Free Will in the Era of Alternative Facts

What’s missing in the discussion of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is how free will works and whether the common model we’ve inherited from Christianity is still useful. The fact that this model is taken for granted by much of society, including our legal system, makes the issue of Russian interference harder to discuss rationally.

Autonomous Souls and Free Will

Christianity posits, roughly speaking, that each person has an autonomous soul that makes ethical choices in a near vacuum of free will. The factors that mitigate agency are few and far between. Ultimately, each person will face a final judgement for these freely chosen actions.

Regardless of one’s religious views, if you grew up in the West, you are likely to hold to some sort of belief in free will. Our legal system assumes that free will exists unless you can prove otherwise in a specific case.

I would argue that this belief in free will is useful in some contexts and shouldn’t be discarded entirely. On the other hand, there are many cases where the theistic model of a soul with free will is neither accurate nor useful.

Partial Free Will

My experience leads me to conclude that a scaled back model of partial free will is more likely to represent reality. It also retains the useful features of free will and avoids crushing fatalism that saps motivation.

In short, the vast majority of our decisions are made far too quickly for any sort of deliberation or agency of free will to occur. Even when we make deliberate, ‘free’ decisions, we are hampered by genetics, cultural conditioning and circumstance. The window for free will is thus much narrower than traditional Christian culture would have it.

Over the course of a lifetime this tiny wiggle room adds up, but it’s subtle and rarely cultivated. Think of it in probabilities. If I set my alarm for 6 AM, I’m more likely to get up earlier, which increases the probability of me studying which gives me better odds at finding a decent job down the road. A myriad of factors are at play, but a few key decisions over things I have control of can lead to a change in my life. Even then, the desire to get a new job was not completely free and was made under genetic and cultural pressure.

Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris hash out their views on free will in this podcast. They both accept a limited free will, but Harris refuses to call that free will since it is dramatically different from the classical understanding of complete free will.

The Music While You Shop

Intuitively, this shouldn’t be news to anybody in marketing. For decades it’s been known that background music affects shoppers. Most companies carry out A/B tests to maximize conversions based on inane things like font size, wording and button color. If homo sapiens radically change their decision making due to music and font color, we can’t really claim to have free will in any absolute sense.

The New Old News

None of this is new. The general ideas in Thinking, Fast and Slow are decades old. Dan Ariely has been pumping out high-quality popular science books showcasing the fragility of human thought for years. Yet intellectually realizing the human brain is easily duped and happily makes up nonsensical stories to protect its fragile ego is very different from accepting and dealing with it.

My guess is that most marketers and scientists don’t really look at the deeper philosophical ramifications of these conclusions. Having headline news blaring in the background affects you, that’s why I avoid it. Seeing fake news on social media influences your opinion, even if you know the story is fake. Personal finance is one of the few areas where people openly discuss how to minimize the negative effects of cognitive biases—the link is from 2013; I reiterate that there’s nothing new here.

Cognitive Dissonance

Realizing how little conscious control you have over your opinions and seemingly free choices is unsettling. In fact, it’s so deeply disturbing that it’s far more pleasant to live in a world of alliterative facts that are easily falsifiable than to admit that you had the wool pulled over your eyes and question the notion of free will.

It’s scary that all it took to throw an election in a country of 300 million people was a few perfectly targeted Facebook ads. This also isn’t new to marketers: Guerrilla marketing (published in 1984!) and Trust Me, I’m Lying for the digital age cover getting maximum return with as little advertising cost as possible.

The media buzz is missing this key point: People who believe in the free will of autonomous souls aren’t going to accept even the most incontrovertible proof of Russian interference if they reject the very premise of subtle influence eroding free will. The discussion first needs to center on the weapons of asymmetrical information warfare. Only once that is widely accepted, and the limits of free will admitted, can we begin to discuss specific Russian actions.

At this point, when someone continues to embrace Trump or bizarre conspiracy theories surrounding Clinton (this isn’t liberal vs. conservative, the Sanders crowd swallowed much of this hook, line and sinker), it’s still saving face to espouse the non-sensical and barefaced lies. The alternative is to deny one’s free will and own humanity.

A World with Less Free Will

I don’t know the way forward. A nannie state protecting people from the weaknesses of their cognitive biases would quickly turn dystopian. On the other hand, elections are also becoming dystopian. This is only going to get worse as major actors beyond Russian openly begin to manipulate electorates. The filter bubbles that created isolated alternative realities could push this problem beyond anything that could be solved peacefully. I simply have no answers on the societal level.

On the personal level there are more options. Authentic spiritual traditions such as early Buddhism and Stoicism offer some shelter from the whims and impulses of the brain. Fasting resets the dopamine cycle, a strong ethical code keeps one from getting carried away and introspection exposes the limitations of one’s own mind.

This isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems, but it’s a start towards approaching the Socratic ideal of the unexamined life is not worth living. Once these practitioners have reached a critical mass, talking about transforming society would be realistic.