influences? Any decision making process is affected by biases and influences, but those do not negate free will. Influences limit the choices and possibilities, but persons would still be choosing from among the available options. The capability to engage in rational deliberations while being aware of the influences upon those deliberations, like the capability to question the possibility of illusions, requires consciousness, which in turn requires free will.

These very briefly summarized arguments are hardly exhaustive. The denial of free will could be summed up as being an attempt to reduce the definition of humanity to a simplistic caricature. Choosing to believe that people are determined gives one the illusion that people and society are easily understood. Denying that people have freedom engenders absolutist thinking that reduces personal and social issues to theoretical formulas. Reductionism makes it easier to make judgments, but it diminishes the capacity to make accurate judgments. Absolutist thinking leads to many social ills, from personal bigotry to systemic oppression. William James showed that rejecting determinism is necessary to overcome absolutism. Fortunately, we have the capability to choose not to fall for the dangerous illusion that we have no free will.


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