Free Will: The Last Great Lie
By Robert Gulack
There are three great comforting lies at the heart of the cruel and corrupt monstrosity we call “Western Civilization”
– three all-important factual allegations that, like Santa Claus, are treasured not because there is scientific evidence for them, but because they offer an emotional cushion some are loathe to live without – the three lies that are the opiate to which nearly everyone is addicted. The Ethical Culture movement has turned its back on two of these lies, but it continues to embrace the third. Now, two out of three ain’t bad. But, by continuing to embrace this third lie, the Ethical Culture movement betrays its mission of teaching its adherents to think clearly and act ethically. Daily use of a narcotic can ease the pain, but it also tends to curdle the mind. What I am urging today is that the Ethical Culture movement should now move on to reject the third lie. It’s time to go cold turkey.
The three lies are: God, immortality, and free will. They are joined together in a religious narrative, founded in medieval theological dogma, which remains the unquestioned basis of our American culture and our American system of law. The narrative goes like this: the universe is governed by an all-powerful benevolent spiritual entity – God – who implants a spiritual essence into people at some point following conception. It is this spiritual essence, the soul, that gives people two unique gifts – gifts they did not get from evolution and do not share with any other animal or plant. These two uniquely human spiritual God-given gifts are free will in this life and immortality in the next. According to traditional religion, it is because we have souls that we can transcend the influences of genes and environment, and even triumph over death itself, as our souls fly back up to heaven.
It is as easy to see the appeal of this narrative as it is to spot the appeal of St. Nicholas. If the universe is indeed governed by an omnipotent force for goodness, then we are not as frail and open to random acts of destruction as we might appear from a review of the morning paper. We have a protector who, in some ultimate sense, cannot be defeated. Our Dad is bigger than their dad.
If we are, indeed, immortal, the loved ones we appear to have lost are, in fact, not lost to us. We shall meet them again, soon, and laugh about the tears we shed at their funerals.
If we, indeed, have free will, then we can take credit when we choose to do good, and feel a thrill of moral superiority when we contemplate those who have chosen to do bad. Indeed, on those occasions when it is the obligation of we good people to punish those bad people – you will notice that genuinely evil people only appear in the third person: it is never “we evil people” or “you evil people” but always “those evil people” – on those occasions when, as I say, it is our obligation to visit upon “evil-doers” the suffering they deserve, we can unload our pent-up feelings of sadism and aggression in a socially-approved way, and we can enjoy an especially delicious sense of how much better we are than whoever it is whose turn it is that day to be executed or otherwise humiliated. Good as it feels to do the right thing, it often feels even better to have the opportunity to look down on other people who are doing the wrong thing.
So there is no problem understanding why these three lies – God, immortality, and free will — have stayed in fashion for centuries. Just like Santa Claus, they make the world appear warm and benevolent and comfy.
In the face of the obvious appeal of this narrative, why has anyone rejected it? Why is it that all progressive thinkers from the Renaissance onward, including, of course, the Ethical Culture movement, have turned their backs on at least some of these comforting lies?
The story goes that Napoleon asked the great scientist Laplace to explain why Laplace had not mentioned God in Laplace’s book on astronomy. “Sire,” Laplace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” There it is, in a nutshell – the scientific outlook. If you can get by without bringing in an additional factual hypothesis, leave it out. Don’t make your theory any more cluttered and complicated than it has to be.
This principle of simplicity is often referred to as Occam’s razor. It was invented by William of Occam, a Franciscan monk who lived eight centuries ago. It’s called the Razor because it cuts out anything you don’t need. (William of Occam, by the way, was the basis of the character played by Sean Connery in the movie The Name of the Rose, so some of you may have already met William of Occam without realizing it.) We use Occam’s razor, usually without consciously considering the matter, whenever we don’t know what’s going on and genuinely want to make the best possible guess. No one objects to using Occam’s razor – the principle of leaving out anything you don’t need — to do physics or biology or to figure out who robbed a particular bank. There are three, and only three, factual issues concerning which the use of Occam’s razor is controversial. In all three cases, Occam’s razor is refusing to give us the answer we want.
What are the three cases? Our old friends: God, immortality, and free will. Those are the three things most people genuinely want to believe in, but for which there is no evidence. People who use the scientific approach with regard to every other factual question will often become emotional on these three topics. They become emotional because they have no evidence, and do not wish to admit it. They may have given up Santa Claus; they may have given up the Virgin Birth of Jesus; they may have given up on transubstantiation. But they don’t want to lose the Big Three. They don’t want to lose their divine Protector, their chance of happiness in Heaven, and their view of themselves as creatures who freely choose their own actions.
