Special Report

Undermining Free Will

You don't have to read this article. But if you do, could you have chosen otherwise? You probably feel that you were free to skip over it, but were you?

Belief in some measure of free will is common to all cultures and a large part of what makes us human. It is also fundamental to our ethical and legal systems. Yet today's scientists and philosophers are busily chipping away at this social pillar -- apparently without thinking about what might replace it.

What they question is a folk psychology that goes something like this: Inside each of us is a self, a conscious agent who both observes the world and makes decisions. In some cases (though perhaps not all), this agent has a measure of choice and control over his or her actions. From this simple model of human agency flow the familiar notions of responsibility, guilt, blame, and credit. The law, for example, makes a clear distinction between a criminal act carried out by a person under hypnosis or while sleepwalking, and a crime committed in a state of normal awareness with full knowledge of the consequences.

All this may seem like common sense, but philosophers and writers have questioned it for centuries -- and the attack is gathering speed. "All theory is against the freedom of the will," wrote British critic Samuel Johnson. In the 1940s, Oxford University philosophy Professor Gilbert Ryle coined the derisory expression "the ghost in the machine" for the widespread assumption that brains are occupied by immaterial selves that somehow control the activities of our neurons. The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Dennett now refers to the "fragile myth" of "spectral puppeteers" inside our heads.

For skeptics of free will, human decisions are either determined by a person's preexisting nature or, alternatively, are entirely arbitrary and whimsical. Either way, genuine freedom of choice seems elusive. Physicists often fire the opening salvo against free will. In the classical Newtonian scheme, the universe is a gigantic clockwork mechanism, slavishly unfolding according to deterministic laws. How then does a free agent act? There is simply no room in this causally closed system for an immaterial mind to bend the paths of atoms without coming into conflict with physical law. Nor does the famed indeterminacy of quantum mechanics help minds to gain purchase on the material world. Quantum uncertainty cannot create freedom. Genuine freedom requires that our wills determine our actions reliably.

Physicists assert that free will is merely a feeling we have; the mind has no genuine causal efficacy. Whence does this feeling arise? In his 2002 book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner appeals to ingenious laboratory experiments to show how subjects acquire the delusion of being in charge, even when their conscious thoughts do not actually cause the actions they observe.

The rise of modern genetics has also undermined the belief that humans are born with the freedom to shape their individual destinies. Scientists recognize that genes shape our minds as well as our bodies. Evolutionary psychologists seek to root personal qualities such as altruism and aggression in Darwinian mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. "We are survival machines -- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes," writes Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins.

Those aspects of the mind that are not predetermined by genetics lie at the mercy of "memetics." Memes are the mental equivalent of genes -- ideas, beliefs, and fashions that replicate and compete in the manner of genes. British psychologist Susan Blackmore recently contended that our minds are actually nothing but collections of memes that we catch from each other like viruses, and that the familiar sense of "I" is some sort of fiction that memes create for their own agenda.

These ideas are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them. There is an acute risk that they will be oversimplified and used to justify an anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide. Conversely, people convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate an exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them. If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don't believe in free will.

The scientific assault on free will would be less alarming if some new legal and ethical framework existed to take its place. But nobody really has a clue what that new structure might look like. And, remember, the scientists may be wrong to doubt free will. It would be rash to assume that physicists have said the last word on causation, or that cognitive scientists fully understand brain function and consciousness. But even if they are right, and free will really is an illusion, it may still be a fiction worth maintaining. Physicists and philosophers often deploy persuasive arguments in the rarified confines of academe but ignore them for all practical purposes. For example, it is easy to be persuaded that the flow of time is an illusion (in physics, time simply is, it doesn't "pass"). But nobody would conduct their daily affairs without continual reference to past, present, and future. Society would disintegrate without adhering to the fiction that time passes. So it is with the self and its freedom to participate in events. To paraphrase the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, we must believe in free will -- we have no choice.

Special Report

War on Evil

Evil has a reputation for resilience. And rightly so. Banishing it from Middle Earth alone took three very long Lord of the Rings movies. But equally deserving of this reputation is the concept of evil -- in particular, a conception of evil that was on display in those very movies: the idea that behind all the world's bad deeds lies a single, dark, cosmic force. No matter how many theologians reject this idea, no matter how incompatible it seems with modern science, it keeps coming back.

