Monday, September 26, 2011

Freedom of the will and your career

In the Netherlands (and not only there) a lively debate is going on about the question whether man does or doesn’t have a free will. On the one hand there are those like the brain researchers Dick Swaab and Victor Lamme who deny that we have a free will; on the other hand there are philosophers like Daan Evers, Niels van Miltenburg and others who reply that present research does not substantiate that view. I have discussed the views of Swaab and Lamme before in my blogs and rejected them with about the same arguments as used by Evers and Miltenburg. However, whichever side may be right, both views lead to intriguing questions. Suppose that there is no free will, does this mean then that our will is determined in the sense that if I know the present state of the body and the world around us that we can deduce what this person wants after ten years? If such a “deterministic” determination does not exist (as is defended by some philosophers), what determines then our choices and our criteria for choosing? And “who” applies them? (of course, we can ask the same questions for the birds and other animals in my garden).
But if the will is free, how far does this freedom go? It certainly is not without limits for we are bound by our bodily constitution and the world around us. Freedom of the will can only be a freedom within borders, or, more positively formulated, it is the freedom to choose from a certain number of possibilities according to a certain number of criteria.
The most intriguing question is, of course, whether all this has sense. I mean: either there is a free will and the view that there isn’t cannot change that; or there isn’t a free will and this determines that some people think there is although there isn’t. For would any philosophical idea have an influence on “real life”? Aren’t philosophical ideas just epiphenomena like the other products of our mind, as many neuroscientists and philosophers (Churchland, for instance) tend to think? Maybe they are, but even so, there are indications that the function of the mind is a bit more complicated than just this and that the mind has an important function in steering what we do.
It is not a proof, but that it can be so is suggested in a study by Roy F. Baumeister and others that suggests that certain beliefs can be advantageous for you. For what did they find: “possessing a belief in free will predicted better career attitudes and actual job performance. The effect of free will beliefs on job performance indicators were over and above well-established predictors such as conscientiousness, locus of control, and Protestant work ethic.” (quoted from the abstract on In other words, actually it is not so important whether the will is free or not. Even if it is not free, you can better believe it is, for it is good for your career (and who knows, maybe for other important facts of life as well). And it is better not consider the question of the free will as an interesting academic question, for if you deny that there is a free will, you are less well off than your colleagues who think that there is. So you, readers of my blog, be warned: now that I know this I do no longer defend the idea that the will is free because I believe in it but because it is better for me (supposing that I am free to choose this position, of course). And the already excellent careers of Swaab and Lamme would still have been even more excellent if they had used this information.

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