Do people have control over their own actions? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Gary Deel talks to Dr. Bjorn Mercer about the existence of free will, free judgment, determinism, fatalism, and more.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast Intellectible, I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about the mysteries of free will. My guest today is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Bjorn is the Department Chair in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education at American Public University and full disclosure, my listeners will know that Bjorn is a repeat guest. Bjorn, and I have done several podcasts in the past, including topics on ethics and morality and a variety of different issues. So, always a pleasure to talk to you, Bjorn. Welcome to Intellectible and thank you for being our guest today.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m excited to be here free will is both exciting, confusing.
Dr. Gary Deel: So I want to kind of set the stage with what inspired this conversation and you and I had sort of shared some ideas and exchanged perspectives over email, and it came from the discussion that was really borne out of some writings, a book, podcast discussions, and a number of lectures from Dr. Sam Harris, who is a neural expert and author and public speaker, podcast host on various subjects, not the least of which is free will.
And, in my view, what we had talked about is that Harris puts forth a perspective that leans heavily on the basic physics of the universe that argues that free will is an illusion. And I must admit that when you’re thinking about it in strictly mechanical, rational terms, it’s hard to object or disagree with. And yet I know that you and I, we have some daylight between us in how we see that. So I want to see if we can elucidate where those points might be.
But in order to set the stage, I’d like to share with our listeners, what Harris’s primary argument is. I’m going to do the best to paraphrase and simplify that for the sake of our very brief podcast today. And hopefully it won’t go too far astray of what Harris is really arguing.
What Harris puts forth is the idea that everything going on between our ears, all of our thoughts, all of our emotions and all of our resulting choices and behavior are the product of simple determinism. That is to say, cause and effect in the universe. Atoms interacting with atoms, molecules interacting with molecules and a sort of domino effect that’s quite simply from one cause state to an effect state it’s the input and the output.
And that there’s really nothing, when we look at the mechanics of the brain, to the extent that we understand it today, which is of course limited, we don’t see anything that would allow a space for true agency, for authorship, for someone to put their thumb on the scales and exercise what we might think of as free will. We certainly have the experience of consciousness and we feel like we’re steering the car, but there’s nothing happening between our ears that we could point to to say, this is where you are making a decision. This is where you are influencing that chain of causation.
And so the way that I like to describe it with friends if I’m at a dinner party and there’s literally nothing else left to talk about, and I’m at last resorts, I might put it this way: I often ask whoever I’m speaking with to imagine a scenario where we could copy the entire universe, atom for atom, particle for particle, quark for quark, ignoring quantum randomness, and in every position and every state and every rotation and spin, piece for piece, an exact duplicate, including an exact duplicate of you, the listener.
And if we could do that and create an exact facsimile and press play on that copy universe, the idea that Sam Harris puts forth is that, in theory, unless there’s some supernatural force acting on this chain of events, we would expect that copy Bjorn or copy Dave or copy Gary would proceed down that chain of causation and think exactly the same things, make exactly the same choices, and live the exact same life as the original, because everything will play out exactly the same way. Every experience, every exposure, every environmental stimulus, every component of interaction in chemistry in the brain.
If everything starts at exactly the same place, then it will end at exactly the same place because it’s just a simple deterministic perspective of the way things play out. And again, as I prefaced with, I think that’s hard to argue with on strictly physical terms. But we’re here today, obviously, to talk about where there might be objections to this perspective on free will. So with that being said, a very long introduction, I’ll turn it over to you, Bjorn.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, that’s great. And I’m a huge fan of Sam Harris. I don’t agree with everything he says, but like everything, you can have two people who grew up in the same household, same background, same influences, and they will wildly disagree about everything in the world.
And hence I think the nature of being human is that we think, therefore we are. And what does that mean? And so I guess I’m going to start off by being super nerdy and what does will mean? And what does judgment mean? Because oftentimes I’ve heard free will and also free judgment. And language is so tricky because we always hear free will and so literally just defining will. The faculty of consciousness and especially deliberate action, the power of control over the mind has over its own action. So do we have control over our own actions or the power of choosing one’s own actions?
