Free will, culture and responsibility

There is a consistent stream in our culture that everything is determined by circumstance: genes, conditioning, wealth… But most aside from genes, all those are the product of people acting on each other. The free will debate can also be framed as a responsibility debate. Who is responsible? If there is no free will, does that mean there is no responsibility? Or the other way around: if we choose our destiny, does that mean we’re to blame if something goes wrong? Like an earthquake?

In the philosophical debate there are few contenders on the outskirts. Few argue that everything in our lives is free will. Those who talk about The Secret and The Law of Attraction are very close to this extreme view. They feel we are responsible for everything that happens in our lives. Whether it’s a financial crisis, unemployment, alcoholism or Katrina.

On the other side of the spectrum there is an equally small group that argues that people are totally determined in what they do: genes, God and circumstance determine everything. Most philosophers are somewhere in the middle: there are things outside our control, but there are also things we actively choose.

Even theologians generally don’t think God’s omniscience implies lack of free will on our part. They’ve  created a view called ‘middle knowledge’. God knows our options and our free will and choose to let us make our own mistakes. This does not necessarily mean He knows the outcome. (I hope I summarized that correctly)

The second world war brought the debate to a head: who among the many colluders were really responsible? To what extent can Germans a nation be blamed for what happened? The Nuremberg trials were an exercise in trying to determine the extent of moral and legal responsibility. Based on the idea of ‘crimes against humanity’, they were revolutionary in trying people for things that were legal for them to do. This illustrates, as the movie ‘the reader’ does too, that there are few black and whites in these things. The result of the whole social process was black, but on an individual level most people lived in grays. That’s the most scary thing about the Second World War: that it was so easy for things to turn out awful.

Politicians, philosophers and theologians chose, en masse, to put individual responsibility first after that. Cultural relativity can only go so far. Mass murder and genocide are evils that needs to be fought.

Or in other words: ethics and law are not the same thing, but ethics became law at Neurenberg. For a while.

This is the first in a series I’m doing on free will.

What do you all think: do we have free will? Do we have responsibility? Are we determined by genes, neurology and circumstance?

9 thoughts on “Free will, culture and responsibility”

  1. I agree with G.I. Gurdjieff that the mental processes of most human beings are entirely mechanical. His dictum “Man [sic] cannot do” means that human beings are incapable of carrying through to completion a consciously willed action. This is essentially a statement that humans (in our present state) do not possess free will.

    In our conscious experience, we merely register the activity of the brain. We do not cause brain activity by our conscious thinking. Somewhere in the Letters from the Masters of Wisdom is a statement to the effect that it is ridiculous to assume that events in consciousness have any effect on the molecules of the brain. The 19th Century term for this position was epiphenomenalism. This is the exact opposite of our normative view of ourselves as masters of our own mental house. Sorry to be such a downer, but neuroscience tell us that this is true.

    The same view is discussed on your Squidoo Krishnamurti lens, so I am not coming completely out of left field. (Sorry for the American baseball metaphor. It just means that my ideas are not the result of steroids or human growth hormone.) ;-{)>

    –Frank Dyer

  2. I studied the genetics of development at university. There were a multitude of views then about “nature or nurture.” I think most of the researchers I worked with believed that genetics determined a basic starting point for an individual. For example, classic Mendelian genetics showed that a pea was smooth or wrinkled based on an inherited gene. A smooth pea couldn’t become a wrinkled pea just because it wanted to (if such a thing could happen, of course….).

    When you look at the development of an organism, starting at the fertilised egg (i.e. a single cell) stage and growing into an individual, you are looking at a complex orchestration of something like 10,000 to 40,000 genes. They all do their job, more or less on cue, every time, every organism, every day, every hour, every second. It is stunning to think about. The complexity of interaction is beyond human conception. There are just too many interactions, too many permutations for a human brain to grasp. I suppose when I realised that I was as close to “religion” as I have ever been.

    But …

    In some way genetics doesn’t account for everything. Environment has an impact. Hence selection occurs. A change in the environment can impose stresses on a species such that the development of new individuals differs from their forebears. The differences are actually random (according to the theory, at any rate) – good changes promote the viability of those individuals, bad changes hasten the demise of those individuals. Over time the population adapts – and perhaps even creates a new species.

    Hence both nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) has an impact. In humans, I think we can include mental activity in the nurture part. A human is born with a certain genetic makeup. How that individual develops is shaped to some extent by the inherited genetics. Nothing that person can do about that (yet, anyway…). But the environment that individual lives in also shapes them. That environment could be city as opposed to country, upper class as opposed to lower class, loving family as opposed to broken home. Lots of factors. And, at some point, the developing intellect of that individual also has an impact. Like knowing right or wrong. How that intellect develops will be influenced by the environment in developed in – but also the predisposed genetics of that intellect.

    Hence, free will exists to the extent that I am able to chose one path or another. Lack of free will exists to the extent that my genetics may have preprogammed what paths I am able to perceive. And, if you could take me back to the single cell stage again and let me develop in a totally different environment, you would probably see a different person (based on the environment I grew up in) who is strangely familiar (based on the same genetics I have).