Yet, in principle, the right way to handle the questions of God, immortality, and free will is precisely the same way we should handle figuring out who robbed the bank, or which of the kids made that mess in the playroom. We should start by assembling all currently available evidence, and then try to come up with the simplest possible working hypothesis that explains the evidence we have. Tomorrow, we may get our hands on the videotape from the security camera in the bank, and we may then change our minds about who robbed the bank. Tomorrow, one of the kids may come forward and admit what really happened to the fish tank. But we do the best we can at any given moment, with the evidence we have at that moment, and the way to do our best is to apply Occam’s razor.
And this is precisely what Laplace, Darwin, and the Ethical Culture movement have all done with the factual allegation that there is a God. You go through all the evidence, and scientific breakthroughs such as evolutionary theory allow you to explain what you see without bringing in a brand-new class of spiritual entities. At that point, if you are a scientific thinker, you start leaning to atheism. Certainly, a scientific skeptic will no longer make important decisions on the assumption that there is a God. If you hear a voice ordering you to kill your son, for example, you might decide it’s time to get some therapy. The very substantial emotional benefits of monotheism are junked in deference to the rule of the simplest hypothesis. We have to choose between science and the comforting lie of God, and we have chosen science.
This is also how progressive thinkers handle the factual allegation of immortality.
Many people claim to have seen ghosts, or to have had near-death or out-of-body experiences, but, so far, it appears they’ve been mistaken. So far, the simplest hypothesis is that we die when our bodies die. Certainly, it would be foolish, at this point, to make any important decision on the assumption that we are immortal. If someone hands you a jacket stuffed with dynamite, for example, and promises you immortality with seventy virgins, it might be a good idea to say no. Once again, the very substantial emotional benefits of belief in immortality are junked in deference to the rule of the simplest hypothesis. Once again, we have to choose between science and the comforting lie of the afterlife, and we have chosen science.
So far, so good.
And now to the business at hand. Free will. Just what do we mean by free will, and what evidence is there that we have it?
Let’s start by being clear about what free will isn’t. We don’t think that earthquakes are the result of free will, no matter how unpredictable earthquakes are, because earthquakes are so obviously the result of a chain of physical causes and effects, blindly obeying the law of physics. If it turns out that the strength of the various desires we have, and the choices we make as a result of those desires, are all merely physical events, chains of causes and effects, the result of natural law, that would not be free will. If our minds are merely brains containing electrochemical signals buzzing mechanically back and forth – and that’s certainly how our brains appear to a neuroscientist – then we don’t have free will. Our brains are simply computers built by genes and programmed by our experience of our environment from conception onwards. Our brains are constructed of synapses that each absorb a pre-set level of input and then release a signal. They have no more free will than a Game Cube. We have desires because those desires have been brought into existence by mechanical causes. We may have a general desire for food because of evolutionary hard-wiring, for example, and a specific desire for pasta because of a TV commercial we saw a moment ago.
Until the last century, Western scientists assumed that the whole universe was a matter of cause-and-effect, rattling down from the beginning of time to the end of time. Everything ticked away under the unchanging laws of physics in a manner that was wholly determined and, in principle, predictable. If there were certain things we could not predict – the weather, say, or criminal conduct – that was not because there could not be a science of weather or a science of criminal conduct. It was just because the human race hadn’t yet mastered those particular sciences. Within that worldview, which is called the determinist worldview, there was no room for free will, and many progressive thinkers began to have doubts about the free will hypothesis.
“The mind is determined to this or that choice by a cause which is also determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on ad infinitum,” Spinoza wrote. “This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.” Let’s suppose some unpleasant person accosts you and starts talking about your mother. Instead of letting yourself get riled up, Spinoza would advise you to remind yourself that the person who is bothering you has no more free will than, say, a hurricane.
This was also the doctrine of David Hume and of John Stuart Mill. It is the view expressed in Mark Twain’s What is Man?, where Twain writes, “We are mere machines. And machines may not boast, nor feel proud of their performance, nor claim personal merit for it.” It may come as a surprise to learn that Lincoln not only agreed with this form of mechanical determinism, but acquired quite a reputation in Illinois for arguing with everyone about the topic. “The human mind,” Lincoln wrote, “is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” Ironically, Lincoln cited the specific example of Brutus and Caesar, and said Brutus’s decision to murder Caesar was simply the mechanical result of laws and conditions over which Brutus had no control. Disbelieving as he did in free will, Lincoln consciously swore never to act out of revenge, deciding he would literally have “malice toward none.”