So free will from literally the dictionary is, “The power of choosing one’s own actions.” And so judgment now judgment and judge obviously are used in various settings and various jobs, but the ability to judge, make a decision or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively and wisely, especially in matters affecting action, good sense and discretion.
And so, from my perspective, and, of course, I need to put up a big sign that says I’m not a philosopher. It would literally take me the next 10 years to read all of the authoritative works on free will because in the west, when I say the west, of course, Europe specifically, mainly, I should say, philosophers, theologians, have been arguing and discussing this for, well, ever since humans have well, thought so before writing and ever since they’ve actually written stuff down. And so I come at it from a very, I guess you can say everyday person’s perspective. I don’t view it as free will versus free judgment. The ability to judge and make decisions to form an opinion, objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action, good sense and discretion.
And I’m glad you brought a determinism because I will also say that free will is not binary. Oftentimes we think of free will as we have free will, we navigate our own ships, 100%. Or there’s fatalism. In fatalism, I don’t mean in the sense that we are doomed to not exist or to die, but in the philosophical sense of fatalism.
Here’s a quote about fatalism from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I always use because it’s a really good way of getting really good in-depth information about philosophy, and “Fatalism is an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events, which are thought to be an inevitable.” Philosophers usually use the word to refer to the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.
And so I bring up fatalism as a way in which people feel that their lives go. And, Gary, in your life, young, as an adult, had you ever viewed the world as possibly through the eyes of fatalism? And when I say fatalism, I will also throw in God. Where some people view that God knows everything, is in control of everything, and that your story is already written out. Not that, do you believe that, but have you heard that or have you talked to people about that before?
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, absolutely. I’m certainly familiar with the perspective and I think it comes down to your point about the non-binary nature of this perspective is, how much assertion of control do you insist that you have over the circumstances of your own life?
And I, personally, was never really raised to be particularly religious. I’m not religious as an adult. I’m fine with belief systems of all kinds to the extent that individuals don’t impose their beliefs on other people, we’re all in a free society, such as ours here in the United States. We’re free to believe what we like, consequences one way or the other be damned.
I’ve followed Harris’s writings and work and speakings for years and to your point earlier, I don’t think that his logic on every point is infallible, but I did find this argument compelling and particularly unsettling because if you’re someone who relishes a certain degree of control or feeling of control over your life, the idea suddenly that you’re presented with an argument which suggests that you don’t have the type of control that you think you have is really quite unnerving.
The idea that for years, I assumed that free will meant what most people I would assume listening to this podcast think it means, the idea that I can choose what I’m going to do next, what I’m going to say next on matters of the utmost importance like whether to kill people or to help people, who to marry, who to love, whether to have children or not. And on the most trivial matters, which, of course, Harris does in his podcasts and thought experiments on things like pick an ice cream flavor or pick a city. And just to demonstrate how free will seems to evaporate right before your very eyes as you’re undertaking these exercises.
And so, in the interest of our time, I won’t try to reenact them here with our listeners, but we’ll make sure that we post a link to Harris’s podcasts in our description so that if you want to find out more about what he uses as experiments to demonstrate this phenomenon, you can see it.
And, to be fair, it is quite compelling when you go through it. But back to my earlier point, I think it shakes one to the core to think about the idea that we might not be the author of our thoughts and behaviors in the way that we feel like we are in the experience that we have, that I can choose one way or the other. And the question is, if you could go back, pick a different city or pick a different ice cream flavor, did you really have the free will that you felt like you had to pick anything you wanted?
And, again, as someone who appreciates the wisdom of the scientific method on which Harris’s arguments are predicated and on which they rely, it’s hard to argue yourself out of that without resorting to something ethereal or supernatural that would impose some type of intervention on the normal chain of causation in the mind.
