By dictionary definition, free will is defined as “the ability make choices unimpeded by prior causes“. For free will to be possible, you would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.
This doesn’t imply that you are not free to choose, you are merely not free to make that choice unimpeded by prior causes, whether they be preexisting preferences, feelings, external factors, or (most likely) a massive combination of them all.
With this in mind, here are three reasons that recognizing a lack of free will is significant:
1 – Science
From a scientific perspective, specifically with regards to neurology, recognizing a lack of free will is vital.
There was a time when epilepsy was thought by some to be the result of demonic possession. If this was your view, you’d have no incentive to even consider the possibility of finding a genuine cure or treatment. Thanks to advances in science, we are aware the condition is a neurological disorder, and neurologists are able to focus on the actual cause of the problem.
Yet there is still much about the brain that remains a mystery. If scientific research is limited because of faulty assumptions, it could have devastating consequences. One of these assumptions is a view that free will exists.
Imagine a man who, despite having always been a fine upstanding citizen and family man, is found to have beaten his neighbor rendering her unconscious. This horrendous act is deplorable, and few would argue it seems to lack any morality.
Yet what might change if you later discover this man has a tumor in his head adding tremendous pressure to his frontal lobe. This condition is known to entirely change the demeanor of a person, often in uncharacteristically aggressive ways. What if doctors determine that removing this tumor will restore the man to his previous law abiding self.
Was morality really the issue?
Though the situation remains complicated, you would certainly view things differently. But take the example further. Suppose neurologists discover matter in the brain that is the root of aggressive behavior. If excessive aggression is found to be a genetic mutation, would it make sense to correct the issue in the same manner that we remove a tumor?
If you assume free will, there is no reason to consider such a possibility, just as if you assume a seizure is a demonic possession, you lack any incentive to try and find a genuine cause.
In some aspects, science already does this. We have treatments for things like depression, which necessitates a view that these mindsets are not freely chosen. But an assumption of free will suggests that any choice is unimpeded by factors such as chemical imbalances.
Recognizing a lack of free will permits you to capably view every choice with a corresponding cause, and thus seek solutions to undesirable states of mind.
The risk is that if enough societal or political pressure were to prevent scientific studies on the brain on the basis that choice is not significantly tied to specific causes, science could face unnecessary restrictions or be completely stymied – which would be an appalling situation.
2 – Empathy/Compassion
If a child is brutally beaten at home and then acts aggressively at school, it is easy to recognize the root of this behavior falls outside of his control. Had you experienced the same abuse, your personality, your feelings about the world around you, and the choices you make would inevitably be different. The reason you are aware of this is because you empathize – putting yourself in another’s mindset and relating to their feelings.
Understanding that free will does not exist gives reason to expand this empathy to all human action.
No matter who you encounter, if you imagine that you we’re born with the same genetics, had the same upbringing, had exactly the same set of life experiences, you would be precisely the same person making the same choices.
Even the worst possible person you can think of was born with particular genetics and had a lifetime of experiences that resulted in him being who he is. When you understand this, you see things differently.
That isn’t to say you agree with everyone’s views or condone bad choices, only that you recognize that there are reasons for compassion even if you disagree. If you infer free will, this level of consideration in nonexistent – you are left only to assume bad choices stem from bad people.
Without free will, you look at choice in an entirely different context. Recognizing this concept has diffused and avoided uncountable disagreements, and makes interacting with others significantly easier. You become far less judgmental.
3 – Influence
Lacking free will does not imply you are not receptive to reason. What you read, what you experience, who you associate with, what other people say, these things will all influence your mindset and affect your future choices.
Understanding that free will does not exist heightens your attention to influence. The moment you recognize that every choice is the result of a prior cause, you are much more inclined to do your best to ensure those causes are as positive or helpful to you as possible.
We all know that even a single event, if it is traumatic enough, can entirely change the scope of a person’s life. But causality implies every event changes life in some capacity, even if its negligibly small. The problem is you can never know how large an impact any event might have.
You don’t need freewill to influence others, which should be of particular importance to anyone with children. If your child witnesses an argument between you and your spouse, and you exhibit certain behaviors such as lying, that will be an element that influences your child’s decision making process.
There is no way to determine if it is an aspect that will be mostly inconsequential, be forgotten, or perhaps surface in some negative way at a later date. It is merely one more influencing factor piled onto her lifetime of experience that shapes her decision making process.
There is a significant difference between thinking only some experiences matter versus knowing that everything matters. When you recognize this, you discover how easy it is to dismiss detrimental thoughts that emerge in your mind that otherwise would have inconspicuously entered your decision making process – the result being you become far more introspective.
What you think matters – what causes you to think matters even more.