  3. In that the CPU that is my mind is influenced by the environment and the dictum to survive as an individual and species, I will vote that there is no “Free will”. Being a Fire Rat, and having Aries in both my moon and sun I am fiercely independent but that independence is in it’s self manipulatable and predictable. I don’t want someone to dictate to me, but I take what ever the government and laws permit. The idea that we don’t have a “Free Will” is abhorrent and I would like to point to my choices of Blogs, reading material, associates as an indication of my freedom but is it really? Could some very knowledgeable entity have written my history at the time of my birth?
    Pax Te Cum, Salaam, Peace

  4. I look at it this way, K. If free will exists, it must exist in absolute terms. It must be a Universal Law impervious to any determining factor set against it.

    Now clearly, with the obvious fact that human beings have been educated and programmed into controllable behavioral patterns of knowledge, language, media, religion, consumerism, desires, fantasies, loves, hates, etc., etc., free will, in fact, only exists within the confines of the philosophy department at your local universtity.

    The human condition of endless suffering argues against “free” will, AS well as Death. That’s why I insist that Free Will must exist Absolutely. Because we cannot normally choose when or how we die. It’s almost humorous to see all this science and technology and atom bombs and mass starvation and plastic poisoning our oceans, while we enjoy our time to have a high-falutin’ conversation about free will, not realizinng that we are living on borrowed time. The externalities of stateless corporatism that is quietly poisoning this planet, will make this world nearly inhabitable in our lifetime. All conversations about free will shall come to a halt, because we will be dying in our own fermenting detrius of our vanity, deception, irresponsibility and abuse – and there will be nothing anyone will be able to do about it. I’m not really to broken up about this prospect. I really think it will be nice for everyone to experience that kind of hell together. Because maybe then we will realize that we are responsible for ourselves and each other for everything that occurs on our time here on this planet.

    And if we don’t, well… we’ll be rewarded with the demise of humanity. It would be a just reward. Because in living in self-interest and in denial of our self-responsibility to each other… we dishonored life, this planet, the animals, plants and each other.

    “Free will?” Does not exist. How could it in the midst of all this suffering? How could it exist while there is inequality? How could it exist when armies of children are used to fight wars for cowards?

    I could go on and on. Free Will is a nice and cozy notion, but like the proposed existence of “God,” there is no verification that it exists. “Free Choice?” No. Due to our social programming we can only respond from a limited group of programmed behavior patterns that determine our actions.

    The Brahmin monk-philospher Śaṅkara claimed that existence was just the dream of Brahman and that all objects within existence are just its thoughts. Yet he felt the need to devise a path of “liberation” from rebirth (!As if one could escape the dream of Brahman!) by denying the world. The Lokayata insisted that prayer, ritual and caste were useless and foolish by giving some men points of control and domination over others. Better to confront this world and its problems with what is here than chasing after high-minded doctrines that have done nothing to sort out this world. Only with the act taken on by a pure will that takes responsibility for self and all others, that takes responsibility for the condition of this world, that sees everyone as versions of one’s own self, can we direct ourselves with common sense and courage to face the horror is coming with a clear eye and a stout heart. Until inequality, economic abuse and control is no longer accepted by everyone however, we don’t stand much of a chance.

  5. We may have free will or not; it depends on the definition and maybe the time, but I think we have responsibility. BTW earthquake is one word.

  6. I believe that the key factor that has been opted out of this conversation is “belief.” Since we all have free will, we also are free to choose our own beliefs. Quantum Physics states that our beliefs (and intentions) have the power to change the world, or keep it the same. If we believe that we will inherit a genetic disease from our mother, most likely we will. On the other hand, we can use those beliefs and intentions to come together as one to change any current circumstance we wish.

  7. I think it is a mix of both. I know that sounds like a cop out, but let me elaborate. I am a type two diabetic. Part of that was determined by my genes. My father was a diabetic. The fix was in. However, part of it was also my responsibility, going back to the dietary and lifestyle choices I made as a young man. Part of it was circumstance. The knowledge we have today about diet and diabetes was not available for a good part of my life, for example, the USDA then, and still, advocates a diet that will assure someone that they can have diabetes too. But at that time, we were told this information was correct. The doctors we listened to advocated this diet. So, let me restate…it is not so much that the fix was in as the mix was in. My diabetes is partly due to my genetics, partly due to my choices, and partly due to the circumstances surrounding me.
    My daughter is a Phd candidate in Philosophy. I remember in her undergraduate years she would often bring up the “brain in a vat” debate. The truth of the matter is, we don’t know if we are a brain in a vat or not. We just don’t. We can believe we are not,but there is no way to know for sure. Just as in the movie The Matrix, the people did not know that they were just beings hooked up to the matrix.
    I have been studying some Taoism. It seems to me that if we just go with the flow, get in tune with Tao, it does not really matter if we have total free will or not. Just live life, go with the natural course of things. I think that is where the free will comes it. Will you follow the course of nature, or oppose it? We have the choice to do either, what we do not have is the choice to not make a choice, and in that way perhaps our free will is restricted.

  8. I believe that we are all extensions of the same Energy. We all definitely have free will. Our Thoughts and actions are like a ripple of a pebble in a lake. That ripple affects the entire body of water. The thing is that we are not the only pebbles in the pond. Each of us can exercise our free will, but our actions and thoughts will interact with those around us. This can alter the path of that free will.

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