A fascinating article in New Scientist (link here) discusses research that shows that free will may be illusory – and that there are neurological differences between individuals that account for variations.
It has long seemed to me that some of us have more free will than others, that we all likely have less than we think, and that what little we do have is hard fought for…
But I think we are attached to the idea of individual agency for broadly two separate reasons. Firstly, because we want to believe we have control in our own lives, and secondly, that we want to believe others have control in their lives so we can blame them and punish them when they do something wrong.
This reminds me of an idea posited by the late Colin Wilson, that there’s often a moment when we have a choice, between whether to cope or not cope, for instance. I certainly have experienced both sides of that – when I’ve been sensible and realised that I can make life easier for me and everyone else, and those moments where I’ve been enraged by some perceievd misdemeanour, and started a fight when a more rational version of me would let it go.
It does seem more apt to think of this as “free won’t” – a term mentioned in the linked article.
I would guess that it’s something that we can strengthen by practice, but I know in my own case it’s harder when I’m overwhelmed by stress or pain. But now I wonder if some people may have more of the neurological equipment for self control than others, too.
I am also reminded of a controversial statement once made by the wonderful PD James, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog. She argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices.
Perhaps this is actually the idea that she was imperfectly expressing – that crimes which are consciously chosen and planned make for better fiction than crimes of an impulsive nature.
While she saw it as a class matter – which I find somewhat disturbing – I can more easily see it as a neurological issue. I suppose that in some ways it is true that poverty and deprivation have long term effects on health, which likely includes neurological development – but it is clear that most poor and lower class people are not criminal, and that many middle class people are. And that’s without a careful analysis of how crime is sociologically constructed.
There are crime novels which explore what could be called disorganised crimes which arise out of impulsivity – but in general they’re not the ones I’m interested in reading or writing. Like PD James, I am interested in moral choices – though I don’t link the freedom to make those choices to a social class.
Moral dilemmas are often at the heart of the best psychological thrillers. Some of the most interesting characters are morally ambiguous – from Raymond Chandler’s shop-soiled Galahad to Highsmith’s sociopathic Tom Ripley. The best heroes and villains are morally ambiguous. That’s the kind of fiction I enjoy – where not just the plot is complex (I am addicted to story), but where the emotional landscape is too.