It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells that fire as a direct result of chemical and electrical events, with no room for free will. Others note that people are unaware of some causes of their behavior, such as unconscious cues or genetic predispositions, and extrapolate to suggest that all behavior may be caused that way, so that conscious choosing is an illusion.
Scientists take delight in (and advance their careers by) claiming to have disproved conventional wisdom, and so bashing free will is appealing. But their statements against free will can be misleading and are sometimes downright mistaken, as several thoughtful critics have pointed out.
If culture is so successful, why don’t other species use it? They can’t—because they lack the psychological innate capabilities it requires. Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.
What psychological capabilities are needed to make cultural systems work? To be a member of a group with culture, people must be able to understand the culture’s rules for actions, including moral principles and formal laws. They need to be able to talk about their choices with others, participate in group decisions, and carry out their assigned role. Culture can bring immense benefits, from cooked rice to the iPhone, but it only works if people cooperate and obey the rules.
If you think of freedom as being able to do whatever you want, with no rules, you might be surprised to hear that free will is for following rules. Doing whatever you want is fully within the capability of any animal in the forest. Free will is for a far more advanced way of acting. It’s what a creature might need in order to adjust its behavior to novel situations, to get what it wants while still following the complicated rules of the society.
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