An Absence of Free Will Should Not Lead to Nihilism (Part II)

APU
5 min readSep 6, 2021
free will nihilism part 2

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Member, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University

The University offers an online bachelor of arts in psychology and an online master of arts in psychology. These programs educate students on concepts related to consciousness and free will.

In the first part of this article, I explained the argument from some prominent thinkers that free will is an illusion. I ended that article with a question that is at the center of this idea: If free will is an illusion, what then would be the point of caring about anything we think or do? In other words, why would we not simply embrace nihilism and approach every aspect of our lives with callous disregard for the consequences of our thoughts and actions?

The answer to this question has to do with behavioral effects on your own mind and way of thinking. If you extrapolate from a lack of free will that nothing matters, you are very likely to begin thinking and behaving in ways that reflect little or no regard for ethics, morality, or even basic rationality.

Why would you behave in such a way? It’s not because you actually choose to, of course. But your rejection of free will and accountability for your actions will shift the domino cascade in your mind’s processes.

Your thoughts and behaviors would still be predetermined by cause and effect, but now there would be a new causal component in the chain: the belief that nothing matters and that you don’t have control over anything. That idea — notwithstanding its truth value — is enough to change the direction of your thoughts and choices. Imagine what a person who truly believes nothing matters could be capable of.

For the sake of comprehensiveness, it’s worth mentioning that some experts criticize the determinism premise that underlies arguments about free will being an illusion on the grounds that the behavior of matter at the quantum level often appears to be random, with particles popping in and out of existence seemingly without any respect for cause and effect. Authors like Sam Harris acknowledge the argument about randomness potentially disrupting determinism.

However, it is unlikely that quantum randomness is significant enough to have a material effect on the nature of causality. And even if it was, it still would not be a workable explanation for anything that is what we typically articulate when describing “free will.” So for the sake of this discussion, the concerns raised by quantum randomness are probably inconsequential.

Our Behavioral Choices Have Consequences to Ourselves and Other People

It’s important to recognize that our choices do have consequences, whether or not we have free will over those choices. Just as my knowledge about the unhealthy and dangerous effects of heroin on my brain is one of the chief reasons that prevents me from doing heroin, my recognition that my thoughts and choices have effects in the real world that could impact the well-being of myself and others is what keeps me from descending into a nihilistic attitude where nothing matters and caring is pointless.

It’s not necessarily the case that I knowingly willed myself to this conclusion. Instead, this recognition of these probable outcomes alters my causal chain in such a way that I think carefully about my life and try to make good decisions, as opposed to making silly or reckless ones on the belief that they don’t matter.

The other item of significance here — a further consequence of recognizing accountability in this context — is the obvious reality that our thoughts, choices and actions have consequences on the mental states of others around us. Just as you are endlessly vulnerable to new causal inputs that can change the trajectory of your thoughts and choices (this very article being one of them), so too are other people constantly exposed to new inputs that alter their own thoughts and behaviors.

So if we make good choices that promote values like kindness toward others, these examples are likely to affect the thoughts and choices of others through the basic psychological principles of learned behavior.

Consider the behavioral and emotional development of young children. Think about what different children might grow up to be like under different circumstances in their upbringing.

For example, imagine that one child is raised in a neighborhood where he is exposed to crime and moral turpitude on a daily basis. Another child is brought up in a community that values kindness toward one’s neighbors and helping people in need. How might we predict the different ways these two children would behave when they’re adults as a result of their childhoods?

Notice that the idea of “free will” is largely disregarded when we talk about child development. We don’t expect children to defy the circumstances of their causal inputs and make independent choices about who they’re going to become.

Instead, we expect that they will reflect the circumstances in which they were raised. We view them as products of their environments — good or bad. Consequently, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if the child from the crime-ridden neighborhood grew up to become a criminal, and the child from the better community lived a life of kind, law-abiding conduct — basic cause and effect.

Our Environments Impact Us

But the same principle is true for human beings, young or old, in any context; we are endless slaves to our environments. So when we behave in ways that promote good values, our examples serve as new inputs in the resulting behavior of everyone who observes us.

They can’t help but be influenced by what we do, because they lack free will in exactly the same way we do. As a result, they can’t resist the effect that our example will have on their thinking. However, the fact that we know our good example has this effect on others should be enough — viewing this line of thought from a purely rational perspective — to convince us that our thoughts and choices do in fact matter, even if we don’t author them.

So if you accept the argument that free will is an illusion, don’t fret or feel dismay. Remember the impact that the quality of your thoughts and choices has on the universe, both within your own brain and in the universe all around you.

We may not be calling the shots in a literal sense, but that doesn’t mean we don’t matter. We can still add a lot of good to this world, notwithstanding whether “free will” is a part of the process.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is an Associate Professor with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University and American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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