Do you have a choice?

Christopher Reilly thought he had a choice. He didn’t choose his genes or the biochemistry of his brain, or his parents or upbringing, or the educational opportunities that were available to him, or the social deprivation and levels of unemployment that affected where he lived, or the influence mass media and his peers had on him, but he thought he chose to break into a house to find the keys for the car he wanted to steal. And the court agreed with him when in December 2020 it convicted him of burglary. He was held personally responsible for that choice without any recognition of how predetermined that choice might have been for him.

Free will is complicated. Philosophers, theologians, policy makers and academics have struggled for millennia to answer the question of whether a person is free to make their own choices. Increasingly, the scientific answer looks like a resounding ‘no’. We are not free to make our own choices, in fact our actions are the result of the systems we interact with.

Think for a moment about the systems, what Donella Meadows defines as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something”, that affected you today. It’s highly likely that along with a whole load of other systems, you were affected by the bio-chemical systems in your brain, how your digestive system responds to certain types of food, the educational system and how it taught you to think, the social systems of people you interact with, the economy, the political system, laws, weather, and the movement of the planet around the sun. So many systems. Each of these systems exists to achieve particular things, but they don’t do that in isolation, they also all affect each other, and us.

Recognising all these systems is one thing, recognising the effect they have on us is much harder. We may like to think of ourselves as individuals, separate from the world we inhabit, and distinct from all the systems we interact with, acting of our own volition, doing what we want to do. We may think that, but in fact we are just a collection of systems within systems interacting with other systems.

So, why isn’t it common knowledge? Why do we continue to believe in the illusion of free will?

Maybe believing you’re free is part of being controlled. Deleuze wrote about what he called ‘Societies of Control’ and how society is moving away from controlling people by physical enclosure to where the mere possibility of being watched, analysed, judged, becomes the mechanism for controlling the choices of the populace, and for getting people to do what society wants them to do. And in 21st century western capitalist societies, what society wants amounts to two things: work, to make money, and shop, to spend money. Give people more freedom and they can choose to work and shop more.

Maybe determinism is dangerous for society. That’s what the philosopher Saul Smilansky says. If everyone realised that their actions are the result of interactions with systems rather than their own choice, then all of the institutions that are based on free will and personal responsibility might come tumbling down. How can the court hold Christopher accountable and punish him for his actions, if he had no other choice but to burgle that house?

Maybe believing in free will is good for you. Not believing in free will has been shown to reduce creativity, make people more likely to conform, more likely to behave immorally, and less likely to learn from mistakes. Vohs and Schooler concluded that people who believe in free will are better at their jobs, have more successful relationships, and are happier, because along with believing in one’s freedom of choice comes a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.

So, can we accept the paradox that all of our actions are the effect of systems acting on us but continue to believe in ourselves as free individuals, that we have no choice but that we should live as if we do?

Having a choice and making a choice are two very different things.