Now, the fear there from all of that is that you end up with a, as you mentioned, a fatalistic or what I would describe as sort of a nihilistic anarchy that society could descend into. If everyone sort of disabused themselves of the idea that we have any responsibility or accountability for our thoughts and actions and behaviors, because if everyone woke up tomorrow and agreed with the premise that we have no free will, and that we are no more able to decide our own actions, than I’m able to decide your actions, where do we end up on the stage of moral accountability in our society?
And so, I think it’s necessary that we behave in a way such that we recognize accountability is still important and moral accountability is still important. And I don’t think as Harris has argued as a follow-up point to his arguments about free will being an illusion, I don’t think that it’s necessary that even accepting, or at least being open to the idea that free will is an illusion must lead you to a point of nihilism where you decide, well, nothing matters.
It doesn’t matter whether I try to be a good person or to care, or to make good decisions, because I don’t have any say in the matter, because, and I’ve written an article recently about this. If you do that, even if you lack any freedom of will within the confines of your own mind and your own sort of sense of agency, you are a force acting in the external world that influences the choices and the cause and effect of other people, even if they lack the free will, you are an influence on that person. We know from social learning theory that people assimilate to their surroundings.
And so even if you truly lack that free will as Harris would suggest that you do, we know that you have an impact on the social surroundings of your environment. And so, just that recognition, and I’m not suggesting that you even have the choice of that recognition, because again, that would, again, imply free will, but me having this talk and saying this out loud right now, I realize could reach a listener in such a way that it lands in a place that causes a recognition that, okay, maybe free will is an illusion, that’s possible.
But my choices still matter because I have the effect of influencing others, who are they themselves, just a passenger in this endless ride of causation, but are steered in such a way, they hit the guardrails and they ended up going in one direction or another. And we are in a sense a guardrail. We could remove ourselves from that equation or we could drive them right off a cliff with something, with abhorrent choices or amoral choices or nihilistic choices where we just don’t care.
Or we can recognize that we have the capacity to influence the external environment through our modeling, through our examples. And so I think it’s important that accountability still has a place in our society moral and otherwise. Very long answer to your short question, but go ahead.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, that totally makes sense. With Sam Harris, I agree with a lot of what he says and I 100% do. And of course there’s some disagreements, but with causal determinism, which, again, going back to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.
So basically, all events, like you said, are guided by external causes. And so, Gary, like you and me, I’m guided by whatever I have gone through in my life. So I was born, happened to be Caucasian. My parents were a military man and a nurse. We lived in Greece for two years. My parents stayed together, that always doesn’t happen. I went to college, high school, moderately successful, not great. I went to college, successful, got a Master’s, got a second Master’s, got a Doctorate in music. And one of my masters is an MBA, got married, had three kids, all these things sway you.
I’ve lived in the, I call the provinces, I’ve never lived in the important cities. And so all of these things I’m being guided by external causes, external stimuli that affect my life. And I think with free will, we’d like to think that I am navigating my own life, but in many ways I’m not. And I totally agree with Sam Harris in that way, but I would also disagree in the sense that I believe more in free judgment. Again, going back to that, the ability to judge make a decision or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively and wisely, especially in the matters affecting action, good sense, or discretion.
However, if you don’t have a good set of reflection, if you can’t reflect on your own life and who you are and where you came from, then you might quote, go on automatic. And you might make these decisions that you literally don’t think about. You might react to stresses in ways that you don’t think about.
And so that’s where I agree with Sam Harris, where sometimes we do act in ways which really don’t demonstrate free will. And I really like what Sam Harris posed in the one podcast that he had about free will, it was like, think of a movie. And so, as you were talking I was trying to think, what would I think in that Sam Harris example? And so the movies that came to my mind were “Infinity War.” I thought of “Goonies.” And then I thought of “Battle Royale,” bloody, crazy movie. And then as you were talking, I was like, why did “Battle Royale” get into my mind? I literally haven’t seen it in like four years. It’s not that “Infinity War” made me think of it.
