Rational Thought Precludes Free Will

Author:  Evan Louis Sheehan

Copyright 2006 - All Rights Reserved


Wouldn’t it be terrible to discover definitive proof that the minds of humans are deterministic and therefore incapable of having a free will?  Why would it be terrible?  Such a discovery would not change us at all.  We would still be the same as we were the day before, albeit, with slightly greater knowledge of ourselves. 

Many scientists, myself included, indeed believe with great certainty that the strict physical laws of nature, through which the neurons of our brains are able to operate, do not allow our wills to choose freely.  And while most people tend to recoil from that idea, this article will expose the astonishing and revolutionary philosophical principle that free will and rational thought are, in fact, mutually exclusive.  A rational decision is made by identifying the best option.  To then freely choose some other lesser option would be irrational.  So, if we want to be rational, then we should want to discover definitive proof that humans indeed have no free will.

Given that minds are brains and brains are biological machines, our amazing human capabilities must then result from our highly evolved complexity, not from any sort of supernatural spirituality.  But, without spiritual souls, we are forced to view ourselves as complex biological machines with the same limitations and restrictions as all machines – we simply cannot have volitional wills.  Let us open our minds to a completely different perspective on whether or not we should want to have free will.  I’ll suggest that the strongly deterministic character of nature, along with its consequent implication for our having wills that are bound to the trajectory of mechanistic neural processes, is to be preferred and even cherished, for it is the only possible scenario under which we can have rational thought and be reliable human beings.  Let’s see why.

I previously argued that a human mind is mostly deterministic, and that its will is not free but instead is bound to the trajectory of the physical processes that allow it to think.  Any decision made by a brain must be determined by the state of that brain and the laws of physics through which the state of the brain is forced to change.

To some people, this situation of inevitability is devastating, but from a scientific point of view it is the only paradigm that allows us to have rational thought.  As we think about what it means to be rational, we find that rationality absolutely depends on a deterministic universe.  Things would not happen in a predictable fashion were it not for the strict causal relationships that result from determinism.  So, for example, without determinism, we would not be able to predict the course of a hurtling rock because hurtling rocks could and would spontaneously change course in mid air, for no apparent reason. 

Beyond the requirement for a predictable nature of things, rational thought also depends on a consistent mental system for choosing among the various courses that we predict.  We act rationally when we choose a course that maximizes our long-term objectives, and there can only be one course that achieves the maximum.  So, a perfectly rational choice demands that we always make exactly the same choice under exactly the same conditions, which obviously places the requirement of determinism on the system responsible for making the rational choice.

Rationality implies a formulaic rule-based system that takes into account knowledge gained from the past and uses it in a predictable manner to identify the optimal course, whereas the whimsicality of free will can only carry the implication of ignoring past data and acting in a completely random manner.   Whether decisions are made in the conscious mind or in the unconscious mind or even in a spiritual mind, the decision-making mechanism must be a consistent, rule-based mechanism if it is to be rational.  If the rules are consistent and reliable, then they are deterministic.  Thus, we cannot eliminate the need for deterministic thinking by moving the decision-making process into a spiritual dimension, if indeed we want to consider ourselves as having rational thought.  The freedom of will that is commonly associated with a supernatural spirit can only give us the ability to choose a course that is sub-optimal, which can never be rational.

In the context of evolution, there is absolutely no logical reason for the forces of natural selection to ever prefer an animal that has free will over the same animal acting purely rationally.  The freedom to choose a sub-optimal course would surely be a huge evolutionary disadvantage when compared to a will that is deterministically bound to the pursuit of rational optimality, where optimality is defined as yielding the most favorable course for the perpetuation of the genes.  So, it makes no sense to suppose that a component of free will could ever evolve on top of a purely rational, deterministically bound will.  And it makes no sense for us to prefer a free will, as it necessarily excludes rationality.

Perhaps we can more easily see the need for determinism in our thought processes by considering the rational act of ‘ducking’ in response to the anticipation of being hit by a hurtling rock.  Should one duck to the left or to the right?  The course of the rock must be simulated and projected into the future to answer that question.  Indeed, our minds act as very effective simulators in order to predict the future states of the world.  And, since our minds must be capable of simulating the real physical world, which we know is deterministic, then it should be obvious that such a simulation of a deterministic world absolutely requires a deterministic simulator.  Without a deterministic mind, a human would be like a computer with a bunch of loose wires – completely unpredictable, and unable to predict.  I simply don’t see how any person can want to be rational yet want not to be deterministic – that is impossible.

