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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Do We Have Free Will or Does Our Biology Control Us?

An article that has appeared in Scientific American discusses both sides of the fence in the free will versus the programmed brain issue.

While this is not an issue for me, it is nevertheless, one for a good number of people, and that is the reason I feel compelled to give it mention here via some brief excerpts.

"Many scientists and philosophers are convinced that free will doesn’t exist at all. According to these skeptics, everything that happens is determined by what happened before—our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action—and this fact makes it impossible for anyone to do anything that is truly free. This kind of anti-free will stance stretches back to 18th century philosophy, but the idea has recently been getting much more exposure through popular science books and magazine articles. Should we worry? If people come to believe that they don’t have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?

[ ... ]

The Western conception idea of free will seems bound up with our sense of moral responsibility, guilt for misdeeds and pride in accomplishment. We hold ourselves responsible precisely when we think that our actions come from free will. In this light, it’s not surprising that people behave less morally as they become skeptical of free will. Further, the [... ] result fits with the idea that people will behave less responsibly if they regard their actions as beyond their control. If I think that there’s no point in trying to be good, then I’m less likely to try.

[ ... ]

Many philosophers and scientists reject free will and, while there has been no systematic study of the matter, there’s currently little reason to think that the philosophers and scientists who reject free will are generally less morally upright than those who believe in it. But this raises yet another puzzling question about the belief in free will. People who explicitly deny free will often continue to hold themselves responsible for their actions and feel guilty for doing wrong. Have such people managed to accommodate the rest of their attitudes to their rejection of free will? Have they adjusted their notion of guilt and responsibility so that it really doesn’t depend on the existence of free will? Or is it that when they are in the thick of things, trying to decide what to do, trying to do the right thing, they just fall back into the belief that they do have free will after all?"

read entire article

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