Listening to an interview of a physicist recently, I was struck by his remark that 99% of scientists believe there is no human free will–that what we perceive as free will is just an illusion or mind-trick. Everything, including everything that happens inside the human brain, necessarily obeys the laws of physics. So, being the nerd that I am, I’ve been researching this, and it seems that among physicists and neuroscientists at least, he’s right.
But because the implications of this are so potentially disruptive to society, it’s not talked about much. As one piece I read put it, “there is no free will, but we’re better off believing in it anyway.”
So the philosopher Saul Smilansky:
advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.
Think about that: “If the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”
About a hundred or so years ago, I took a course on free will and determinism. And I’ve studied philosophy on and off in the years since then. So I’ve long known about hard determinists–I just didn’t realize how completely they seem to have carried the day. As the physicist put it, to believe in human free will you have to believe in miracles–that is, that the laws of physics are sometimes violated or suspended. Scientists don’t believe in miracles, ergo they don’t believe in human free will.
Which brings me to something I read this morning to the effect that stereotypically the right concerns itself with freedom and the left concerns itself with equality. And I imagine the world’s scientists watching as the two camps argue, shaking their heads with the knowledge that both are building their claims on premises that are nothing more than illusions.