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Do Humans Have Free Will, Or Are We Programmed By Society? | Joscha Bach

For many years, Joscha Bach could not understand why humans flock so strongly towards religion and ideology. Having grown up in communist East Germany and seeing the people around him buy into nationalistic narratives—that were to him obviously untruthful—made no sense. It was only when the wall came down that he came to understand that people everywhere are buying into various false narratives—as of 2015, 34% of Americans still reject evolution completely. The drive to believe whatever instructions come from above you is not a cognitive error, Bach realized then, but an evolutionary feature—as powerful as it is problematic. The ability for large groups of people to follow one set of rules, to cooperate, is how Homo sapiens established agricultural societies, and is ultimately how we outcompeted other now long-gone nomadic hominin groups. We are a programmable species, says Bach, and we need to belong and conform to a larger entity to survive. As such, Bach sees the debate surrounding free will not as a question of determinism or incompatibilism, but of social conditioning. Perhaps the free will relates to decision-making over physics: are you really free to act in a way that is true, or are you bound by a social code of responsibility that runs thousands of years deep in your genetics? Joscha Bach’s latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.

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Transcript: Like consciousness, free will is often misunderstood because we know it by reference, but it’s difficult to know it by content, what you really mean by free will. A lot of people who immediately feel that free will is related to whether the universe is deterministic or probabilistic. And while physics has some ideas about that—which change every now and then—it’s not part of our experience and I don’t think it makes a difference if the universe forces you randomly to do things or deterministically.

The important thing seems to me that in free will you are responsible for your actions, and responsibility is a social interface. For instance, if I am told that if I do X I go to prison, and this changes my decision whether or not to do X, I’m obviously responsible for my decision because it was an appeal to my responsibility in some sense. Likewise if I do a certain thing that causes harm to other people and they don’t want that harm to happen, that influences my decision. This is a discourse of decision-making that I would call a free will decision.

“Will” is the representation that my nervous system at any level of its functioning has raised a motive to an intention. It has committed to a particular kind of goal that gets integrated into the story of myself, this protocol that I experience as myself in this world. And that was what I experienced as will, as a willed decision, and this decision is free in as much as this decision can be influenced by discourse.

So to me, free will is a social notion. It means that this interface of social interaction, of discourse, of thinking about things, about this interface of knowledge, language, conceptual thought, is relevant for that decision. If you have a decision in which it doesn’t play a role, for instance, because you are addicted to something and you cannot stop doing it even if you want to, then this decision I would say is not free.

I grew up in eastern Germany, it was communist eastern Germany and it was a very weird ideological country. A country that believed in stories about how the world works that I, as a nerd, thought obviously not quite true. I had difficultly believing the official stories about how the world works. It was like some weird kind of religion. And then the wall came down and it didn’t surprise me in the least. And then we entered a new dream, a new shared model of the world that was not quite true, and I realized that most people now fall for this new model. It was very interesting to see this for me and if you look, for instance, at the U.S., the majority of U.S. Americans do not believe in the theory of evolution despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The majority of people on this planet are religious even though there doesn’t seem to be very good evidence for a multitude of creator gods and so on, in my view at least. And if it existed, if a creator god existed, it would be very hard for me to understand why this creator god really does care about whether I worship it or all these things that we attribute to creator gods by religion. So it’s very hard for me, in some sense, to intuitively understand why humans are religious and why humans are ideological.

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