Why free will is a naive fantasy

Image credit: Terry Weyman

As individuals raised in Western societies that have been to some degree shaped by the ideas of The Enlightenment as well as the previously-held ideas central to Christian mythology, we imagine we have free will.

Fortunately for those clinging desperately to this belief, free will is an amorphous undefined concept and so harsh reality can be avoided, especially if we are totally ignorant of the many studies over the last seventy years that have brutally contradicted this charming but naïve idea.

As individuals, therefore, we can continue to meander through our lives blithely unaware of our true limitations and continue to believe ourselves quasi-rational independent agents.

In reality, however, nearly all of our thoughts and behaviors are conditioned by the twin forces of our milieu and our evolutionary hardwiring.

While our evolutionary hardwiring remains constant over tens of thousands of years, our environment is subject to far more rapid change. The external signs of change are all around us: our wondrous technologies have literally changed the face of the planet, and very often for the worse. The internal signs, however, are more subtle.

It is commonplace in the West today for those in their late sixties and early seventies to wax nostalgic about the decades running from the end of World War II to somewhere in the mid-1980s. Supposedly these were the golden years and provided we studiously avoid the actual details of this time, it’s a pleasant enough illusion to embrace. Moreover it does have a strand of truth to it: these were the decades of post-war recovery and rapid economic growth.

The post-war years also saw a boom in births (hence the cliché baby boomer) and as those children grew up in an expanding economy it was easy to find work. Automation hadn’t yet begun to make any significant impact on manufacturing and service delivery, so every new item purchased by a consumer resulted in increased demand for labor, which ensured relatively high wages for low-skilled and semi-skilled occupations. These wages enabled workers to buy more things, which in turn drove up the demand for labor. For quite a long time this pleasant self-reinforcing loop persisted and life was good, at least in material terms.

As people reached their adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s they enjoyed two enormous advantages unknown to any previous generation: economic security and a large cohort of similarly-aged people.

When we’re young we’re naturally idealistic, enthusiastic, and optimistic. These traits are greatly empowered when we don’t have to worry too much about ensuring a roof over our heads and food on the table. It’s not surprising therefore that the 1960s and 1970s were decades of enormous self-indulgence, experimentation, and intellectually vacuous posturing, as well as huge social change and a generalized desire for peace and cooperation among peoples.

When we feel economically secure and when there’s a lot of like-minded people around us, in the absence of a dominant mythology to the contrary we will often feel benevolent to those who are less well-placed than we are. Thus across Europe various social-democratic Parties gained support and various important social programs were put in place. The European Union transformed from a coal-and-steel cooperative towards something closer to a political union of free European nations. Only the USA, with its all-pervasive everyone-for-themselves mythology centered entirely around the acquisition of money, failed to embrace meaningful social change.

So we can see that far from individuals having free will, people’s beliefs and actions were largely shaped by the forces of economics and demographics.

In such conditions the cancer of mindless populism/nationalism found it very difficult to gain ground. Extremist right-wing parties were tiny and relentlessly mocked by nearly everyone; they attracted only the mentally disturbed and life’s inevitable failures.

Today however conditions are entirely different.

Today, older people outnumber those just entering adulthood. Automation and changing patterns of consumption mean that labor is abundant and therefore wages for unskilled and semi-skilled workers are low wherever automation can substitute for human beings. Right-wing tax breaks for the super-rich and large corporations, introduced during the Reagan years, have consolidated wealth into the hands of a tiny number of people while the vast majority are worse off in real terms than thirty years ago. Decades of popular restrictions on home building have resulted in sky-high house prices, leaving nearly half of all young people forever unable to imagine owning their own dwelling.

Our demographics mean that older people, who tend to be more afraid of change and fearful about losing what they have, are in charge. Many of them have pensions that provide insulation from the kinds of financial insecurity experienced by so many of the under-forties today. Older people prefer to hang on tightly to what they have and exhibit little interest in trying to help those less fortunate. Indeed, the popular mood today is towards xenophobia, racism, building walls, and living inside a zero-sum fortress mentality.