“Goonies” didn’t make me think of “Battle Royale.” And that’s where like the complexities of the mind just go crazy, where why did that. Of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen in my life, in the Sam Harris experiment, to me it’s not more free will, but versus how muddled our minds are. If we were a computer, we could literally say, choose random movie of the 500 we’ve seen and it’ll choose it. But in our minds, we can only think of honestly what we just saw or “Battle Royale,” what randomly came to my mind. And why is that? Is that free will? Yeah, I would agree it’s not.
Dr. Gary Deel: I was just going to say, I mean, I think what you’re speaking to are the endless complexities that are inherent in the cause and effect chain in our minds that we need not necessarily be able to trace and map out with perfect specificity in order to accept the argument that they’re nonetheless bound to the laws of physics insofar as determinism would require that every effect be preceded by a cause, because if you’re going to argue that there are effects that are without a cause then, again, you’re now stepping into the realm of the metaphysical and the ethereal or the supernatural, because what we know about our universe is that everything that happens is preceded by something else that happened before it, right back to the Big Bang and so on and so forth.
But to your point, I mean, our chains of causation are far more, I could knock the water bottle off my desk right now and we’d say, “Well, what caused that?” Well, I knocked it off with my hand, but if I were to say, “Well, think of an ice cream flavor or a movie.” As you said, and I were to think of a movie, the fact that I ate spare ribs last night may or may not have had any influence. It may have been independent of the chain of causation that led me to think of a movie, or led you to think of “Infinity War” versus your experience in Greece or how much money you had or why you thought of “Battle Royale.” We may not even be able to point to those causal elements to say, oh, this is the chain of causation.
We may not even be consciously aware of that, but we can nonetheless say with scientific confidence that there is some chain of causation, even if it’s elusive to us, that would ultimately culminate in that expression of an idea or a thought or emotion. And I think that the lack of control that we have over our mind’s thought processes and choice is no better exemplified in any scenario I can think of than in meditation.
I am not a meditative expert, or I wouldn’t even go so far as to say an experienced meditator. I am a complete novice when it comes to this, but I have attempted it on numerous occasions. Sam Harris, in addition to his other work also has a meditation app and encourages people to practice this. It seems like a healthy hobby to engage in or something to do if you can work your way into it. I have always struggled with it.
And for those listeners who may have no experience with it, if you question how much of a passenger you are in the ambiguities of your mind, you need only try to sit in a room by yourself quietly and empty your mind for 60 seconds to realize how hard that is to do, even if you want to, it is insanely frustratingly difficult to do this.
And so the basic premise of this mindfulness meditation, there’s many different styles and circumstances, some do it with music and some do it with other types of environmental cues, but perhaps the most mundane or simplistic is just to sit somewhere quiet without any distractions, without any sounds or visual cues or noises and just find a comfortable place to sit down, can be on the floor in a chair and just close your eyes and try to empty your mind of all conscious thought. In other words, just don’t think anything, just focus on the sound of your breathing in and out, and just try to do this for as long as you can.
And what you find is that at least in my case, and my understanding is with most people, is that after just a few seconds, I mean, single-digit seconds you find yourself thinking about squirrels or the email that you got a week ago, or what you have to buy at the grocery store later on that afternoon. And you can no more help these thoughts from arising in your mind than I can help from whatever you’re going to do in your office, talking to me from across the country. They arise and I sort of aggravatingly push them away and say, “No, I’m trying not to think about anything right now.” And I can sort of reset that clock and say, “Okay, we’re back to zero.”
I kind of think about it like those workplace safety accident, we’ve gone five days without an incident and then it goes back to zero after you have an incident. This goes on to the point of just being furiously frustrating that you can no more go five to seven seconds without having a thought, even if you just want to have no thoughts. And that just goes to show you what’s going on in the brain and how little control you actually have over it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: To build on that, I 100% love meditation. I encourage it for everyone. And the reason is when people meditate and they say, “Don’t think.” That’s actually impossible. So really the idea of meditation is to focus on being in, unexisting. And so when I meditate, it is with the lights down in a comfortable room and I close my eyes. And the reason I close my eyes of course, is to get away the visual stimuli. And as humans, the visual stimuli is really the dominant one. We see the world, we are guided by what we see. But even when you get rid of your visual, you still have your hearing, you still have your taste, you still have your touch. You still have your smell. You’re still getting all these external stimuli. And just like you said, after single-digit seconds, your mind goes crazy.
