Do we have free will?

The law presupposes that we have free will. It is an implicit premise of our legal system.   But, what if science shows otherwise? Can we maintain a legal system based on the illusion of free will?

In The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity Professor Bruce Hood questions free will. Professor Hood states that most people believe that decisions are not pre-ordained and that we choose between alternatives (“free will”). However, neuroscience tells us otherwise. “Free will is part of the self illusion”.

He refers to neuroscientist David Eagleman. Eagleman states that we are entering a new era of neuroscience. In which our understanding of the brain “forces us to confront the difficulty of establishing when others are responsible for their actions.”

Professor Hood explains that decisions are a culmination of a variety factors, including a multitude of hidden factors. These factors include your genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, planned goals, and external sources. These all play as patterns of neuronal architecture. “My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain. And when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that we have arrived at the decision independently…”

However, just because free will does not exist, doesn’t mean that it is pointless. Professor Hood explains that when we believe that we are the masters of our destiny we behave differently. “Workers who believe in free will outperform their colleagues… The very act of believing means that you change the way you behave in ways that will benefit you… [I]t is important for our self-motivation… [and] for how others view us.”

Even though free will may be an illusion, the illusion itself is necessary. Not only for our own lives, but for our legal system. It allows our courts to hold people accountable for their actions. And holding people accountable for their actions maintains order. By discouraging bad behaviour and by providing a mechanism for justice, we keep chaos away.


(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)