Financial insecurity coupled to a large cohort of older people has resulted in far-right Parties and demagogue candidates enjoying successes not seen since the 1930s.

Wherever we look, we see the same pattern in societies where economics and demographics have combined in this way. Brexit, the most mindlessly stupid self-harm project ever known to humankind, is underway in the UK and warmly embraced by (yes, you guessed it) the old and uneducated and ignorant and simple-minded.

Trump became President of the USA because he is adored by millions of older, uneducated, bigoted, ignorant, and simple-minded voters.

In France, Marine Le Pen (who leads the neo-fascist rassemblement national) nearly won the Presidency the last time round and may well win next time as support for her Party continues to grow among the old and uneducated and those on the lowest rung of society.

Germany suffered the shock of seeing the far-right Alternative für Deutschland enter the Bundestag, the first time any extremist Party has accomplished this feat since the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s.

Italy has its powerful far-right neo-fascist Party under Matteo Salvini, and in Poland Prawo i Sprawiedliwość is essentially a nationalist-fascist Party that seeks to establish a dictatorship beyond the rule of law. In Hungary Viktor Orban has succeeded in achieving exactly that.

In Brazil Bolsonaro is a Spanish-speaking Trump lookalike and in India Narendra Modi has likewise embraced a racist fascist one-man-rule ideology that has fomented an unwholesome combination of religious fanaticism and nationalism that is dragging the country ever-deeper into violence and repression.

The common factors in all of these examples (and so many more): an ageing population and economic insecurity.

It’s striking that in places where the young outweigh the old, such as across most of the African continent, even extreme economic insecurity is not enough to drive people towards embracing ultra-right Parties. Yes, deeply-rooted tribalism is one reason; the mythology of tribe is stronger in most places than the mythology of nation. But even allowing for this factor, it’s clear that demographics plays an important role in determining what we believe and how we act. Across Africa, younger people are resentful of older autocrats. In the USA and in Europe, older voters turn out in their millions to embrace autocrats.

As the populations of Western nations continue to grow older relative to the cohort of younger citizens, and as economic insecurity will now be greatly exacerbated by our absurd and mindless reaction to the very minor challenge presented by today’s terror-du-jour, it’s evident that the trend towards ever-greater far-right authoritarianism will not only persist but accelerate.

The future is not going to be about ever-greater international cooperation to tackle large challenges. The future will be one inhabited by Trump lookalikes, cheered on by old simple-minded ignorant voters anxious to cling on to whatever they have and damn the consequences for everyone else.

The future will be one of suspicious and resentful nation-states ruled by incompetent halfwits, all playing to the gallery of their mindless supporters with no thought of the inevitable consequences. The future will be one of increasing financial instability from which the already-rich will gain further while everyone else slips continually backward into poverty. This will, inevitably, lead to even greater embrace of “strong leaders” who will not hesitate to lie and make impossible promises in order to reap the votes of those too stupid and fearful to realize they’ve been duped.

So it turns out that far from having free will, we’re at the mercy of forces we don’t perceive. These forces are relentlessly reinforced by the mass media, whose single-minded pursuit of revenue and fixation on creating an endless stream of fear-inducing sensation means that the great mass of people are nothing more than sheep being herded into whatever mental enclos du jour temporarily suits a few dozen ultra-wealthy executives and the politicians with whom they have a symbiotic relationship.

Perhaps if we recognized how little control we have over what we believe and what we do, there could be some slender chance of us purposefully creating structures that to some degree mitigate the baleful effects of our sheep-like tendencies.

Perhaps if we recognized how easily the average person conforms to group norms (whatever they happen to be) we’d find ways to reduce the many harmful effects of such automatic and unthinking conformity.

Perhaps if we understood how something as simple as age profoundly impacts, on a large scale, vast social outcomes we’d be less ready to rush to vote for the nearest Trumpolini.

But so long as we continue to imagine we have free will, we shall continue to remain as we are: unconscious atoms bumping around in a gas that is subject to laws we’re entirely unaware of, each of us thinking as we bump along that we’re in control of our destiny.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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