Free will is not a myth

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Philosophy, Society

This article was originally published in New Escapologist – a magazine I contribute to and would recommend to all.

In a recent article in the Independent entitled “The uncomfortable truth about mind control: Is free will simply a myth?”, Michael Mosley argued that, although we don’t like to admit it, the notion that humans have free will is a delusion.

Mosley cites the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram to back up his argument. Milgram is famous for a controversial experiment in which volunteers were enlisted to take part in a “memory and learning experiment”. According to Mosley, Milgram wrote that the experiment was intended to answer the question: “How is possible, I ask myself, that ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life could act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience.”

In the experiment, volunteers were told that they would be ‘the Teacher’ and their job was to give ‘the Learner’ – who they believed to be another volunteer – a simple set of memory tasks which they would be tested on. For every wrong answer the Teacher would have to give the Learner an electric shock. The voltage of the shock increased with every wrong answer. The Teacher and the Learner conducted this ‘memory experiment’ in two separate rooms, with a microphone and speakers connecting the two.

The results of the experiment were shocking. 65% of volunteers increased the voltage to a level that would have killed the Learner. Mosley goes on to cite other similar experiments which demonstrate the extent to which we are willing to blindly obey authority or conform to social expectations. All of this is convincing evidence for the assertion he makes at the start of the article: “We like to think that we exercise free will, that put into a situation where we were challenged to do something we thought unacceptable then we’d refuse. But, if you believe that, then you are probably deluded.”

Although Mosley’s article raises fascinating questions about human behaviour, it does not prove that free will is a myth. Every human action is preceded by a choice. The volunteers in the experiment chose to obey authority, even if it made them uncomfortable. It is easy to think that this means humans are not free, that the majority of us are hardwired to blindly follow orders or seek conformity. I disagree. Although the volunteers did not feel free, they were free.

To say that Milgram’s experiment proves that free will is a myth is like saying that because Queen Elizabeth II does not dissolve Parliament when she feels like, it means the Queen does not have the power to do so. Technically the Queen can dissolve Parliament at any time; she just chooses not to for practical reasons. In the same sense, a person who obeys authority or conforms to social expectations has the power to choose freely; they just choose not to use it.

The question that Mosley should be asking is not, “Is free will a myth?” but why are we so willing to give up free will in order to conform? The 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described this as the “herd instinct” and was rather scathing about the people he believed to be “herdmen”. However another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, believed that the herd instinct is much more complex than a simple desire to fit in.

Heidegger gave the name “They-Self” (or Das Man in German) to the state of being which is governed entirely by the herd instinct. The “They-Self” is you in everyday life: it is the Parent-You, the Work-You, the Neighbour-You. In other words, it is the you that plays the roles and lives by the rules that society, not you, construct. Heidegger described the “They-Self” succinctly when he wrote, in his seminal work Being and Time, “Everyone is the other and no one is himself.” For Heidegger, the “They-Self” is the most basic form of our existence; the “They-Self” comes first and the “I-Self” comes afterwards, if at all.

Stanley Milgram’s findings are disturbing because they prompt us to ask, “How would I act such circumstances? Would I act as “Them” or as “I”? It is a question with frightening implications and which often leaves us believing vainly that we would be in the minority. As Mosley rightly points out, such a belief is a terrible delusion.

The question of whether or not we exercise our free will is not limited to life or death scenarios. It is a question which can be, and should be, addressed in everyday life. As Heidegger argues, it is in everyday life that people tend to relinquish their individuality and become a part of “Them”. The real test of individual freedom for most of us will not be in the dramatic scenarios fabricated by psychology experiments but in the way we live out our lives. Everyday choices, while rarely a matter of life or death, are always a matter of freedom.

There’s more on free will in Issue Four and more Milgram in Issue One.


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