By Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D., Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
In a previous series, I wrote about how some thinkers argue that free will is an illusion, that all thoughts and behaviors are ultimately the product of simple cause and effect playing out in our brains. I made clear that this was not necessarily my own view, and that I absolutely believe it’s important that we hold people accountable for their actions when it comes to the effects they have on others. However, in the interest of acknowledging the alternative perspective, I want to look at why free will might not be an illusion after all.
In that series, I discussed how the basis of arguments that free will is an illusion is that there is no scientific evidence for a “decider” in the brain. In other words, there doesn’t appear to be anywhere we as actors can disrupt the natural order of cause and effect in the universe.
However, it’s important to recognize that neuroscience in many ways is still in its infancy. And just because we haven’t found evidence yet of a mechanism that produces free will doesn’t mean we never will. I like to reflect on how much our predecessors thought they knew, and how far we’ve come since then. Consider that there was a time centuries ago when entire cultures believed that storms, draughts, famines, plagues, and many other phenomena were the products of gods who were manipulating nature to express their happiness or unhappiness.
Did this season’s crop bring a bountiful harvest? Ra must be happy. Did the monsoon wipe out our village? Poseidon has to be angry. Did an earthquake topple our buildings and bridges? Apollo strikes again. You get the point.
We’ve Discovered Scientific Explanations for Many Phenomena
And yet, since then we’ve discovered scientific explanations for many of these events. We no longer assume knowledge without a thorough investigation. To that end, again, we must acknowledge that we have not yet mastered our understanding of the workings of the human brain. Not even close. So just because we haven’t yet found a scientific explanation to support free will doesn’t mean we never will.
Recently, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink unveiled a new brain-sensor interface that it had installed in some laboratory pigs. Neuralink scientists used the device to demonstrate how they could observe neural activity when a pig with the brain-sensor implant touched its nose to the ground or ate something.
For what it’s worth, I think these efforts are important to making headway in our understanding of neuroscience. But the little we’re able to really deduce from the information tells us a lot about how far we have to go. For example, what are the pigs feeling? What are they thinking? What does their brain activity actually mean? How do we translate it into meaningful conclusions?
That said, I think it’s important not to make any premature assumptions based on our early understanding of how brains work. I, for one, like to think that free will does exist because I prefer the notion that we each have some control over our existence. Whether or not that turns out to be scientifically accurate in the long run is anyone’s guess. But in either case, a sense that there is no free will could understandably lead to the notion that any contemplation about the quality of our thoughts and actions is meaningless, creating a kind of hopelessness that could ultimately be detrimental in its own right.
So I think it’s important in our interactions with others that we maintain a well-intentioned optimism that free will does exist and that we can all strive to be good people using our genuine choices every day.
About the Author: Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.