Another way to see the need for deterministic minds comes from the recognition that we do rational things for reasons.  All rational acts must have reasons supporting them.  Anything that is done without a reason cannot be deemed rational.  Reasons are merely logical expectations of causality, and causality is another word for determinism.  So, to understand and predict the causal nature of reality requires a mind that is logical, reliable and indeed deterministic.

I find it odd that some philosophers want free will over a deterministically bound will.  There is no rational reason for us to prefer finding one worldview to be valid over finding another worldview to be valid.  Whatever worldview we eventually prove to be valid, whether it is free will or bound will, the reality of the world will not change as a result of our having proved one or the other. 

Even if we come to know for certain that humans have bound will, we still have the option of doing everything just as we did in the past.  We have the option of conducting our lives and our governments as if we have free will, achieving exactly the same results as we did in the past.  Reality is what it is, independent of our understanding of it.  So, let us not fall into the trap of believing the world will be better by proving that we have free will.  The world will stay the same no matter what we prove.  But – and this is a crucially important point – we always seem to be able to do better given a better understanding of the way things actually are. 

We should always prefer acting rationally to acting whimsically.  Even when we choose which television program to watch, we do so on the rational basis of what we’ve enjoyed watching in the past, and on the rational expectation that things will happen in the future largely as they did in the past.  We look forward to new episodes of our favorite shows only because we enjoyed the old ones.  Those who prefer free will might as well throw dice to choose which channel to watch.  The next time your favorite show is on, why don’t you freely choose a different one? 

We should always prefer for others to act rationally and reliably, or else, we must be prepared to see suddenly changing personalities in our acquaintances, distorting their likes and dislikes, shifting their objects of love and hate, whimsically altering their moods – all, for no apparent reason.

Some people like to argue that there is no reason why a free will can’t always choose the rational option.  But, by declaring that it always chooses the rational option, they are also declaring that it is constrained to do so.  Such a constraint violates the claim that the will is free.  The only proper way to define a free will is by admitting that, on a random basis, it sometimes chooses an option that it knows is irrational.

It is easy to trade the ability for rational and reliable behavior for the ability to choose freely and randomly, by simply getting drunk.  Once inebriated, we discard rationality and gain a reckless freedom to do things we would never otherwise consider doing.  We are then no longer bound by our proper moral natures, but instead, are able to act whimsically with little or no fear of the consequences.  If we drink enough alcohol we become free spirits, completely irrational and unreliable.  The more we drink the freer we get.  The lesson:  If you want to escape the confinements of proper behavior, if you want to be free from your job, from responsibility to your family and friends, from tradition, from the staid behavior that has proven to work so well, then find a way to impair your rational judgment.  The determinism of nature does not guarantee that a mind will be rational, only that a properly organized and functioning mind can be rational.

All acts of moral goodness have their roots in rational thought and reliable behavior, while whimsically inspired acts tend to be of zero or negative moral value.  The tradeoff between rational reliability and freedom of will is becoming crystal clear. 

We should embrace the idea of an extremely reliable universe that allows us to cultivate rational thought.  And, we should take advantage of every opportunity to learn and learn and learn some more, so that we can fully exercise our capability for thinking rationally.  Determinism only makes rational behavior possible for those who take the time to learn and think.  And, if we prefer to have reliable behavior, then we must prefer to have deterministic minds.  Reliability is critical to the successful interaction of life, and therefore, must be an important component of proper morality.  One cannot expect to have a successful childhood without a reliable set of parents.  One cannot expect to have a successful marriage without a reliable spouse.  And, we humans cannot expect to have a successful society without reliable citizens, a reliable government and reliable laws. 

Through these articles, I will build an argument toward the idea that synergistic cooperation forms the basis for an objective moral framework that I refer to as Cooperationism.  Now we can see that the ultra-reliability of nature and its consequent implications for bound will are completely consistent with Cooperationism.  For life to cooperate with other life, there needs to be trust, and for there to be trust, there needs to be reliable and rational behavior.  Reliable and rational behavior is only possible with deterministic minds operating in a deterministic world.  We humans don’t need free will to do good things, but we do need to think rationally.  And rational thought will ultimately lead us to reliable cooperation – cooperation with our friends, with our spouses and with other members of our society. 

We should prefer for our God (whatever that is) to be extremely reliable in the way that it governs the world, just as a child should prefer a reliable parent, a wife should prefer a reliable husband, and a friend should prefer a reliable friend.  It is the determinism of the human mind that allows us to be rational.  Thank God for the reliability of determinism!


See Also:
Articles on Determinism,
Articles on Naturalistic Morality,
Articles on a Naturalistic Theory of Mind.