Losing a Belief in Free Will is Like Losing Religion

There’s much talk about recent evidence showing that people losing their belief in free will adversely affects their behavior. Basically, the experiment told two groups of people differing things about reality: the first group learned that their choices were their own, and the second group that everything was out of their control.

The group who got the “lack of free will” pitch took more selfish and negative actions afterwards.

I argue a lot for a truth-based lifestyle, i.e. one where we start with the truth and go from there. So, given a lack of free will, we look to build our own framework of meaning and compassion on top of that truth.

But my opponents in this debate say that abandoning free will (or religion) is bad for humanity because we need to believe the lies in order to be happy and to avoid becoming the worst of what we are. And they point to experiments like these as evidence.

Well, I have a simple explanation.

Losing one’s belief in free will–just like losing one’s religion–is at once a good and bad thing. It’s the start of a path towards something better, but it’s also a scary, dark time for many–with the temptation to nihilism or wickedness ever-present.

In short, having a secular morality based in compassion and shared experience is superior to believing in religion with respect to outcomes. But believing deeply in the positive aspects of a religion may be superior to nihilism in the same ways.

The issue is losing of a previous framework and transitioning to the new one–with a void in-between.

If you’re a Catholic school kid who’s been told smoking and having sex is evil and horrible, and then you leave the school and enter a liberal arts college environment–you’re likely to go a bit crazy in ways that could hurt you or others. This behavior has been captured for centuries.

The realization that a previous dogma is not real is a reason to rebel and do the very behavior it was against.

But what if you never received a dogma in the first place? What if you were just told the truth from the very beginning? What if you were taught, as a school child, that there were no gods, and that free will was an illusion, but that we must try to do what we can to help others because it maximizes everyone’s happiness–and that’s all we have.

Nobody could take that away from you, since we made it up in the first place. It’s simply a LOGICAL way to live based on our shared human existence–not on any supernatural truths or fairytales.

Telling a person raised in this society that free will doesn’t exist, or that god isn’t real, is not going to make them behave poorly. In fact, it could do the opposite.

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And that’s what I propose for the overall education of our civilization. I propose that we give our children truth first. These things we used to believe are not true, but it’s not a problem. We are nice to people because it’s nice to be nice. We are nice to people because we are people too–just like them. We are nice to people because all we have is each other.

That is a framework to build upon.

I’ve long argued that losing one’s belief in free will can and would make the world a better place, and this is why. I’m not arguing that nihilism would be positive. I’m arguing that if you’re already a compassionate and nice person, which most religious people are, then taking that general sentiment and subtracting free will and religion would probably guide them right to the secular moral framework I describe above.

And it especially would if it were taught to them early on.

To reiterate, free will is a corrupt moral concept because it is pregnant with the belief that some people deserve to suffer (because of their poor choices), while others deserve to be billionaires because of theirs. This is a repugnant outlook to have in a world with billions of hungry people in it. And teaching it to our children is the single most invisibly harmful we can do to them.

Religion also eschews true moral training for constraints based on fear and punishment, which is why people who lose religion (or belief in free will) often behave wickedly. If you don’t have a moral framework yourself, and all your positive action is based on being afraid of the boogey man, and then you find out he’s not real–that’s bad. It’s bad for you, and it’s bad for those around you.

Religion and free will are band-aids. They are placeholders for true moral teachings. And in that light it makes absolute sense that stripping them away leads to bleeding.

The research re-evaluated

So, looking at the research, we see people who believed in free will behaving badly when told it doesn’t exist. This should fail to surprise anyone. It’s not because they now believe it doesn’t exist, it’s because they once believed that it did. Thusly, the solution is not to avoid telling them that it doesn’t exist; the solution is to never tell them it did in the first place.

And it’s the same for religion. Losing religion is hard. Not getting it in the first place is the way to go.

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