“Can we live moral and happy lives knowing that we don't have free will?”
“Can we live moral and happy lives knowing that we don't have free will?”
Professor of Psychology
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This interview was conducted over Skype in October 2017. The image was taken by Adam Hart-Davis, and is used here with permission.
KP May I start by asking what this free will that we think we have, but really we don’t?
SB I am talking about the kind of free will that suggests that ‘I’ can freely choose to do something that is independent of all other influences – memes, genes, environment and so on. In other words, ‘magical’ contra-causal free will. Someone like Daniel Dennett would say ‘nobody believes in that anyway’ – but they do! Give a lecture to a hundred people and ask them if they believe their conscious thoughts cause their actions, and they will say ‘yes’. That’s the kind of free will that I’m talking about.
KP So did you choose to have this interview with me now?
SB No – not if you mean that ‘I’ as a conscious being in charge of this body made the decision. I would say the choice was made because of multiple causes going back into the past. So let’s suppose this email came along, saying ‘I do this website and I’d like to interview you’. The thoughts going around in this head would be ‘I wonder how long it will take? Will it be an interesting question? Will I enjoy it? Will it pay me anything?’ Various questions that always apply for all the requests that come by email, and for various reasons, some of which I can articulate, some of which I can’t – I typed ‘yes, I’d love to’.
KP A further question to that would be to ask whether you have chosen to believe that there is no such thing as free will?
SB No. I haven’t chosen to have that belief. I have had the good fortune to be born into the century that I was, in Britain where my parents had enough money to send me to a posh school, I had the genes that gave me enough brains that I got to Oxford and had a very good education. I had a curious nature, and wanted to answer difficult questions – many things led me to this conclusion, but it was not ‘I’ who decided.
KP I suppose we like to think that reason has led us to some of our convictions, but is that not somewhat undermined if we take it that the decision to believe certain things is not ultimately ours – but a product of our influences?
SB Reason certainly played a role in that decision, and in many others, but my capacity to reason is also a result of my genes, education and so on. There is plenty of psychology showing that people’s decisions are influenced by all kinds of things. As I said, some of those I am aware of, some of them I am not. The wonderful complexity of human behaviour does not allow for the idea that there might be a soul or a spirit or a self, which is ultimately responsible for decisions. The idea of an unchanging self is ultimately an ephemeral construction, the same self does not exist across time – that idea is an illusion.
KP Would it be fair to compare it to the Buddhist idea of Anatta?
SB Absolutely. The Buddha was famous for saying that both there is a self and there isn’t a self. I think that the Buddhist concept of Anatta – that there is no continuing self – is very close to what I was saying about the construction of self in the brain. There is something that we might call ‘self’ and it will have consequences – so it’s not that it doesn’t exist. However, we’re wrong, we’re deluded, if we think that there is somebody in there who is the subject of a stream of consciousness, and the wielder of free will. That’s how I interpret the similarity between Anatta, and the modern neuroscientific view of the self.
KP Before moving on and into your question, I’d just like to ask about my experiences of when will is exercised. What is going on when I am trying to overcome anger with someone, or find it in my heart to forgive them. Or indeed, when I give away money when I don’t have much of it to give – Victor Frankl said that was the last of the human freedoms – that we have this ability transcend our animal instincts – do you know what I mean?
SB I do know what you mean, indeed. It’s very important, but I think we’re talking about a different sense of freedom. There are competing pressures within a person – that I’m hungry and I want to eat a piece of cake, yet here is someone who is hungry and needs it more than me. How do I resolve these competing pressures? That will depend on the whole background of the person – did they grow up in a culture that influenced them to do good to others, are they religious – all these things will influence a person’s action. Those are examples of moral conflicts, but conflicts are inherent in animals all the time. You can look at any organism with a brain, and find multiple influences affecting their behaviour.
KP So ultimately we think we are battling our will, but really our decisions are still just a product of our influences?
SB There is a difference between strong and weak will. I would not deny that some people have stronger will than others but those differences depend on prior causes and influences that may include genes but also upbringing. For example, children living in unpredictable and difficult environments are less able to defer rewards now in order to gain more later. Our battles of the will are also not free.
KP This discussion of ‘moral action’ which is ultimately a result of our influences, brings us to your question – can we live moral lives even though we don’t have free will. To me, something is good or moral, if it has agency behind it. So what is morality to you, if it is not the product of a decision?
SB I’m not going to define morality. It’s a difficult thing to define. But if we loosely talk about morality as being the kind of behaviour that benefits people other than ourselves, then I would say that that kind of behaviour comes about from multiple, underlying causal influences. It’s fascinating to me that we humans seem to have become more moral over the centuries. If you go back to tribal societies, then death rates by murder where exceedingly high. If you look at the Koran or the Old Testament, they’re just full of people fighting, killing and glorying in the spoils of war. This is to some extent what we’d expect from knowing biology and evolutionary history, and yet, remarkably, we seem to have instituted the welfare state, the national health service, being polite, and general abhorrence of racism and sexism. This is what I would think of as moral progress – though I realise that’s contentious.
Why has this happened? Now that’s an interesting question. It is surely not because we have holy spirits or souls, or a ghost in the machine – it’s to do with our memetic evolution; the way we’ve become imitating animals, with an underlying desire to be seen to be good or to fit in with the societies around us, and these desires depend on our capacity for reciprocal altruism and kin selection . Once these start operating in culture, on memes – we start to have moral progress. On a global sense this is wonderful, in a personal sense we have the kind of cultural setting that will encourage us to be more moral in a way that we weren’t before. You know, these days you will be admired for not being sexist, racist or a groper in ways that you weren’t necessarily admired before. So we all shift in our behaviour, and that is nothing to do with free will – it’s to do with the whole complex of millions of people evolving together on the planet.
