Our cultural veneration of free will traps us in dead-end expectations that are unsupported by reality. If we want to make effective change, the idea of free will is one of the first things we should jettison, or at least put in its proper place.
John Michael Greer is one of my favourite thinkers and writers. I frequently recommend his book The Long Descent to people who are curious about my thinking, especially regarding sustainability. He has an incredible memory for historical detail, and has also read the work of all the great Western historical sensemakers. He writes weekly at The Archdruid Report and I never miss a single one.
Last week Greer touched on Free Will, and this week he expanded on his thinking. With perhaps less than his usual élan, he dismissed opponents of Free Will as Victorian Determinists. Now, I am no friend of Victorian Determinists so I won’t try to defend them, but I think there is another way to look at free will—we have it, but we only use it on the rarest of occasions.
If I could try to put our North American, Caucasian, dominant culture narrative into words, I think the story would go something like this:
Humans have Free Will. That means we are free to make choices. Choice is a decision to control our future behaviour; choice is conscious, and rational choices are the best choices. In order to make rational choices, you need information, and information comes from education.
We should thoroughly educate ourselves, and, with our Free Will, use the information to make conscious, rational choices about our behaviour.
Now, I disagree or have heavy caveats for almost every word in this narrative, but I tried to state a fair articulation. 1 In my work, I am interested in the impact our idea of free will has on our ability to create change.
I think our culture also has a tautology for behaviour—we choose our behaviour, therefore behaviour is a choice. The definition of behaviour I find useful is considerably broader:
Behaviour is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli or inputs, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.
Or as I like to say, as long as you are not a rock, everything is behaviour.
Once you take a broader view of behaviour, it is immediately obvious that we are constantly behaving without having made conscious, rational choices. We make thousands of behavioral choices each day, and almost none of them are conscious.2
The cultural narrative for this fact is that we are bad, lazy, no-good, uncaring people, too distracted by reality television to bother with important thinking and choosing—we are by nature, flawed.
In fact there are two more important reasons we don’t consider every choice: there are only so many hours in the day, and we have only so much fuel for our brain. If we truly sought information and deliberated on every behaviour, we would never get our socks on before it was bedtime again.3
So most of our behaviour is not consciously chosen. Estimates vary between 95%4 and 99.999% of our behaviour consists of automatic responses to our context.
When so much of our behaviour is reactive, how can we say we have Free Will? At best we can say we might have free will a small fraction of the time. One researcher suggests we actually have Free Won’t—the capacity for the conscious brain to overrule behaviour signals that have already been sent by subconscious areas of the brain.
This is all getting very geeky. I am not going argue whether we occasionally make a free will choice.5 But I am saying our ability to deal with reality is damaged by our cultural narrative that behaviour is a product of conscious, free will choices.
As I have written elsewhere, since most of our behaviour is reactive to our physical and social contexts, the most effective way to change people’s behaviour is to change the context. Regardless of the speed limit, if the road is wide and straight, people drive fast. If the road is narrow and twisty, people drive slow. The most effective way to change behaviour is NOT to educate and inform people about the dangers of speeding, then post a speed limit and expect them to make a good choice with their free will—especially when everyone around them, their social context, is responding appropriately to the physical context of the wide road by driving faster than the posted speed limit.
Imagine how we might respond to issues if we stopped telling a story that behaviour is a product of choice, and instead compassionately acknowledged it is mostly a product of context. Think of the lives lost and families destroyed by lung cancer, drunk drivers, malnutrition, poverty, and lack of exercise. Think of arguments with loved ones and lost friendships. Think of the billions wasted on ineffective infrastructure. Think of the school system and the justice system.
Free will has very little to do with our lives, context is King.