Do Humans Have Free Will, Or Are We Programmed By Society? | Joscha Bach


Like consciousness, free will is often misunderstood
because we know it by reference, but it’s difficult to know it by content, what you
really mean by free will. A lot of people who immediately feel that free will is related
to whether the universe is deterministic or probabilistic. And while physics has some
ideas about that—which change every now and then—it’s not part of our experience
and I don’t think it makes a difference if the universe forces you randomly to do
things or deterministically. The important thing seems to me that in free
will you are responsible for your actions, and responsibility is a social interface.
For instance, if I am told that if I do X I go to prison, and this changes my decision
whether or not to do X, I’m obviously responsible for my decision because it was an appeal to
my responsibility in some sense. Likewise if I do a certain thing that causes harm to
other people and they don’t want that harm to happen, that influences my decision. This
is a discourse of decision-making that I would call a free will decision. “Will” is the representation that my nervous
system at any level of its functioning has raised a motive to an intention. It has committed
to a particular kind of goal that gets integrated into the story of myself, this protocol that
I experience as myself in this world. And that was what I experienced as will, as a
willed decision, and this decision is free in as much as this decision can be influenced
by discourse. So to me, free will is a social notion. It
means that this interface of social interaction, of discourse, of thinking about things, about
this interface of knowledge, language, conceptual thought, is relevant for that decision. If
you have a decision in which it doesn’t play a role, for instance, because you are
addicted to something and you cannot stop doing it even if you want to, then this decision
I would say is not free. I grew up in eastern Germany, it was communist
eastern Germany and it was a very weird ideological country. A country that believed in stories
about how the world works that I, as a nerd, thought obviously not quite true. I had difficultly
believing the official stories about how the world works. It was like some weird kind of
religion. And then the wall came down and it didn’t surprise me in the least. And
then we entered a new dream, a new shared model of the world that was not quite true,
and I realized that most people now fall for this new model. It was very interesting to
see this for me and if you look, for instance, at the U.S., the majority of U.S. Americans
do not believe in the theory of evolution despite all the evidence to the contrary. The majority of people on this planet are
religious even though there doesn’t seem to be very good evidence for a multitude of
creator gods and so on, in my view at least. And if it existed, if a creator god existed,
it would be very hard for me to understand why this creator god really does care about
whether I worship it or all these things that we attribute to creator gods by religion.
So it’s very hard for me, in some sense, to intuitively understand why humans are religious
and why humans are ideological. But I think now over the years that this is
not a bug, it’s a feature. Humans are a programmable species. Religions and ideologies
are operating systems for societies. They have been so throughout most of our history,
and this idea that we can build society based on rational arguments is very, very recent
and very novel. And it’s not entirely clear if it really works.
But it’s clear that we cannot really build societies on conflicting ideologies that are
at war with each other. In the past it has led to situations where the ideology solved
the problems by killing the unbelievers or the religions did the same thing, and we all
agree this is not what we want to have. We want to have an open society, a pluralistic
society, a nonviolent, tolerant society, but still one where people work together and cooperate
well. And this ability to wake up into a shared dream in which people believe things because
their neighbors believe them has been a very powerful feature that’s probably the reason
why we were able to build large-scale societies. We have to understand that when people cooperate
they’re very often in what we call the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a situation in where in order to
achieve the greatest good you have to give up something for yourself, even in a situation
where that is in some sense a bit irrational, because if everybody else is not doing it
you’re going to be worse off. And for these Prisoner’s Dilemmas we have various solutions.
The easiest solution is to have a reputation system. You basically keep track of who did
what when, and you make sure that only the good guys get cookies in the future. And the problem is that these reputation systems
do not scale. If you have too many people in your tribe or in your family or in your
village you just lose track of who did what when, and you cannot really synchronize it
by talking about it. So after a couple hundred individuals the reputation system doesn’t
work very well. It also doesn’t really work if you are not looking. So if nobody is doing
the surveillance, how do you make sure that nobody is defecting and stealing stuff from
the fridge of your tribe, right? So what do we do? We evolve the ability to be normative:
the ability or the need to be good. And this need to be good, this need to follow internalized
norms, this need to serve sacred principles is something that is probably a feature that
is ingrained into our genetic makeup. And of course this alone would not be good
enough because goodness is like an arbitrary vector in value space. People also have a
need to synchronize what’s good. So people will try to feel what’s good in their in-group.
It works by empathy. Empathy is the primary mode in which we transmit norms. If you dress-up
somebody as an authority, as a priest, as a professor, as a pop star, as a politician,
and this person says a certain thing with conviction and people see that others believe
it, they start believing it themselves. And it’s obviously very useful to do this. There’s
almost never a situation where it’s useful to have an opinion that is different from
the opinion of your boss. So this is the ability that we got, and it
means that people perform the same things, they follow the same rules regardless of the
size of the group. This makes it possible to build agricultural societies with hundreds
of thousands of individuals and then millions of individuals. It makes it possible that
this agricultural society has people that specialize in different foods and different
trades and different materials and different crafts and so on, and produce all the multitude
of tasks and tools that we need to get an agricultural society to run and be able to
compete with the nomadic societies. And I think the reason why Homo sapiens is
the only hominin species that’s left is because we outcompeted them all. We were in
the same competitive niche and we were a species that was programmable, that was able to coordinate
our very large group of individuals. That was very powerful. It just turns out that
this mode of tribal organization is not sufficient for the world that we live in now.

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