Some thoughts on Free Will and Morality

Over the course of several years, through education, discussion and hours upon hours of deep thought, I no longer accept the traditional, mostly-absolute view of 'Free Will'. During some of my discussions, an issue kept coming up which kept me wondering about one particular aspect, though. Mainly, what does this mean for morality and law? How do we hold people 'accountable' to our societal and legal rules if they don't really have a say in their own thoughts and behavior?

For the duration of this article (rant?), when I use the term 'Free Will' without qualification, I am specifically referring to the version of 'Free Will' which has been traditionally held by the majority of the populace for (probably) thousands of years.

It occurs to me that the reason why we can still hold people accountable even without Free Will is because, when our brain is faced with a decision to make, it takes everything possible into account, including memories of laws, taboos, etc, and it even checks to see if anyone important to us would look positively or negatively on a given action.  It does essentially what proponents of Free Will claim that ‘we’ do, just in a deterministic manner.  This is also why promoting real change of behavior in society must always address childhood factors as well as other factors (because the majority of our brain function is ‘set’ by the time we’re teenagers or so), and it is also why we can still desire to remove the more harmful and inaccurate beliefs from society, because it gives our brains more accurate information and less inaccurate information to work with (Consequently, this also means that we have to look at beliefs with a similar perspective, and this might help to explain why some beliefs are much harder to overcome than others, as well as why some people are more or less receptive to change).  

Obviously when the brain is compromised in some way, it isn’t necessarily able to take all of the appropriate factors into account, so we can ‘make decisions’ that we wouldn’t normally make and thus the illusion of ‘Free Will’ often shatters.  Furthermore, if the factors that the brain is taking into account include or are based on faulty information (i.e. inaccurate beliefs, hallucinations, paranoia), the brain doesn’t know the difference and it gives the resultant ‘decision’ that best fits all of it’s preconceptions.  Therefore, if our society includes penalties for certain actions or inaction in a given situation, and if we are well-informed about those penalties, then our brains will take that factor into account whenever a situation seems to require it.  It will also take other factors into account, (many of which we aren't even aware of) which is why perfectly rational people who seem to possess ‘uncompromised’ Free Will are still capable of making decisions which undermine societal laws or taboos.  This explains why our illusion of Free Will does not naturally lead to Fatalism simply from the act of understanding it, as has been argued historically.


There are even more factors which further complicate this.  Recognition of Cognitive Dissonance will often reveal that we had little or no control over the acceptance of mutually exclusive beliefs, otherwise we would not have accepted mutually exclusive beliefs.


In children, the illusion of Free Will is not apparent because it actually doesn’t fully exist yet.  This is one area where most of humanity has progressed to match the reality - in most places, children are not considered to be ‘moral agents’.  Bill Cosby comedically referred to this as ‘Brain Damage’, but the reality is virtually the opposite - children often don’t understand why they seemed to make certain choices because the brain is still absorbing all of the justifications, beliefs, ideas, and other concepts which will form the eventual basis for all of the person’s decision-making.  During childhood, when that process is still going at full speed, their decision-making abilities are similar to someone who possesses what we consider ‘compromised’ Free Will; i.e. decisions which seem to have no rational basis - they do, but the basis just isn't necessarily apparent to either the observer or observed.


For me, this strongly implies that our societal constructs of rules and penalties for breaking those rules are actually still vital for our brains to have these ‘markers’ to refer to when making decisions.  It also implies that our current system of justice (and pretty much all of our past ones, too) is poorly executed, because it does not take all of the important factors into account - in fact, it ignores the most important factors that determine the choices that people make, and it ignores the fact that at any given time every person, regardless of mental state, is virtually forced into making the only decision that they can conceivably make given all of the factors involved.

These ‘markers’ (whatever they are, probably just collections of neurons) also seem to have a sort of entropic property, and they will start to fade if they are not reinforced.  Reinforcement can come in a variety of ways, including the ability to virtually ‘program’ a self-reinforcement mechanism, such as always telling a particular story about how someone was seriously injured due to choosing not to wear a seat belt (done repeatedly during childhood).  Whenever the person thinks about driving, or seat belts, or the story, or even related elements to any of those things, the ‘marker’ will be reinforced.  

Similarly, if one of these markers is relatively unused for long periods of time, the brain will stop referring to it as often, even if it applies to a given situation.  They can also be ‘undone’, sometimes vanishingly quickly, when one learns new information which convinces you that your former ‘marker’ was misplaced.  For example, if a child is taught the story of Santa Claus throughout childhood, often it only takes a single instance of waking up to find your parents hauling in gifts from some secret location to completely vaporize the belief, as well as future expectations of miraculous gifts from an impossible figure.  Later education will (hopefully) reinforce the new ‘marker’, such as learning about the true size of the world, the number of people, how travel works, etc.  Progressive parents might even use this opportunity to explain and demonstrate concepts such as generosity, compassion, what ‘good will’ really means, and continue reinforcing these concepts in the hopes that they will become strong new  ‘markers’ and will guide decision-making later.


When I use mental illness in relation to Free Will, I am referring to the fact that often the person who is experiencing it still believes that they are working under the conditions of a ‘normal’ brain, and it can be strongly argued that many (maybe most) mental illnesses result in the patient believing that they still have complete control over their decisions (i.e. the ‘illusion’ of Free Will without having ‘true’ Free Will.)  In my opinion, this calls into question just how much the rest of us are able to recognize our Free Will in the same regard.  If we only had the illusion of Free Will, would you know it?  How would you determine this?

Furthermore, this brings up an excellent example of hallucination. If a person 'makes a decision' which is wholly based on the content or intensity of a hallucination, was this a 'Free' decision? If not, then I would argue that this would mean that any decision which is made based on faulty information would fall prey to the same exact problem.

I am quite certain that I don't have the most accurate information at my disposal, but all of this seems to be the case based on my understanding of the current research on the subject. I gladly welcome any and all discussion, argument, and correction!


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