The Case Against Free Will in Two Pages

In 1924 Leopold and Loeb committed what was at the time called “the crime of the century.” Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous trial attorney of all time, defended them against the death penalty, arguing that the environment and biology had conspired against the boys, causing them to commit the crime. “Intelligent people now know that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.” Arguing to save the boy’s lives, he spoke for more than 12 hours, saying:

I do not know what it was that made these boys do this mad act, but I do know there is a reason for it. I know they did not beget themselves. I know that any one of an infinite number of causes reaching back to the beginning might be working out in these boys’ minds, whom you are asked to hang in malice and in hatred and injustice, because someone in the past sinned against them.

Leopold and Loeb’s lives were spared.  Twelve years later, Loeb was attacked and killed by another prisoner, while Leopold spent 34 years behind bars, during which time he taught other prisoners, volunteered for malaria testing, ran the prison library, worked in the prison hospital, and ultimately learned to speak 27 languages! After his release he moved to Puerto Rico where he earned a master’s degree, taught university classes, worked for urban renewal, did research in leprosy, was active in the Natural History Society, and published a book on birds. (So much for the belief that criminals have nothing to contribute.)

But was Darrow correct that the boys did not commit their crimes freely? Here are a number of theories and ideas to support this claim.

Fatalism is the view that whatever will happen must happen because logic entails that the future is determined. Theologians have worried about the same problem regarding god’s foreknowledge and human free will. If the gods know the future, then we can’t be free.

Determinism is the view that every event has a cause. It says that effects are the results of prior causes such that, given the cause the effect will follow. And the entire universe seems governed by cause and effect. But the universe includes our brains whose activity is caused by electrical signals, which are caused by prior electrical activity, ad infinitum. The immediate causes of our behaviors are events in the brain, and we know that by stimulating the brain in various places we can make someone experience different things.

We can also make people act in certain ways by stimulating their brains, and they will experience the subsequent physical movements as natural. Moreover, when human brains are stimulated, people offer reasons why they subsequently moved their bodies. So it seems our decisions are determined too. And someone watching your brain scan sees the pattern that will result in your action, not only before you perform the action, but before you decide to perform the act. This is evidence that your decisions are determined.

Not only do findings from the physical sciences count against our belief in free will, but so to does ordinary experience. Consider how much of what you do and believe is easily predictable by the conditions of your upbringing, culture, socio-economic group, genome, gender, etc. This suggests that you didn’t choose many of your behaviors and beliefs but that they were chosen for you by your genes and environment.

Moreover, the science of psychology has little use for the concept of free will when explaining human actions. For example behaviorism posits that humans are easily conditioned by positive and negative reinforcement. Rules of classical and operant conditioning are well-known to work with humans. Furthermore, experiments continually show that the conditions in which we find ourselves largely determine what we do. For example, in the Stanford prison experiment we found that people can easily be turned into torturers. And the experiments of Milgram found that many people will administer a fatal electric shock to another because an authority asked them to.

So far we have placed the emphasis on the environment as the main factor that determines behavior. But there are also genes; there is biology. We have found for example that identical twins are remarkably similar even if raised in completely different environments. Twins reared together are most alike; then twins reared apart, then siblings reared together, then siblings reared apart, then non-related kids reared together, then non-related kids reared apart. This is exactly what we should expect if genes and environment (plus random factors like genetic noise) determine behavior.

Moreover, we now know the connection between genes and: violence, alcoholism, impulsivity, OCD, depression, and more. When you add genes and environment together it is hard to see how one is free. And even if we could resist the pull of biology and environment, the place for free will seems vanishingly small. It is hard to see how genes plus environment is not an exhaustive explanation for human behavior. The more science learns about people, the less likely its seems that they have free will.

4 thoughts on “The Case Against Free Will in Two Pages

  1. In essence, this is a discussion between physicalists and dualists: are we mere physical beings, our brains being hardwired computers that will always make the exact same decision given the exact same input under the exact same circumstances at the exact same moment in our lives? Difficult to (dis)prove (for all we can prove are temporal relations and not actual causality and as of now, we are unable to time travel), but the more we learn about the brain on a genetic and molecular level, the more we seem to be inclined to believe that we are. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for dualists to deny that certain human functions cannot be explained my mere (molecular) mechanics. Transcendentalism seems to make way for wordly explanations. For physicalists, on the other hand, it is imortant to remember that at this very moment in time, all one can prove are temporal relations and thus make a strong case for causality, but not actually prove it.

    [please forgive any grammatical or spelling errors; not a native speaker]

  2. Im sorry for my bad english. I think there are good arguments for determinism but the ones you presented are not convincing at all. I think the problems of determinism and human mind are much more complex.
    Neuroscientist can predict in 70 % of the cases what choose a person will make but just in reference to really simple tasks. They still dont know for example what song im playing in my head. By the way i can (and also everyone else) predict what some persons will do seconds before they actually perform an action, if you know a person really well you know (maybe also up to 70% in a few cases) how she will react to a specific input. So that experiment of recognizing brian patterns to determine what a choice a person will make is interesting but still not overwelming. Also, since the brian is a plastic organ so it has the ability to change and adapt, the patters that they found for predicting some peoples behavior wont work for other people.
    The brain can also be seen as a thermodynamic mechanism (brigitte falkenburg university of dortmund) , in this mechanism, neuroscientis say that there is no closed causality. So neural mechanism have a „gap“ in their causality.
    And whats with neuroimplantants? People can control an robot arm by thoughts.
    I think a hardocre physical and reductionist point of view is really naive (and im not arguing for substance dualism here). There are also (i „predict“you already know this) the qualia problems that are interesting and that makes the problem even more complicated….
    You also talked about biology… biology is a good example of showing once again the limitations of physics… lets say physics can tell us how the jaw of a lion exactly works, or even better they can tell us how the whole body of a lion works, but physics dont tell us what the function of this mechanisms are, the function (survival and reproduction) cant be represented by physics. This last argument has not much to do with determinism, its just a attempt to critic the dogma of physics.
    Ah and about the milgrim experiment….Are we determined to follow authorities blindless? No if we obey authorities without questioning them its because of the way we have been socialiced but we have the possiblity to question this autority figures, i think not everyone would have reacted the same to that kind of experiments.

  3. We are chemistry – so can humans really have free will? Do we control the chemistry that drives our bodies, brains and thoughts – or does the chemistry controls us?

    This “pretends” to say something, that it doesnt. Its like saying that Shakespeare’s masterpieces are a bunch of words. Which of course they are, but they are not reduced to that (note the emphasis). What is a creative process? Even if a substratum for creative process is chemistry, or quantum carpentry (humor) or just plain mud. The thing is the creative process.

    Here is another discussion around this topic for anyone interested (my own comments and discussion at the end):

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