KP You have interviewed people who believe the thesis that there is no such thing as free will, but are afraid to acknowledge it. They are afraid because it might unleash all kinds of basic and unrestrained instincts. Is this part of the reason you don’t think that would happen, because the time and place we live in will not let us end up being amoral?
SB Yes – exactly. People do worry about this, but in my opinion they don’t then push the idea further, they don’t say ‘what if I really accepted that I don’t have free will?’ and try to live that way. Of course there are some who do. For example, Sam Harris has written a book on free will, and there are others who have publicly given up believing in free will in their own lives – but they are very small in number. There is this underlying idea people have that if they stop believing they have free will, they will end up doing terrible things. Yet the evidence seems to me that that’s simply not true. People actually behave better, and are kinder and more compassionate, for giving up on the idea of having free will.
KP I can imagine that being true to some extent, though you will have had bad experiences with people like we all have. Let’s say that someone takes one of your ideas and publishes it under their own name – knowing that neither of you have free will, how would that release you from the righteous anger you would no doubt feel?
SB I’ve been meditating every day for about 30 years, and through that there is a sense of observing people and the horrible and stupid things they do – and that’s sort of observing it from I know not where, that somehow weakens those furious judgements. I would then perhaps consider whether it would be useful to make a fuss and complain – depending on what the situation calls for.
KP So one of the obvious questions with this, is how you deal with the issue of justice – what approach do you take if ‘responsibility’ isn’t really a meaningful idea?
SB Punishment would still have a place, but what wouldn’t have a place is retribution – revenge. Instead of punishing someone to make them suffer for their actions we would ask what good it would do to punish them. That becomes a different question. There might be good reasons to put someone in prison: to act as a deterrent to them or to others, or for public protection or whatever. . We need to change our thinking in this way because we’re getting into this ludicrous situation where people are defending their crimes by saying things like ‘my genes made me do it’, or ‘my memes made me do it’. If we give up the idea of free will then this makes no sense. Instead we have to ask, would it do any good to them or to the rest of society to put them in prison, or to fine them or whatever. I think it would make the justice system better, not worse, if it gave up the retributive aspect of punishment that depends on the concept of freewill.
KP Those of us like myself who still labour under the illusion of freewill, how much do you think that is connected to my happiness, and how much is your acknowledgement that you don’t have free will connected to your happiness?
SB I sense a completely different kind of freedom. I still find it hard, and I still occasionally get the feeling that I need free will – but generally speaking, I have found a very different and wonderful kind of a freedom. Things will happen as they are going to happen, and that includes all the thoughts that are going to go on in this brain, all the interactions between this person here and my family – I think it enhances being in the present and living life to the full, as it goes along – and accepting how it goes along. You can’t use your own free will to change it, so all you can do is pay attention to it.
KP Has this shift in your thinking helped you to annihilate the ego?
SB It seems to eliminate, or weaken – let’s say weaken, because it’s still a work in progress. It weakens the sense of a certain kind of responsibility, which is a responsibility for myself where I think I’ve got to make decisions which are best for me all the time, which is a kind of selfishness which has many, many layers. There’s a sort of freedom that comes from thinking that these decisions will make themselves, and that it will be fine whatever. And I don’t matter in the sense that I used to feel that I mattered, so that’s a sort of a partial answer. Eliminates? Possibly in the end.
KP If it’s possible to think that we don’t have any free will, then I suppose it follows that there is nothing to feel proud of in a sense?
SB Yes – absolutely. I think that’s what Sam Harris meant when he was talking about feeling proud of his achievements, that he needed to remember how he’d arrived there and all the advantages he’d had. I can feel proud of certain things like ‘that lecture really went well’, but not proud in the sense of ‘aren’t I clever’. That lecture went well because of preparation, because of environment, because of a million other things. So yes, it changes the nature of pride.
KP I suppose in a related vein, does it make one less judgemental? So you might find some religious beliefs wrong, but you would have to say well, they haven’t really had any choice in that…
SB Yes, absolutely. I feel a lot more commonality towards people who hold appalling ideas, because I can imagine where those ideas came from, and that they had no control over that. I can still be terribly upset and angry at the state of the world –
KP Would you endorse it as a way of living?
SB Yes and no. I would certainly endorse it for people who have struggled with these questions and have done some work on themselves. But there are clear dangers of people misunderstanding the idea, and saying ‘well, if I don’t have any free will, then it doesn’t matter what I do – I can do anything I like.’ Now, if you’re starting in a position where what you like is incredibly selfish and harmful to other people, then this is not going to go very well. I do write about living without free will, but I trust that the kind of people who read that are going to be thoughtful enough that they’re not just going to go off and do horrible things.
A common reaction I have had from students when I suggest these ideas is – ‘why should I do anything then?’ To which I would say, well tomorrow morning when you wake up, just decide that there is no free will, that there is no point in doing anything, and that the universe is completely meaningless – so don’t do anything. What’s going to happen? Well, you’re not going to pee in your bed, you’re going to get up and go to the toilet. When you’re there you’ll fancy having clean teeth, so you’ll brush your teeth. Then you’ll end up getting hungry so you’ll get something to eat, then you might get bored so you go to your lectures or whatever. It’s like that, it just happens – we discover that we do things without consciously willing to do them – and we cannot do nothing.