Clarence Darrow, of course, spoke against the idea of free will again and again, most famously and effectively at the trial of Leopold and Loeb. Einstein was a determinist, bringing up the topic of free will with reporters in order to ridicule it. Bertrand Russell, as usual, managed to present the matter clearly and be funny at the same time:
“When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behavior is the result of antecedent causes which, if you follow them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth, and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination. When a motorcar fails to start,” Russell says, “we do not attribute its annoying behavior to sin, we do not say, you are a wicked motorcar, and you shall not have any more gasoline until you go.”
According to this traditional determinist view, then, the universe is nothing but a big pile of causes and effects, one mechanical result triggering the next. If you add one even number to another, you know in advance the answer must be even – because every even number is a pile of twos added together, and, when you add together two piles of twos, you know you must get a bigger pile of twos. In just the same way, the traditional determinist argued that, no matter how complicated the human brain was, it was assembled from causal building blocks, and so, in the end, it could be nothing but a big pile of causality, lacking in free will.
Then, with the advent of Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle, there was a shattering change in the philosophy of science. It now appeared that the hard experimental evidence about subatomic particles could not be explained solely on the basis of mechanical causality. It turned out that, in some ways, subatomic particles were like dice: you could predict, with great accuracy, what proportion of the time they would roll sevens, but you never knew, on any particular roll, whether they were going to come up sevens or not.
The arrival of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and quantum mechanics represented the acquisition of fresh evidence requiring a new application of Occam’s razor. The universe was no longer just a pile of causality. It was now a mixture of causality and blind chance. Was there room now for free will?
Let us suppose, for example, that we build a robot pre-programmed to roll dice and fire a gun whenever the dice come up snake eyes. Would we say such a robot had free will? If our dice-rolling robot wound up shooting someone, and the police arrested the inventor, would it be a defense for the inventor to say, “I didn’t know my robot would shoot anyone. My robot’s actions are unpredictable, the result of blind chance. Therefore my robot has free will, and I certainly am not responsible for what my robot chooses to do.” I can’t believe that anyone would buy this for a moment. No one would dream of holding the dice-rolling robot personally responsible for what it had done. I think it’s clear to all advocates of free will that they don’t mean falling dominoes – that is, causality – and they don’t mean rolling dice – that is, blind chance. They mean something else – something that would somehow connect to ideas about personal merit and personal evil. And they would certainly hold the inventor responsible for unleashing this dice-rolling robot upon the world.
So the real question boils down to this: can you build that something else – that third thing which is free will — out of a pile of falling dominoes mixed with a pile of rolling dice? Remember, that’s all you have to work with. Modern science acknowledges the reality of causality and chance, but nothing else. Is that enough to allow for free will? Assuming you can’t build free will out of dominoes and dice, Occam’s razor places the burden on the advocate of the reality of free will come up with evidence that requires us to add a third principle beyond dominoes and dice, a second revolution in physics on the scale of what Heisenberg brought about. I can only assume that Spinoza and Hume and Mill and Lincoln and Twain and Darrow and Einstein all experienced having desires and making choices the same way you and I do. But everything each of us experiences within his or her own mental operations can be explained as either dominoes or dice. There is therefore no reason to clutter up our theory of the universe with talk of free will.
Each of us is free to do what we want. But we are not free to want whatever we want. We do, in fact, want certain things as a result of prior causes. If we want to want something else, we have to move to new environments that will re-program us. That is why some alcoholics, for example, get help from Alcoholics Anonymous.
Our minds are governed by the same laws of physics that governed the quasars thirteen billion years ago and will still govern the universe thirteen billion years from now. Our glory is to be a part of this eternal and infinite universe, not something apart from and in contrast to the remainder of creation. As Dr. Chuman has put it, “Our sense of connectedness and participation in the fabric of nature” inspires us with feelings of wonder and awe. The atoms that make up my brain were forged billions of years ago in the heart of an exploding star. In strict obedience to the laws of physics, these atoms have journeyed across the light-years and across the eons. In strict obedience to the laws of physics, these atoms are now giving you a lecture on free will. But these atoms are no more free now than they were when the supernova went off five billion years ago.
It’s time to accept and to welcome our membership in the universe. No one has reached into the brainpan of this particular pitiful species of primate, orbiting a tiny star in the suburbs of an insignificant galaxy, and said, “There! I have inserted something that allows you to transcend all prior influences in a manner that is not merely random! Congratulations!”
Look to your left: for thirteen billion light-years, there are no exceptions to the laws of physics. Look to your right: for thirteen billion light-years, there are no exceptions to the laws of physics. And there are no exceptions to the laws of physics in our immediate neighborhood, either.
