Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: “Don’t stop believing!” – In the opening the writer asks to imagine traveling back in time and whether you might kill a young Hitler to prevent WW II and the Holocaust.
This scenario is, rather unfortunately for us, in the realm of science fiction. But your answer to this hypothetical question—and others like it—is a matter for psychological scientists, because among other things it betrays your underlying assumptions about whether Hitler, and the decisions he made later in his life, were simply the product of his environment acting on his genes or whether he could have acted differently by exerting his “free will.” Most scientists in this area aren’t terribly concerned over whether or not free will does or doesn’t exist, but rather how people’s everyday reasoning about free will, particularly in the moral domain, influences their social behaviors and attitudes.
As if the usual conundrums of time travel were not enough they threw in the free will angle. Just as a matter of time travel and destiny it is also possible that going back in time was an act of free will and giving young Hitler’s a push toward being capable of more empathy could change the future and while also being destined to happen. The other – as time travel geeks are aware – is that traveling back in time and changing history creates a rip in the space-time continuum thus creating the possibility of an even greater tragedy.
The second part of the thesis are the psychological affects of believing in free will or not. People who are convinced there is no such thing as free will tend to become more anti-social. This does not speak well for many religious denominations who preach predestination. SciAm clips this paragraph from the writings of geneticist Francis Crick that caused some study participants to behave badly:
You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons … although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that.
On the other hand those who believe humanity does have free will are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Scientists studying this phenomenon have warned about the effects of such experiments and public knowledge of the possibilities they rise: “If exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.” The article generally does not bode well for the free will camp. Yes we make small decisions all the time – you do use the toothpaste you like not the one you hate. You listen to the music you like and you do not hang out with people who do not – for the most part – share your values. Yet all those things could be predetermined by molecules programmed to act in a certain way. You think you’re choosing your friends or whether to see a clinical psychologists about your feelings, but those actions were all products of who you are. Though it does seem – for today anyway – that it might not be as cut and dry as free willers or determinists. Small pushes in the right direction can have huge effects. Let’s pretend that little Adolf was a rocket. Instead of launching the rocket at a 44 degree angle we launch it at a 44.5 degree angle. That may not seem like much in the short-term, but over the course of the trajectory it would mean landing on Mars or missing it and continuing out into space. Genes – a mass of macromolecules – are subject to change by externalities. It’s in Our Genes. So What? – DNA takes you only so far.
This is a small study, and we shouldn’t make too much of it. But one has to wonder. Research has linked genes to intelligence, social skills, neuroticism, risk taking, impulsivity, and more. In most cases, “linked” means determining that the behavior is partly inherited, but not how the gene brings about the behavior. What if the gene affects a trait known to be strongly heritable, such as appearance or temperament, and what if that trait in turn elicits particular behaviors from parents and teachers: behaviors such as responsiveness, paying attention to, interacting with, speaking to—things that affect how a child turns out academically and socially?
If so, we are mistakenly attributing these outcomes to genes “for” intelligence and the rest, when in fact all the genes do is give a child looks or temperament that elicits, for instance, IQ-boosting responses from adults. That’s important for the obvious reason that adults, armed with this knowledge, can learn to treat all children—not just the cuties who so easily bring out the best in us—in a way that nurtures their hearts and minds to develop to their fullest.
Another psychological phenomenon is that since I ended this part of the post with what seems a mostly pro free will take on human behavior – readers may also lean that way. The larger point is that just as we’re learning that hugging unattractive children as often as attractive children makes them feel more secure or spending extra puzzle solving time with slow learners will improve intelligence is proof that genes are not a clearly defined destiny. Thus if molecules determine our destiny and externalities change the molecules by just a few degrees over time the future might be part free will and part predetermined. The space trip in general was predetermined – whether we hit Mars or not might have been a result of a hug twenty-five years ago. Pure predeterminists and pure free willers have their work cut out for them because they have explain all the possible variables of any external interaction and all the possible internaliztions. With trillions upon trillions of possibilities from a speck of dust landing in an eye in one second on one day to a volcano erupting on Tuesday instead of Monday we’re in the Chaos theory zone.
1. Episode 2: “Showmance”
[Telling Will’s wife, Terri, that Will’s interested in Emma]
“Your husband is hiding his kielbasa in a Hickory Farms gift basket that doesn’t belong to you. … I think you should both pack up and move out of the district — unless you want to lose your man to a mentally ill, ginger pygmy with eyes like a bushbaby.”