“Perhaps the conscious mental representations are after-thoughts-ideas thought after the deed to provide us with the illusion of power and control.” Irvin D. Yalom, “When Nietzsche Wept.”
This quote from the book by Swaab D.F. “We Are Our Brains: from the Womb to Alzheimer’s” triggers our common ethical belief that humans are born and freed with their own free will. It’s often claimed that human beings have “free will” because we make choices. This is clearly faulty reasoning. Every organism constantly makes choices. The point of contention is whether these choices are free…
Back in 1838, Darwin wrote that free will was a “delusion”, arguing that people rarely analysed their motives and usually acted instinctively. Indeed free will is such a complex issue that philosophers have yet to agree on what it actually is, though it’s often said to have these 3 components:
- An action is only free if you could also have abstained from it. (You must have alternative options)
- An action must be carried out for a reason.
- You should also feel that you’re truly carrying out the action of your own volition. But feelings are, of course, entire subjective.
The current knowledge of neurobiology makes it clearer that there is NO such thing as absolute freedom. Many genetic factors and environmental influences in early development, though their effect on our brain development, determine the structure and therefore the function of our brains for the rest of our lives. As a result, we start life not only with a host of possibilities and talents but also many limitations. (whether it be a predetermined gender identity and sexual orientation, potential to personality disorders, depression, etc.) It’s most likely that our behaviour is DETERMINED from birth. We don’t actually have free will in the first place.
This view — the polar opposite of the belief in social engineering has been referred to as “neurocalvinism,” alluding to the doctrine of predestination that shaped Calvinist thinking.
Ethics are a product of our ancient social instinct to do what is good or bad for the group, a finding that could go back to Darwin theory. By the time we’re adults, the capacity of our brains to be modified has become very limited and, along with it, the potential for our behaviour to change. By then, our last bit of freedom is further slimmed down by the obligations and prohibitions that society imposes on us, from our birth to our last days.
Reference: Swaab, D.F., “We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s,” Penguin Books Ltd, London, 2014, Chapter 17, page 326.