I would argue that any pile combining causality and blind chance can only be the equivalent of our dice-rolling robot, and that the application of the scientific worldview therefore casts doubt on the reality of free will. Just as we should not make any serious decision based on the assumption that God exists, or the assumption that we live forever, so we should not make any serious decision on the assumption that people have free will. The obvious and substantial emotional benefits of belief in free will should be junked in deference to the principle of the simplest hypothesis. One last time, we have to choose between science and a comforting lie — this time, it is the lie of free will — and we must choose science, and forget about free will.
The Ethical Culture movement is rigorous in its application of Occam’s razor to God and immortality, and then throws the razor away when it’s time to confront the third and final dragon of free will. This is absolutely self-contradictory. If we are willing to apply Occam’s razor to the attributes of God, we should be willing to apply it to our own attributes. Any other approach smacks of favoritism. Furthermore, as we have already noted, free will is part of a narrative involving God and souls. If there is no God, passing out souls, how did we get our hands on free will? Why is it that only people are alleged to have free will, and that no one feels the need to busy himself running around wreaking revenge on misbehaving tigers and polar bears? Once we realize that God, immortality, and free will are all part of the same story, we can see that rejecting God and immortality, but holding onto free will, makes as much sense as understanding that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are fictional characters, but holding to a belief that there really was someone called Han Solo.
As Spinoza and Lincoln tried to teach us, when we discard free will, we are discarding hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety. So the next, and very practical question is this: Can you run a society without hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety?
Lincoln did. He ran our society much better than the many presidents we have had since who have believed in free will, hatred, anger, envy, malice, guilt, and anxiety. Indeed, in general, the pioneers of liberal democracy – Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Lincoln, Darrow, in more recent history, Abe Fortas – are all people with conspicuous doubts about free will.
Many people think that, when you give up God, you have to give up ethics. The whole point of the Ethical Culture movement, of course, is that this is not true. God is a factual claim – an allegation about what is. Ethics is a matter of what should be. We can make our own ethical commitments without God telling us what they should be. Indeed, if God should, in fact, appear and tell us what our ethical commitments should be, that wouldn’t prove God was giving us the right advice. Many religious people, of course, simply assume that what God says to do is the right thing to do, but, if you define “good” as simply whatever God says, then the difference between good and bad loses all ethical content. Doing the right thing merely means doing what you’re told. I won’t spend anymore time on this point, as I assume everyone here agrees that ethics can exist without God.
I assume we all also agree that we can have ethics with being immortal. We just have to decide that we wish to be good for its own sake, as opposed to being good because we wish to avoid hell.
In just the same way, ethics can exist without free will. We can make ethical commitments even though we are not, in some ultimate sense, free to choose what those commitments will be. In fact, we do make ethical commitments when and only when we are caused to make them. When you consider the matter properly, we are gathered here today, and gather here weekly, to be caused to make ethical commitments. To the extent that religion has any value at all, it is because it sometimes causes people to make ethical commitments. And, by the same token, the reason why religion is so often dangerous is precisely because it so often causes people to make wrong ethical choices, such as punishing others for failing to follow God’s orders.
In just the same way that people can be caused by advertising to desire particular products, people are often caused by ethical indoctrination to believe in justice, equality, and kindness. Once they have been so indoctrinated, they will often go out and practice justice, equality, and kindness, even in the face of howling mobs. There is no conflict between disbelief in free will and belief in ethics. Indeed, for hundreds of years, it has usually been the skeptics on free will who have provided moral leadership for our society and fomented the forces of social reform – people like Jefferson and Lincoln. We can have ethics without free will as long as we are willing to wish to be good for its own sake, as opposed to being good because we hope to take personal credit for it.
An ethical nation that had discarded the idea of free will would cease to hold executions. Execution is an act of revenge. It goes beyond what is necessary to incapacitate the offender or deter other people. We have an ethical duty to protect society from bad people, by locking them up. We have no ethical duty to make people suffer simply because the doctrines of free will and retribution tell us that certain people deserve to suffer.
An ethical nation that had discarded the idea of free will could no longer blame crime on criminals. It could no longer hide from itself its responsibility to provide all children with proper homes, food, medicine, schools, economic opportunity, and ethical training. Its emphasis would be on preventing crime by justice, as opposed to revenging crime by cruelty.
We would start by giving all children a decent chance. We would offer people rehabilitation programs for drug addiction, instead of filling our prisons with drug addicts. We might be forced to lock up certain dangerous people, but we would do so under the most benevolent possible conditions – we wouldn’t stuff people into hellholes that make them worse, as we do today. And we would never execute people.
