What is free will, and do we have it?
In February, 1978, members of the International Committee Against Racism interrupted a talk by biologist and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson. They ran on stage, yelling “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” and threw water at him.
E. O. Wilson (Painting — National Portrait Gallery)
Wilson is a naturalist and an entomologist, specializing in ants (technically a myrmecologist — considered the world’s leading expert). In 1975, he published a book called Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. In it, he showed how natural selection influences not only the physical form of animal’s bodies, but also their behavior. No problems there.
In the last chapter, however, he proposed that natural selection also shaped human behavior. He predicted that a new science, “sociobiology,” would connect physical sciences and social sciences, to help us finally understand ourselves. He was critical of some of his Harvard colleagues, including John Rawls, a revered philosopher, whose 600-page A Theory of Justice had sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
“We … look in vain at current academic philosophy for the answer to the great question, the great riddle. … Professional, secular philosophy long ago gave up trying to answer the overall question, what is the meaning of life? Most of the history of philosophy is strewn with the wreckage of theories of the conscious mind. [W]hat science promises, and has already supplied in part is that there is a real creation story of humanity, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out, and tested and strengthened, step by step.” April, 2012, lecture by Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth.”
Critics shot right back that Wilson didn’t know what he was talking about. His ideas flew in the face of much of what we thought about reason. It stank of the kind of thinking that brought us forced sterilization, concentration camps and other horrors (hence the protestors at Wilson’s speech). If our biology determines our actions, wasn’t that the same as saying that we do not have free will?
Wilson wasn’t, and isn’t, a proponent of eugenics, a mass murderer or a racist. He has written dozens of books and essays on human behavior, philosophy, natural science, and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. His work and theories deal with, as he readily admits, unsettled questions, and he also admits he might be wrong.
His theories are hotly debated to this day by writers, psychologists, geneticists, philosophers like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins.
E.O. Wilson and Bill Clinton, 2007. Photo Source: Class V on Flickr
His big idea, however, that science will help us understand ourselves — has held up. Every, day neurobiologists, geneticists and social psychologists learn more about how brains work, changing our perception of why we behave the way we do.
Even more important is Wilson’s certainty that understanding the biology of behavior will help us finally see how we depend on the physical world, on our environment. This, in turn, will help us reverse our part in the destruction of ecosystems all over the globe.
But — do we have free will? The protestors at Wilson’s 1978 lecture probably felt that standing up for their beliefs was an exercise of free will. Probably the millions of protestors who marched in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack did too. But was it?
My reactions to the protestors holding up “Not Afraid” signs? Pride, inspiration, fervor, indignation — emotions. Here was something black and white, the murder of innocents, defense of free speech. YEAH!
I’ve since learned that the French leaders who marched in those protests aren’t exactly proponents of free speech. My response changed to — what was I thinking?
That’s the thing. I wasn’t. My gut feelings hijacked my thoughts. But does that mean my thoughts are always dictated by emotions?
Reading Wilson’s work, and criticism of it, makes it clear that the question of free will is more complicated than most of us lay people can comprehend. There may not be a yes or no answer.
“[T]he … rules of moral reasoning will probably not prove to be aggregated into simple instincts such as bonding, cooperativeness, and altruism. Instead the rules will most probably turn out to be an ensemble of many algorithms, whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices.” (Atlantic Magazine, 1998, “The Biological Basis of Morality”)
But there is big lesson from Wilson, and his water-throwing detractors: we live in a time when we are going to have to hear a lot of difficult truths about ourselves, and make big changes we don’t want to make. We will have to fight the impulse to shut down the voices of people we don’t want to listen to. Whether that’s a decision we make of our own free will, or because we simply feel it’s right, doesn’t really matter.
“Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge. … Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments. … The eventual result … will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” April 1998, The Biological Basis of Morality.
Are you an E.O Wilson fan? What do you think about free will?
Consilience, E.O. Wilson
The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson
“Some potential contributions of sociobiology to moral psychology and moral education”