What is free will, and do we have it?
In February, 1978, members of the International Committee Against Racism interrupted a talk by biologist and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson. They ran on stage, yelling “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” and threw water at him.
Wilson is a naturalist and an entomologist, specializing in ants (technically a myrmecologist — considered the world’s leading expert). In 1975, he published a book called Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. In it, he showed how natural selection influences not only the physical form of animal’s bodies, but also their behavior. No problems there.
In the last chapter, however, he proposed that natural selection also shaped human behavior. He predicted that a new science, “sociobiology,” would connect physical sciences and social sciences, to help us finally understand ourselves. He was critical of some of his Harvard colleagues, including John Rawls, a revered philosopher, whose 600-page A Theory of Justice had sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
“We … look in vain at current academic philosophy for the answer to the great question, the great riddle. … Professional, secular philosophy long ago gave up trying to answer the overall question, what is the meaning of life? Most of the history of philosophy is strewn with the wreckage of theories of the conscious mind. [W]hat science promises, and has already supplied in part is that there is a real creation story of humanity, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out, and tested and strengthened, step by step.” April, 2012, lecture by Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth.”
Critics shot right back that Wilson didn’t know what he was talking about. His ideas flew in the face of much of what we thought about reason. It stank of the kind of thinking that brought us forced sterilization, concentration camps and other horrors (hence the protestors at Wilson’s speech). If our biology determines our actions, wasn’t that the same as saying that we do not have free will?
Wilson wasn’t, and isn’t, a proponent of eugenics, a mass murderer or a racist. He has written dozens of books and essays on human behavior, philosophy, natural science, and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. His work and theories deal with, as he readily admits, unsettled questions, and he also admits he might be wrong.
His big idea, however, that science will help us understand ourselves — has held up. Every, day neurobiologists, geneticists and social psychologists learn more about how brains work, changing our perception of why we behave the way we do.
Even more important is Wilson’s certainty that understanding the biology of behavior will help us finally see how we depend on the physical world, on our environment. This, in turn, will help us reverse our part in the destruction of ecosystems all over the globe.
But — do we have free will? The protestors at Wilson’s 1978 lecture no doubt believed that standing up for their beliefs was an exercise of free will. Probably the millions of protestors who marched in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack did too. But was it?
I watched the protestors of the Charlie Hebdo murders holding up “Not Afraid” signs and felt pride, inspiration, fervor, indignation. There was a moment when I felt that this, truly, was an example of good vs. evil, free speech vs. reactionary extremists. The images of thousands marching and holding up lighters brought tears to my eyes. But that isn’t the whole story.
In a separate march a group of world leaders staged a Charlie Hebdo protest. It got a lot of air time, not all of it positive. Included were leaders from Saudi Arabia, the champion nation of beheadings, and Great Britain where David Cameron is pushing for increased internet surveillance. He even proposed banning encryption. France itself bans wearing any religious attire at public schools, no crucifixes, turbans, no veils. And if the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were targeted at Judaism instead of Islam, it not be considered free speech but hate speech.
“[T]he … rules of moral reasoning will probably not prove to be aggregated into simple instincts such as bonding, cooperativeness, and altruism. Instead the rules will most probably turn out to be an ensemble of many algorithms, whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices.” (Atlantic Magazine, 1998, “The Biological Basis of Morality”)
The big lesson from Wilson and his water-throwing detractors: we are hearing and reading difficult truths about ourselves, and need to make big changes we don’t want to make. We will have to fight our impulse to shut down the voices of people we don’t want to listen to. Whether that’s a decision is a product of “free will,” or because we simply “feel” it’s right, doesn’t really matter.
“Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge. … Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments. … The eventual result … will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” April 1998, The Biological Basis of Morality.
Consilience, E.O. Wilson
The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson
Steven J. Gould Archive