But if you can practice, and meditation is about practice. If you can practice meditation, I view it as a way for people to think about it is when you clean your cache and cookies, it cleans the browser. It makes it fresh. And if you can meditate and you can focus, you practice and you clean your mind essentially so it’s not a jumble of thoughts. And again, it’s not not thinking, it’s just trying to focus on thinking. And it allows you to really think about all those things that you haven’t thought about in a while and allows you to process them. It allows you to reflect, and it’s really about reflection. The most important skill I could ever suggest anybody develop is reflection. And you can practice the skill of reflection through meditation.
All you need is 15 minutes a day. It can be in the morning, right when you wake up, it could be part of your stretching, it could be anything like that. But ideally it’s not when you are say, praying words, if you pray to God and you pray words and actual talk about, I pray for grandma, you’re guiding that, you have to let words not guide you.
So I recommend like a singing bowl. I recommend a repeated mantra, or if you do pray a repeated word where you’re focusing yourself and you’re focusing your thoughts, because it’s impossible to not think. And it’s really to focus your thoughts to go through all the thoughts that are in your brain. And if you don’t meditate, what’s going to happen is your brain, which is your browser is going to just have all this stuff in your head. And it’s not that you’re going to blow up one day or crack, but when you’re alone with your thoughts-
Dr. Gary Deel: Although you can.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And yeah-
Dr. Gary Deel: Some may.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Some may. And that’s why I always recommend meditate because most people don’t do it until they do crack where their volume is up to 11 and then they’re forced to, and then the doctor says, “Relax, go to a beach.”
It’s so important to do that. And that’s why with free will, it comes down to reflection. Some people go on automatic because they have no reflection. They just respond viscerally. They just respond culturally or who they are, or their view of history. It’s so complicated and to really get to free judgment, where you’re able to make your own decisions and judging on certain things, again, is very complex because who we are comes from your parents and your influence and what you’ve read. And it’s so, so, so, so tough.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I think your description there is really a good one because, and again, as a very novice meditator, if we can even go so far as to say that, I’ve recognized value in the practice, it certainly can be healthy for the mind. And to the extent that I can do it for a few seconds at a time, I can see how that organization of one’s thoughts and sort of the mental noise can help to make a more peaceful existence and a more quieted state of affairs going on between your ears.
But I think the important thing to note is that even that practice of meditation, in theory, to the extent that you could become a, a Yogi, a master meditator who could do this for hours or days on end would not necessarily imply the existence of free will where one is absent in other people, it is simply the trained practice, the ability to organize one’s thoughts.
And I kind of think about this the way that some people, it tends to be the more educated or the more astute have a deeper awareness or an introspection of their own thoughts and ideas. You and I are in professions where we spend a lot of our time thinking about how we think, why we think, what we think and whether or not we’re wrong.
And the fact of the matter is there are a lot of people who don’t spend any time doing this, and there’s a ton of cognitive dissonance going on. So there’s really very little awareness of ideas and values and beliefs, and some that are completely contradictory or totally mutually incompatible. I think that you and I spend a lot of our time by virtue of being scholars and academics, thinking about why we might think certain things and where those incongruities might lie and how we can reconcile them and so on and so forth.
But even the extent to which we have that awareness, that elevated awareness through our training and our occupations and the work that we do, it still doesn’t imply free will, it implies a greater awareness of what’s going on between our ears, but it doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily authoring anything or making choices, we’re just aware of the thoughts that are sort of happening.
And I think that awareness allows for different branches of causation in that chain to emerge. And so that’s the point that you got back to that you had referenced earlier, which is the fact that there’s these endless influences on those chains of causality that are affecting where we go in our thoughts and what kinds of choices we arrive at and what types of behaviors we adopt. There’s genetics, there’s our life experiences, there’s the food that we eat, the air that we breathe, the people we talk to and surround ourselves with, the work that we do.