You would have thought St. Augustine rid the world of it a millennium and a half ago. He argued so powerfully against this notion of evil, and against the whole Manichaean theology containing it, that it disappeared from serious church discourse. Thereafter, evil was not a thing; it was just the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. But then came the Protestants, and some of them brought back the Manichaean view of a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

The philosopher Peter Singer, in his recent book The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, suggests that the president is an heir to this strand of Protestant thought. Certainly Bush is an example of how hard it is to kill notions of evil once and for all. On the eve of his presidency, in a postmodern, post-Cold War age, "evildoers" had become a word reserved for ironic use, with overtones of superhero kitsch. But after September 11, Bush used that word earnestly, vowed to "rid the world of evil," and later declared Iran, Iraq, and North Korea part of an "Axis of evil."

So what's wrong with that? Why do I get uncomfortable when he talks about evil? Because his idea of evil is dangerous and, in the current geopolitical environment, seductive.

Some conservatives dismiss liberal qualms about Bush's talk of evil as knee-jerk moral relativism. But rejecting his conception of evil doesn't mean rejecting the idea of moral absolutes, of right and wrong, good and bad. Evil in the Manichaean sense isn't just absolute badness. It's a grand unified explanation of such badness, the linkage of diverse badness to a single source. In the Lord of the Rings, the various plainly horrible enemy troops -- orcs, ringwraiths, and so on -- were evil in the Manichaean sense by virtue of their unified command; all were under the sway of the dreaded Sauron.

For the forces of good -- hobbits, elves, Bush -- this unity of badness greatly simplifies the question of strategy. If all of your enemies are Satan's puppets, there's no point in drawing fine distinctions among them. No need to figure out which ones are irredeemable and which can be bought off. They're all bad to the bone, so just fight them at every pass, bear any burden, and so on.

But what if the world isn't that simple? What if some terrorists will settle for nothing less than the United States' destruction, whereas others just want a nationalist enclave in Chechnya or Mindanao? And what if treating all terrorists the same -- as all having equally illegitimate goals -- makes them more the same, more uniformly anti-American, more zealous? (Note that President Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" formulation didn't court this danger; the Soviet threat was already monolithic.)

Or what if Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are actually different kinds of problems? And what if their rulers, however many bad things they've done, are still human beings who respond rationally to clear incentives? If you're truly open to this possibility, you might be cheered when a hideous dictator, under threat of invasion, allows U.N. weapons inspectors to search his country. But if you believe this dictator is not just bad but evil, you'll probably conclude that you should invade his country anyway. You don't make deals with the devil.

And, of course, if you believe that all terrorists are truly evil, then you'll be less inclined to fret about the civil liberties of suspected terrorists, or about treating accused or convicted terrorists decently in prison. Evil, after all, demands a scorched-earth policy. But what if such a policy, by making lots of Muslims in the United States and abroad feel persecuted, actually increases the number of terrorists?

Abandoning such counterproductive metaphysics doesn't mean slipping into relativism, or even, necessarily, dispensing with the concept of evil. You can attribute bad deeds to a single source -- and hence believe in a kind of evil -- without adopting the brand of Manichaeism that seems to animate Bush. You could believe that somewhere in human nature is a bad seed that underlies many of the terrible things people do. If you're a Christian, you might think of this seed as original sin. If you're not religious, you might see it in secular terms -- for example, as a core selfishness that can skew our moral perspective, inclining us to tolerate, even welcome, the suffering of people who threaten our interests.

This idea of evil as something at work in all of us makes for a perspective very different than the one that seems to guide the president. It could lead you to ask, If we're all born with this seed of badness, why does it bear more fruit in some people than others? And this question could lead you to analyze evildoers in their native environments, and thus distinguish between the causes of terrorism in one place and in another.

This conception of evil could also lead to a bracing self-scrutiny. It could make you vigilant for signs that your own moral calculus had been warped by your personal, political, or ideological agenda. If, say, you had started a war that killed more than 10,000 people, you might be pricked by the occasional doubt about your judgment or motivation -- rather than suffused in the assurance that, as God's chosen servant, you are free from blame.

In short, with this conception of evil, the world doesn't look like a Lord of the Rings trailer, in which all the bad guys report to the same headquarters and, for the sake of easy identification, are hideously ugly. It is a more ambiguous world, a world in which evil lurks somewhere in everyone, and enlightened policy is commensurately subtle.

Actually, there are traces of this view even in the Lord of the Rings films. Hence the insidious ring, which can fill all who gaze on it with the desperate desire to possess it, a desire that, if unchecked, leads to utter corruption. The message would seem to be that, thanks to human frailty, anyone can play host to evil -- hobbits, elves, even, conceivably, the occasional American.