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It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will

In :

What We Believe But Cannot Prove: 
Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty 

Edited by John Brockman, Free Press, p 41-2

(also reprinted in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Houghton Mifflin)

It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said, “All theory is against freedom of the will; all experience for it.” With recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness, theory is even more against it than it was in his time. So I long ago set about systematically changing the experience. I now have no feeling of acting with free will, although the feeling took many years to ebb away.

But what happens? People say I’m lying! They say it’s impossible and so I must be deluding myself in order to preserve my theory. And what can I do or say to challenge them? I have no idea—other than to suggest that other people try the exercise, demanding as it is.

When the feeling is gone, decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them, but then a new question arises—will the  decisions be morally acceptable? Here I have made a great leap of faith. It seems that when people discard the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds—but this too I cannot prove.

As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether—this  is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But though I cannot prove it, I think it is true that I don’t.

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Page created  17 November 2005
Last updated: Monday, 04 April 2011 15:58