And that all sort of builds on itself to the point where, again, we have found ourselves for better or worse in careers where we spend a lot of our time thinking—that’s the primary component I would argue of what a lot of academicians do. And that lends itself to this constant sort of reflection and reworking of those chains of causality because if we identify something that goes, oh, you know what, that’s hypocritical or that’s biased in our own minds, that changes the sort of, I imagine, as a visual sort of reference to this, like a domino effect. Literal dominoes going down the chain and something might intervene and that could simply be a recognition of a problem in the logic of our thinking or the rationality or the morality of choices that we make. And that, in and of itself, changes things in the physical universe, like brain chemistry and neurons that are firing or not firing, and the neurotransmitters that are expressed from one neuron to the next.
So it’s not so much so that we are ethereally just thinking thoughts and that our consciousness is making changes, our process of thinking thoughts, whether it’s you or me or anybody else is having real chemical physical changes to the structures of our brains that are affecting things in the physical universe. So that process is not purely metaphysical. I mean, there’s some arguments that there could be a metaphysical component, and I’ve written about this in previous articles. The idea that, to the extent our understanding of neurology and neuroscience is incomplete, there might be an argument that free will does have a mechanism. That it could exist and we just haven’t discovered it yet because we don’t have all the answers, but I would argue that that’s sort of an argument from ignorance. In the absence of some evidence that that could exist or that that is waiting for us down the road, some hint, smoke to suggest that there’s fire there. We shouldn’t be leaning on the idea that, well yeah, we don’t know what it is, so therefore it must exist, we just haven’t found it yet. We have to work with the evidence that we have.
And I think that’s what Harris is arguing in his postulate about free will is that the physical universe relies on the premise of cause and effect, of simple determinism in the absence of something else that would suggest that that doesn’t always apply, then we’re left with the conclusion that it does not appear there’s a physical mechanism that would allow for free will.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And with Sam Harris, I think like so many great thinkers, his logic is sound, and then like with so many great thinkers, not everybody agrees with him and you go throughout philosophy history, not everybody agrees with them. For my last quote, I’ll just say a little thing by Paul Tillich who’s the great theologian. I love his book “Dynamics of Faith” and this is from “The Courage to Be.”
Paul Tillich in talking about freedom and free will to a point is, “Man is essentially finite freedom. Freedom is not the sense of intermediacy, but in the sense of being to determine himself through decisions in the center of his being. So man is finite freedom, is free within the contingencies of his finitude but these limits he is asked to make himself what he is supposed to become and to fulfill his destiny. And so in every act of moral self-affirmation, man continues to the fulfillment of his destiny, to the actualization of what he potentially is. It is that task of ethics to describe the nature of this fulfillment in philosophical or theological terms. But however the norm is to formulate man in the power of acting against it, of contradicting his essential being, of losing his destiny.”
And so Paul Tillich can be quite philosophical for a theologian, but I really like how he talks about finite freedom, because I think this goes right into what we’re talking about in the sense that here’s somebody who was, for lack of a good description, a man of faith and wrote a lot about theology, but he talks about finite freedom, but he also doesn’t talk about absolute fatalism in the sense that God wrote the story all you’re doing is walking down the path.
And then he talks about destiny, of course, and what is destiny? That sounds like quote, philosophical, fatalism, but it’s really about you making your choices and you following ethics. He could have easily just said the task is to just follow God. We’ve heard that many times, but the task of ethics is to describe the nature of this fulfillment. And it’s really just to figure out, and I go back to free judgment, really figuring out how you can make decisions that will help you influence others.
And you talked about Yogis, what is the purpose of Yogi devoting his or her life to meditation? And ideally the purpose of that is then when the Yogi does interact with people, the Yogi can give those people incredible advice. And so what’s the purpose of us meditating for 15 minutes a day? It’s to clear our minds and so we can make sound judgments. That’s my final thoughts as far as free will, we could literally go on for hours, but I wanted to throw in that Paul Tillich quote.
