I Decided to Understand that I Can’t Understand My Decisions . . . Or Did I?

Dr. Jerry Coyne explains:

. . .

The absence of real choice (ed: or free will) also has implications for religion. Many sects of Christianity, for example, grant salvation only to those who freely choose Jesus as their savior. And some theologians explain human evil as an unavoidable byproduct of God’s gift of free will. If free will goes, so do those beliefs. But of course religion won’t relinquish those ideas, for such important dogma is immune to scientific advances.

Finally, on the lighter side, knowing that we don’t have free will can perhaps temper our sense of regret or self-recrimination, since we never had real choices in our past. No, we couldn’t have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn’t have taken the other road.

Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers—most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained—have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy. To eliminate the confusion produced by multiple and contradictory concepts of free will, I propose that we reject the term entirely and adopt the suggestion of the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky: Instead of saying my decision arises from free will, we might say, “My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand.”

. . .

I wonder if there are greater implications to this discovery that we’re not considering here. Tom Gilson explained in the last issue of Salvo:

Science journalists must love this reductionist story; they keep telling it over and over again. Four years ago, for example, the Washington Post reported on brain research and ethics, telling us that when volunteers thought about donating money to charity, their brain scans revealed that

the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.2

The article went on to wonder about the “troubling questions” this gave rise to:

Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry—rather than free will—might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.

See: Hunter-Gatherer Nut Cases: Let’s Just Reduce Our Altruism, Morals & Love to Brain Waves by Tom Gilson from Salvo 19 Winter 2011.

***Ok, I couldn’t help myself. This title made me think of Conspiracy Keanu.

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