Last night I watched the last of “The Story of Science” documentaries, this one was titled Who Are We? and discussed (in part) B.F.Skinner’s work on behavioural psychology in the 1950s. Skinner did research with pigeons that showed he could alter their behaviour very quickly using rewards. He then theorised that humans learn in the same way, and that ALL of our behaviour is learnt in response to our environment.
Personally this sounds like nurture over nature; a theory I have personal reasons for not agreeing with completely. I’m adopted and have very noticeable similarities to my biological family. We don’t just look alike but we have the same mannerisms and ideologies despite the fact I only met them when I was 21 years of age.
But even if Skinner’s theory doesn’t explain 100% of our behaviour, it certainly has been proven to work on humans; the Broken Window Theory implemented by Mayor Guiliani during the 1990s is evidence of this (as discussed in The Tipping Point).
However Skinner’s theory is only one argument against free will, determinism is another. Determinism states that by the physical laws of cause and effect all actions can be determined given a specific causal scenario; essentially you can predict a result with certainty if you understand what causes that result.
Take that theory to its ultimate end and you can imagine that every action in the universe was put into play at the big bang; the physical laws just took over and played out the determined result based on the causes that were present (after the big bang). Then our very existence as well as every action we take is just the playing out of subatomic particles1.
Whether you choose to believe in either determinism or Skinner’s theory may be irrelevant. Some people believe humans invented God in order to make sense of the world, but maybe we also invented the concept of free will to feel empowered and important, like our choices matter.
Perhaps our future generations will let go of the ego involved in free will – my choice, my decision, my responsibility. Maybe being a part of the giant cosmic explosion2 is enough?
I know that free will ‘seems right’; it’s hard to believe that we’re not in control of our own movements and decisions, but not so long ago everyone believed that the world was flat and the universe revolved around the earth – those ideas seemed right at the time too.
I’d ask what you think but your answer is already determined
1 "the playing out playing out of subatomic particles" - quote and concept from The Waking Life
2 "we're living through a giant cosmic explosion" - quote from The Story of Science