The End of Free Will
The End of Free Will
July 18, 2011
Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
The End of Free Will
What if free will exists but not everyone has it?
First we need to define free will. In the past, I’ve defined it as the brain’s magical ability to make decisions independent of the physical laws of the universe. And since I don’t believe in magic, or souls, I conclude that free will doesn’t exist, at least by that limited definition. In my view, we’re just moist robots bumping around and imagining we have control.
Some of you have argued that free will should be defined as the ability of the brain to process new information and make decisions based on that information. That description of free will is easier to accept, and it’s the definition of free will that I’ll adopt for this discussion. My hypothesis is that even if some people do have that sort of free will, most people do not – at least not for important questions.
This is where confirmation bias comes in. Ideally, a human with free will could change his or her mind whenever new information warrants it. In practice, humans see new information as supporting whatever dumbass thing they already believe is right. And when we make decisions based on emotion, which is most of the time, we rationalize our actions after the fact. None of that is free will in the sense of evaluating new information and rationally acting upon it.
You can see confirmation bias in a lot of arenas. A third of you will argue that confirmation bias is the Republican platform. Another third of you will point out that Democrats are the real data-ignorers. The remaining third of you will say both groups are nuts. And we’re all quite certain that people who have different religious beliefs are suffering confirmation bias. The point is that you can’t recognize confirmation bias in yourself. No one can. That’s how it works. It’s something we only see in others. We imagine ourselves to be exempt.
Recently I had an online conversation with an intelligent human being who claimed I opposed a point of view she holds dear. I pointed to my own public writing on that topic and quoted myself as being in complete agreement with her. At that point, the new information should have ended the conversation, right? Her free will should have processed the new data and declared that she and I were in complete agreement. And then she would have apologized for the misunderstanding on her part.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, she dug in and argued that my use of the words “seems right” was my way of saying “is wrong.” She wasn’t claiming I wrote satire, where meanings are reversed. She argued that the words “seems wrong” literally mean the same as “is right.” And she was not embarrassed by that argument. That’s confirmation bias in action.
The fascinating thing about confirmation bias is that I have to allow the possibility that I’m the one who was deluded in the very example I just gave. Perhaps I’m blind to the new information she provided. Her claim is that normal people would read the words “seems right” and interpret the meaning as “is wrong.” There’s no way for me to know which one of us was experiencing confirmation bias in that example. The only thing I can know for sure is that neither of us experienced anything like free will. We both started with our own beliefs and maintained them even as information was exchanged.
This makes me wonder if scientists could test people for their relative degree of free will. How well can we change our views as the information changes? This would be different from standard intelligence testing. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that educated people are the most sure of their opinions and therefore have the most confirmation biases and the least free will. We assume that education makes people more open-minded, but has that ever been tested?
If you were a hermit, and had no exposure to different points of view, would it be easier for you to process new information and form new opinions? What if contention is the thing that hardens viewpoints and makes us immune to new data? If that’s the case, we’re all screwed, because voters aren’t hermits. We’re bombarded by opposing viewpoints.
In a world of 24-hour news, non-stop punditry, and the Internet, my hypothesis is that confirmation bias has moved to critical levels. I’m concerned that the free flow of information has effectively eliminated free will in our voters and in our elected officials. George Washington might have had free will. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, not so much. They’re locked in.
Do you think contention increases confirmation bias and therefore eliminates free will?