I’ve heard it suggested, with what appears to be increasing frequency that there is no such thing as free will. That is, evolutionary biology can account for every impulse within the human mind. However much we may think we make our own choices, so the claim goes, we are merely doing that which our genes have programmed us to do; we exist merely to propagate them.
There are at least three reasons why this position is both false and harmful to our society.
Most obviously, it is not science. Rather, it is materialistic philosophy masquerading as science. Even the freshman biology student can see that no experiment can test between “we exist for our genes” and “our genes exist for us”. And, as Francis Bacon first pointed out, scientific theories need to be falsifiable.
Wrong though it is, this wouldn’t concern me were it not for the natural consequences of deciding that one’s personal position is scientific fact. It is conducive neither to empathy nor curiosity.
Second is the speed with which human beings are reduced, in this line of reasoning, to pure chemistry. While I believe, fervently, that one need not believe in the soul to be kind to others, this seems to go beyond the pale. The particular type of materialism that reduces not only the basic state of humanity, but even our thoughts and will, to puppets of blind forces is unnerving at best.
Not only does this devalue everything we say or do, but it seems a universal excuse ready for the taking. I doubt that many of the proponents of this idea have considered the degree to which it opens the door for claiming “I was only following my drives”, and of the danger that entails. I believe thoroughly in moral responsibility, and cannot abide a philosophy which denies it.
At the very least, this strips our choices of all meaning.
Last, but most difficult to communicate, is the very concept of “free will” being supposed here. Perhaps it is only natural that a society that tends to view freedom as liberation from anything which restrains us would end here, at last realizing that our impulses, too, are a kind of restraint – in that they press us to behave in particular ways.
But, as any musician, athlete, or craftsman can tell you, there is a greater freedom that comes from submitting to training and practice. Freedom, in this sense, is not liberation, but something more like growth. Certainly, this holds true in the spiritual as well. The will is most free, not when it embraces genetically programmed instincts, but when it strives after something higher than pleasure.
And that seems to be an essential element of freedom: the ability to sacrifice. The ability to put aside the immediate, submitting our desires to the long-term, even the eternal, untangles the knots in one’s heart. There is joy in such moments: becoming that which one was created to be.
That is a joy, and a purpose, that only a will freed from its base impulses can achieve.