Dr. Gary Deel: No, I think that’s great. And I think that, again, contrary to the point that I think a lot of people feel disappointed or even depressed by the idea that free will is an illusion, they feel like nothing matters anymore. I’ve had this encounter with numerous friends and colleagues when, if the light bulb comes on to the extent that they sort of see the scientific soundness of the argument coming from Harris, and they kind of go, “Well, what the hell? There’s no point to any of this, because I’m not making any choices I’m just along for the ride.”
But I think at least for me, there’s a requirement that we maintain a sense of accountability, but there’s also an encouragement toward ethics, good stewardship with our neighbors, and kindness to help other people, particularly if they’re not making good choices with their lives, that comes from this idea.
And I’ve referenced this in my last article on the subject about why a lack of free will shouldn’t lead to nihilism. And I use the analogy in the way that we think about children, if we find a child from a poor circumstance, high-crime neighborhood where all of their role models are disreputable people that are committing crimes and hurting other people and engaging in violence and doing things that most of us would think of as amoral and bad life choices.
And then we have child B sort of the opposite view, which would be someone who grows up in a good neighborhood and with good role models, loving, caring, kind parents and neighbors and friends and support groups and all of the things we would want and we would think would be promotive of healthy development. And then we’re sort of just fast forwarding the clock 20 or 30 years. And we ask ourselves, what do we think these individuals might end up like?
We’re not tempted to say that each of them are just as likely to completely defy the circumstances of their upbringing to become whatever they want. That there’s no relationship between that sort of developmental stage and the exposure that they have to their environment and what they will one day evolve into.
We know from research, I mean social learning theory and just the basic premises of cause and effect in our own societies, we can see that if you are a child A, your likelihood of ending up a certain way is less than others. Again, we would not be surprised to find that child A adopts the unwise and poor and violent or criminal behaviors that were modeled in his environment and that child B did just the opposite. Because we know that this is basic cause and effect, but this in and of itself demonstrates the idea that we’re not as in control from the perspective of free will, as we think we are, whether we’re children or adults.
But when we see that people are not making good choices, there’s a compassion that comes from that, at least in my view. And there’s an urge to focus more, for example, with the criminal justice system. I did a podcast a few weeks ago with an expert from our university on this subject and the differences between retribution and rehabilitation, and whether or not we should be focusing on punishment versus trying to help people and fix them and correct the problem behavior so that they can be constructive, law abiding, good members of society.
And I think the idea that when you see someone engaging in poor behaviors or criminal behavior, unethical behavior, the idea that that is the product of circumstances that have led to those choices, even in the absence of free will leads one to be more compassionate and to want to try to find ways to correct those chains of causation so that they don’t continue down that road to intervene externally.
Because again, the theory would be that I don’t have that control internally from within my own house, but I do have the idea or the capacity to be an influencer for other people that are listening to me. So the words that are coming out of my mouth right now on this podcast could serve as an influence that changes the causation for one person or another. And hopefully for the better, I mean, that’s what we would all ostensibly aspire to. And so that gives me hope rather than a sense of pointlessness that would otherwise come from this, or at least in the minds of many people, and I hope that it does for our listeners. But, thank you Bjorn, I want to thank you for being here and sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics. And thanks for joining me today for this episode of Intellectible.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you, Gary, for having me here. And my final thing to say is I like what you said about nihilism in the sense that I believe that nothing’s important and everything’s important. Don’t stress about the little things because nothing’s important. But everything is important, especially when it deals with interacting with other people to be kind, we can choose to be kind. We can choose to make the right decisions when we interact and have interactions with people. I think this is an extraordinarily important subject, and it’s not just for philosophy. It’s just not for theology, it’s for everyone. And to have these out there that are accessible is extremely important. So thanks, thanks for having me here.
Dr. Gary Deel: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various American Public University blogs and podcasts. Be well and stay safe, everyone.