Life without free will

Given that a materialistic theory of mind is becoming more and more mainstream, we must face the prospect of living our lives without free will.  That is not to say that our lives will be predictable or even determined.  Given what we know about dynamical systems, computer science and quantum mechanics it is almost certain that life is completely unpredictable and undetermined.  However, there is no “you” or “me to make decisions about what we do.  Results from neuroscience (e.g. Bill Newsome’s lab at Stanford) show that there are neurons in cortex that fire before a monkey makes a decision and the stimulation of some of these neurons can influence a monkey’s choice.  We too are at the mercy of our neurons.

So the question I have is once a large fraction of the population believes that free will does not exist,  will that change society.   Although this is a dynamical systems question where the belief of free will is some aspect of the state of the system and what I ask is how the system evolves subsequent to reaching a state of no belief in free will, I will address it using language that still connotes some sense of agency or directed action since it is more convenient to do so.  However, keep in mind that everything I say is with respect to how  society will evolve after it attains a state where there is no longer a belief in free will.

One possibility is that people will become more relaxed and not worry so much about the consequences of their actions since they have no control anyway.  I doubt this will be the case because people are so hard wired biologically to believe in control of their actions that intellectual knowledge will not affect their day to day life.  People will still feel regret and remorse, joy and sadness.  So, I don’t think society will lapse into a hedonistic free-for-all for example.

I think it could change the legal system though.  As I posted before,  if there is no free will then it will become less useful to view crime in terms of intent and motive but rather on what should be done for maximum benefit to society, including the perpetrators welfare.  However,  the emotions governing fairness, revenge and vindication will still exist so people may still want to keep some aspect of punishment.  This may end up in a political stalemate where some fraction of the population will insist on maintaining the need for retribution whereas the rest will simply view justice in terms of containment of defective machines.

Will it affect personal relationships?  Will it take the bloom off of love and romance?  Will people still treat one another in the same way as they do now?  My sense is that people will still basically do what they do now although with a meta-level twist to it.  Some may not take insults so personally.   The knowledge of no free will may actually reinforce the notion that communication between people is important and desirable since people will be more attune to the fact that their words can impact a person’s behavior.  How a person acts will depend on their internal states and the external inputs they receive.  People may become more strategic in providing those inputs, something masterful manipulators already do today.

Will it make people more open to socialistic notions since a person is not responsible for their successes or failures?  People are just cogs in a big machine rolling along after all.  They have no control over how hard they work or how creative they are.  Those things are just a combination of genetics and environment.  Like in a restaurant where the waiters pool their tips together and share it equally, would people be more inclined to share the wealth of society?  I have a feeling that this issue will remain as divided as it is today.  So, my guess is that knowledge of no free will won’t affect our lives dramatically.


Salzman, Britten, and Newsome, Cortical microstimulation influences perceptual judgements of motion direction, Nature 346: 174-177, 1990.

Shadlen and Newsome, Neural Basis of a Perceptual Decision in the Parietal Cortex (Area LIP) of the Rhesus Monkey, J Neurophysiol 86: 1916-1936, 2001.



* fixed a typo in first paragraph 2011-8-9


5 thoughts on “Life without free will

  1. I believe that the concept of free will is going to stay with us for a little while longer than you think. One, even if there is no magic source of free will to be discovered inside our heads, it is still “my” neurons randomly firing, located within the physical entity that is me. Hence, two, the fiction of free will is a useful approximation in the social sphere just like Newtonian physics works reasonably well within the range of experience that ordinary humans inhabit. The materialistic theory of mind will provide a similar kind of intellectual stimulus to your above-average intelligent observer that quantum physics does for its sheer fascination and outlandishness, but will remain of little practical consequence.


  2. x3er wrote, Hence, two, the fiction of free will is a useful approximation in the social sphere just like Newtonian physics works reasonably well within the range of experience that ordinary humans inhabit.


    Furthermore, our civilization pretty heavily relies on the notion of free will—no free will, no responsibility for anything.


  3. As I think I mentioned in another post, I can see free will being a fiction. I don’t feel the same way about qualia, though.


  4. I concur that the illusion of free will seems to have selective advantages, especially in the realm of social interactions. I also agree that qualia is a complete mystery. I can see why it might be a useful scheme for coding but how it arises, I have no idea.


  5. […] I listen to a number of podcasts of science radio shows (e.g. CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, ABC’s The Science Show, BBC’s The Naked Scientists, …) on my long drive home from work each day.  Each week I hear stories and interviews of scientists finding that climate change is worse than they predicted and we’re nearing a point of no return.  (Acidification of the oceans is what scares me the most.)  However, in all of these shows there is always an optimistic undertone that implores us do something about this, under the assumption that we have a choice in what we do.   It is at this point that I can’t help but to smirk because we really don’t have a choice. We’re just a big dynamical (probably stochastic) system that is plunging along.  We may have the capability to experience and witness what is happening (a mystery of which I actually have the privilege to think about for a living) but we don’t have control per se as I wrote about recently. […]


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