On Free Will and Pride


Even after hearing, and often being convinced by, my arguments against free will, many still wonder why a belief in it is bad in practice.

I awoke just now with an example: Pride.

When I speak of pride here, I speak not of being a proud mother or shoemaker or football coach. As with most things, moderation is the escape valve.

What I’m concerned with here is a deep, dividing pride. Pride in one’s nation. Pride in one’s race. Pride in one’s salary. Pride in one’s beauty.

My simple claim has two components:

  1. This type of pride is exclusionary, even when it’s not meant to be

  2. This type of pride can be deeply tempered with the knowledge that free will is an illusion

On the first point, loving your own race is inexorably tied, in too many cases, with the belief that other races are inferior. Believing that your country is the best is deeply welded to the notion that other countries are lesser. And loving one’s beauty is bound to make one think less of those who are unattractive.

Given this, let’s imagine such a person with a belief in free will and then again without.

  • A person’s deep, innate belief in choice powers both pride and it’s natural side effect: a condescension towards those who don’t share the trait in question. If you’re German in 1940, or a wealthy Brit during the peak of the British empire, you take a pride in your race that inexorably demeans the race of others.

  • Now let us take that same person, and let us show him that free will is an illusion. Let us show him that we do not choose our parents, or our country or race of birth. Let us show him that our decisions are the product of chemical processes, which in turn are the product of physical processes. Let us show him that everything about him is a matter of luck. Unsupervised Learning — Security, Tech, and AI in 10 minutes… Get a weekly breakdown of what's happening in security and tech—and why it matters.        

Can we not agree that this instantly tempers his negative feelings towards those who are not like him?

This is one of the great illuminations of realizing we don’t have free will. It shows us that our intelligence and beauty and wealth are prizes given by chance, and that we (ultimately) had no hand in them.

This enables the most beautiful of human feelings: empathy.

This is one of the key reasons free will matters. It opens the hearts of those who accept the truth. Even if you already have empathy, as many who believe in free will do, the acceptance that free will is an illusion virtually mandates it.

I see the diminishing of unhealthy pride and it’s associated natural condescension as a key benefit of realizing we don’t have free will.

It’s one of the reasons free will is not abstract or unimportant. It matters because it affects how we think of ourselves, and how we think of others.

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