I’m a free-will “incompatibilist”: someone who sees the existence of physical determinism as dispelling the idea of contracausal, you-could-have-done-otherwise “free will”, which is the notion of free will most common among people. Many people find my view disturbing and fatalistic, and I’m often posed this question: “If everything is determined by the laws of physics mediated through our neurobiology, what’s the point of trying to change somebody’s mind?”
My response is that no, we can’t choose (via contracausal free will) whether we want to change someone’s mind, nor can they freely choose (in the same sense) whether to change it. But human brains are wired by both evolution and experience in a way that alters people’s behaviors when (in general) they would benefit from those changes. So, for example, if you learn that treating people in a certain way makes them treat you better back, your brain circuits for “better treatment” might be activated, and you might begin treating folks better. And if you see someone treating others badly, your circuits to give them that advice might be activated. You might then advise them, and their own brain circuits may “take” that advice.
None of this is incompatible with determinism. People learn, often in a way that helps them get along better with others, perform better on the job or other aspects of life, and so on. The possibility of such changes might have been produced by evolution since such malleability might correlate with your status and well-being, which in turn might have been connected with your reproductive success. Or, on the cultural side, we avoid pain and seek pleasure, and our brains are capable of taking in advice or experience that would increase our well being and decrease ill being.
Likewise, advice from someone else can act as an environmental stimulus that activates brain circuits that alter behavior. Again, we have no free choice about whether to render advice to others, but that doesn’t mean that the advice can’t effect changes.
Pacific Standard has an interview with Stanford biologist and writer Robert Sapolsky, the author of the acclaimed book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. (Click on screenshot below for the interview.) Sapolsky discusses a lot of things about tribalism, but I’ll reproduce two exchanges about free will. (Sapolsky’s writing have shown him to be, like me, an incompatibilist who thinks that the notion of “you-can-do-otherwise” free will is an illusion.)
Here he expresses the difficulty in explaining to others why determinism doesn’t entail fatalism. Perhaps his answer is better or clearer than mine, and here it is:
TJ [Tom Jacobs]: You write that you don’t really believe in free will, but we nevertheless have an obligation to try to understand our behavior and make things better. Isn’t that something of a contradiction?
RS [Sapolsky]: I’m realizing how incredibly hard it is to articulate how an absence of free will is compatible with change.
Gaining new knowledge, having new experiences, being inspired by someone’s example—these are biological phenomena. They leave biological traces.
There are all sorts of neuro-pathways that analyze the world in terms of cause and effect. The knowledge that one person—or a bunch of high school students—really can make a difference can be inspiring. That means certain pathways have been facilitated, and, as a result of that, certain behaviors become more likely. Pathways to efficacy can also be weakened if you find out you have no control in a certain domain. Learning to be helpless is also biological.
TJ: So the fact free will is largely illusory does not mean the way we react to the world is static and unchanging.
RS: Absolutely not. There’s a vast difference between a biologically determined universe and fatalism.