Is Free Will a Myth?

Beware when encountering a shiny new commentator decrying the concept of "free will."  In paying him attention, you are lending credence to a casuist.

Every once in a while, some peddler of intellectual schlock will come along and scribble out a think piece on why free will is defunct as a concept and dead as a practiced reality.  The spiritual deconstructionist Daniel Dennet, who was the feature of a long profile in The New Yorker last year, is one such example.  Then there are iterations on the famous Libet experiment, in which neuroscientist Benjamin Libet purportedly "measured" free will, thus making it the result of neurochemistry, not consciousness.

The newest assault on free will comes via The Guardian.  Historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks he's found the silver bullet to rid us of the pesky concept of free and conscious will once and for all.  But all he does is dredge up an old trope that was en vogue when Dwight Eisenhower occupied the Oval Office.

"'Free will' isn't a scientific reality," Harari assures us.  "It is a myth inherited from Christian theology."  Harari offers an impassioned defense of liberal democracy and its hallmarks of civil rights, equality under the law, emphasis on individual dignity, and undogmatic flexibility.  But, he says, our outdated belief in free will, which forms the basis of human liberty, makes the liberal order susceptible to outside threats.  "Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best," Harari explains, but voters don't see the dark clouds lurking on the horizon.

First, Harari cites biology as proof that our will isn't as free as we think.  It is from our unique genetic makeup that we lose the ability to freely think, he reasons.  "I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc – and I didn't choose which genes or family to have."

Fair enough.  We don't choose our race (unless you're Rachel Dolezal), and we certainly don't choose our DNA.  Our bodily makeup is an ineradicable part of our being – at least, until the transhumanists take over and sully God's creation.

But not getting to choose whether our parents dress us in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Barbie Underoos doesn't mean we lack free will.  Being born of a certain race and getting trapped in a segregated school system doesn't disprove free will, either.  They are impediments to autonomy, to be sure, but that doesn't take away the ability to make choices, limited as those may be.

By flirting with biological determinism, Harari lends credence to odious types like racial supremacists and phrenologists.  I imagine he'd prefer to not associate with such people.

Harari says our naïveté about free will opens us up to manipulation by pernicious forces.  Here we get to the real issue: "[i]f governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will."

You can see where this is going.  If it wasn't for those tricky Russkies and their Facebook ads, Hillary Clinton would be president!  Harari gives, in the most simplistic way he can, a breakdown of the process of political manipulation:

As you surf the internet, a headline catches your eye: "Immigrant gang rapes local women".  You click on it.  At exactly the same moment, your neighbour is surfing the internet too, and a different headline catches her eye: "Trump prepares nuclear strike on Iran".  She clicks on it.  Both headlines are fake news stories, generated perhaps by Russian trolls, or by a website keen on increasing traffic to boost its ad revenues.  Both you and your neighbour feel that you clicked on these headlines out of your free will.  But in fact you have been hacked.

The implications follow: you've been hacked because your sense of discernment has been rendered null by your mistaken belief in free will.  You were fed those stories on Facebook based on your own personal preferences and feed.  They were micro-targeted to you, at the time you were most likely to act, and you fell for it.  Now, your voting behavior will be based on false information, and that, in nuce, is a threat to liberal democracy.

Harari thinks including a news hook will make his theory on the malleability of will more persuasive.  The way liberal journalists refer to Russian ad-buying during the 2016 election, you get the impression that liberals truly believe that Vladimir Putin deployed digital hypnotists to convince Wisconsin voters to pull the lever for Trump.

This is myth-making – not a news report.  Harari may think he's making a novel argument that fits the internet age, but he's actually making an old one.  Leftist economists have been attacking advertisers as dissolute scammers for decades.  John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, which is still heavily used in college curricula, criticized advertising executives for using the "machinery for consumer-demand creation" to entice shoppers into buying frivolous material goods.

Galbraith's reproof of ad men has been appropriated in many contexts, Harari's included.  It contains one fatal flaw: if advertisers were omniscient, wouldn't they all be filthy rich?  If consumers were easily exploitable, couldn't they be influenced into buying any piece of worthless junk?  And how can some insightful souls like Galbraith and Harari resist the puppeteer's pull and denounce his conniving craft?

As economist Murray Rothbard wrote, "[i]f there is determinism by advertising, how can some people be determined to rush out and buy the product, while Professor Galbraith is free to resist the advertisements with indignation and to write a book denouncing the advertising?"

Just as consumers still exercise free will when paging through the weekly circular, people using Facebook still use their discernment when clicking on links.  Yes, advertisements can influence behavior.  That's what they're designed to do.  But to tear up the entire concept of free will based on the idea that someone, somewhere, posted something fictitious on the internet that was read by a half-dozen bored people at work isn't insightful.  It's as fake as the fake news that Harari believes is poisoning liberal democracy's well.

One final note to dispel Harari's argument against free will: Thinking out and writing an article attacking free will is an act of will itself.  Using free will to disprove free will is an aporia.  Harari should, perhaps, re-enroll in his freshman logic class – that is, if he can find the will to do so.

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