What Does Matter
While science may never uncover the mystery behind the concept of freewill, it has provided us with ample empirical evidence showing that there are different degrees of freedom; external factors have a powerful influence on our thoughts, actions, and behaviors; and belief is strongly correlated with action and behaviors. These three ideas are of utmost importance when it comes to morality, politics, and virtually all of our social interactions.
Different degrees of freedom. Both a smoker and a non-smoker can choose to not pick up a cigarette, although what some might consider the “freedom” of the smoker is curtailed by the strong biological drives and psychological processes known as addiction. The smoker might claim that he or she could quit if he or she wanted to, but it is these environmental and biological factors that at least contribute to the desire to smoke, overpowering the desire to quit. These biological drives and psychological processes are not separate from the smoker; they are part of who the person is. Once we dispel this notion that the self is a magical soul or some kind of ghost in the machine, separate from our biology and environment, we realize how much we are connected to this earth and the people around us. Understanding that some people have more choices than others allows us to be more empathetic and understanding rather than judgmental.
External influences. While those who reject the idea of freewill generally claim that all of our thoughts, behaviors, and actions are a result of environment and biology, proponents of freewill generally claim that there is “something else” that allows us to choose independently from the determinism of our environment and biology. The “something else” is often a supernatural “something else,” making it unknowable to the methodological naturalism that governs the scientific method. In other words, if there is “something else,” science cannot (by definition) ever find it. Rather than speculate or believe on “faith” that this “something else” exists, we can form our belief based on what we do know—what science can tell us, which is, unequivocally, that our thoughts, behaviors, and actions are greatly influenced by forces and factors outside our control such as genetics, chemistry, social influence (e.g., persuasion and manipulation), biological drives (e.g., thirst, hunger, sex), education, and so much more. Again, our choices are not made in a vacuum. Using reason requires drawing upon the information available to us, and all of us have a different set of information as a result of our unique histories of which proportionally, we had very little control if any.
Belief, action, and behavior. While within the realm of science we must be very careful about making causal claims, we can say that belief is strongly correlated with actions and behaviors. Philosophically we can posit that human belief is a part of the causal chain of events that unfold in the universe. Action begins with belief, and without belief, action is less likely to be taken. The beliefs we hold to be true about ourselves are the basis for our behavior—how we treat others and how we treat ourselves. Deep philosophical musings about if we really are free to make any changes in our lives affect our beliefs in our self-efficacy and have a real, measurable effect, on our actions and behaviors. We can say that we need to have more “faith” in ourselves and humanity, but I would argue that faith, even in this context, is unnecessary given the abundant body of scientific research we have supporting the fact that where we find stronger belief, we find measurable manifestations of that belief. The motivational gurus do appear to be on the right track with this one.
Freewill and the Positive Humanist
On the one hand, the scientific approach to the freewill issue allows us to have greater empathy for those who find themselves in less-than-ideal circumstances rather than take a “blame the victim” approach. On the other hand, we realize that we are external influences on others. We are agents of change. We can introduce new information into the lives of others that lead them to change their beliefs and behaviors. However, we are up against a lifetime of environmental and biological influences, and neither we nor the people we try to change are to blame for any lack of effectiveness. As for eliciting change in our own behavior, we can seek out people who can help us, even if just through motivation, encouragement, or social support.
We must work to find more effective ways to be agents of change while realizing that sometimes our best efforts might not be good enough, but until we honestly give our best effort, we will never really know.