If we could just give up this idea of holding people responsible for what they do, we could, at long last, start to behave responsibly in what we do.
I am well aware that most of you here probably agree with most of the social program I just outlined. What I’m trying to explain is how all these different parts fit together – our disbelief in God, our disbelief in Heaven, our progressive social program, and what should be our skepticism concerning free will. It’s all one story, founded not upon dogma, but upon scientific skepticism.
For the last hundred years, the evidence against free will has piled up higher and higher, as we have uncovered more and more about the physical structure and function of the brain. Using positronic emissions or radioactive xenon, we can now map which individual areas of the brain process mathematics, assemble words, or access visual memory. It’s becoming harder and harder to doubt that our minds are just physical processes. Ironically, during the same period, in our country, the reality of free will has been questioned less and less.
A hundred years ago, Mark Twain’s What is Man? was published. The reviewers of the time had no problem understanding that Twain was criticizing the idea of free will. They just said that criticizing the idea of free will was not a new idea. Today, when Twain’s work is discussed, virtually no one mentions Twain’s attack on free will. What was once a cliché that everyone knew about has been transformed into a non-topic that no is allowed to know about.
During the Leopold and Loeb trial in Chicago eighty years ago, the judge allowed Clarence Darrow to talk for four days about the fact that free will is an illusion. In New Jersey today, it is against the law for a lawyer to make that argument in court. You can argue that your client is insane, and therefore lacks free will, but you’re not allowed to argue that no one has free will. You can’t even bring it up. This is a violation of the constitutional rights of the citizens of New Jersey to free speech and representation by counsel. It’s also an unconstitutional imposition of the religious dogma of free will upon the courts and defendants of New Jersey. But no one questions it.
Fifty-five years ago, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress and winner of Bancroft, Parkman, and Pulitzer Prizes, published a book, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, discussing Jefferson’s disbelief in free will. Many people here studied Jefferson in high school and college, even graduate school. Did any of your faculty mention this point?
Fifty years ago, the courts of the District of Columbia, on the advice of Abe Fortas, established a definition of criminal insanity that did not assume the reality of free will. Later on, the courts threw out that definition and went back to a definition relying on the assumption of free will.
I went to law school at Columbia and Yale in the 1980’s. When I raised this issue, my law professors told me, “Everyone used to talk that way in the 60’s.” Obviously, no one talks that way anymore.
We are now under the rule of a political party that calls itself the party of Lincoln. Do you think that there is one person in the White House, or the Congress, or the Supreme Court who is familiar with Lincoln’s disbelief in free will? As LaGuardia once put it, these so-called Republicans know less about Lincoln than Henry Ford knows about the Talmud.
Darwin agonized over introducing the idea of evolution, because he knew people would realize that Darwin was saying that people were animals, devoid of free will. Nowadays, the latest polls show that only one out of four Americans still believes in evolution; and of those few who do believe in evolution, few realize, as Darwin did, that evolutionary theory casts doubt on free will.
George Orwell warned in 1984 that the ultimate way of controlling thought was to train people to realize they were about to think about a forbidden topic, and then stop themselves. The forbidden topic was never to have a specific name – allowing it to have a specific name would prompt forbidden thoughts. Anything off limits was simply to be swallowed up under the name, crimethink. The thoughts I have been sharing with you today are crimethink. They are thoughts that newspapers and magazines and historians have trained themselves to edit out of the record, or obscure under misleading terminology. If you doubt this, try publishing an Op-Ed piece on the topic we have been discussing. Try raising this topic at a law school.
As Christian fundamentalism seizes increasing control of our society, it is harder and harder even to find a forum to raise this issue for intelligent discussion. I am personally grateful to the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County for generously offering me this forum.
Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein were not the common victims of some logical fallacy that led them all astray. They were people of uncommon courage and independence of mind. They understood the importance of scientific analysis and were willing to stand by the outcome of a scientific analysis, even it led to uncomfortable results. Their ideas have drifted in and out of fashion, but these ideas remain the most likely working hypothesis. It is time for all of us to catch up to Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein. It is time for all of us to bear in mind that Spinoza and Lincoln and Einstein were not only skeptics concerning traditional notions of God, and not only skeptics concerning traditional notions of Heaven and Hell, but were also and for exactly the same reason skeptics concerning free will.
Around the cradle of the infant Hercules were found three snakes that had been strangled by the new-born baby. Just like Hercules, if a genuinely clear-minded progressive humanism is ever to rise from its cradle and make its full contribution to world history, it must first find the strength to dispatch three snakes – God, immortality, and free will.
By Robert Gulack © 2004 by Robert Gulack