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Whatever happened to free will?

The rise of determinism and the denial of choice reflect today’s very bleak view of human beings.

Ellie Lee

Topics Politics

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Ellie Lee, director of Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, took part in the debate ‘ Free will: just an illusion?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 21 October 2012 at the Barbican Centre in London. This article is an edited transcript of her opening remarks.

My starting point for this discussion is a contemporary form of determinism: infant determinism. My interest flows from my efforts, with colleagues, to develop a new analysis of parenting culture.

Polly Toynbee summed up this outlook of infant determinism in an article in October: ‘Research has for decades kept proving that, by the age of three, a child’s destiny is all but sealed by how much affection, conversation, reading and explaining they have received. Getting no love and no language relegates them to a lesser life. Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania scanned children’s brains over 20 years and found cognitive stimulation by the age of four was the key factor in developing the cortex, predicting cognitive ability 15 years later. That shows how brief is the window of opportunity for changing lives.’

Anyone who keeps up to date with discussions around children and parenting generally will recognise this type of account: what happens to us in the early years of life fixes everything else. It is consistently argued that neuroscience has proved this is the case. This outlook has become a consensus across the political spectrum, spanning whatever remains of the left-right divide. The only argument among policymakers is about exactly how you intervene early, not whether it is the right thing to do. There is broad agreement that something needs to be done to change the way parents bring up their children. This has serious repercussions, not just for parent-child relations, but for the wider relationships between adults and children.

But what I want to do here is look at the issue of determinism from a more historical perspective and, in particular, the form of determinism that emerged in the nineteenth century.

First, it is worth nothing that debates about what is in our own hands and what is determined for us go back a long way. The ancients, for example, had debates about how events were in the hands of the gods, but with a sense that ‘fortune favours the brave’. The archetypal debates emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the notion of the freedom of the will was set against the idea that God makes us what we are. The richness of those debates certainly makes today’s debates about experiments that peer inside someone’s brain and try to glean whether we have free will or not seem very trivial.

In the nineteenth century, we see a secularised version of the earlier case for God. Determinists rejected God, but held on to the idea that there is no such thing as free will, that free will is an illusion. This is ‘social determinism’ or ‘social Darwinism’, which suggests that the history of humanity can be understood as the evolution of our species. This became the dominant idea among the intellectual classes in the nineteenth century.

Reading about that outlook, and its underpinning belief that science can tell us everything about who we are and what we are, it would be easy to assume that what is happening today is just a re-running of that debate. I think that would be wrong.

Nineteenth-century determinism, while very deterministic, also argued strongly that things were working with us, not against us. In other words, the forces behind us would drive us forward together to a better place. Adam Smith, for example, who I would very much characterise as a determinist thinker, thought that the ‘invisible hand of the market’ would drive us all forward to a better future. Herbert Spencer, as one writer notes, while also very much a determinist, ‘viewed history as one long process of mankind’s adaptation to the requisites of a perfect social life’.

Compared to that, contemporary determinism functions quite differently. It is essentially a set of warnings that says that if we carry on with what we are doing – if we don’t recognise the limitations of who we are and what we are – then we are going to end up in a very bad place. What emerges is an attempt to assert authority over people and to control the behaviour of individuals. That control, it is suggested, is the only way to hold things together. We need to tell people how to raise their children and we need to tell people to do less shopping, to consume less. In short, we all need to be restrained.

Contemporary determinism is distinguished by the sense that as human knowledge expands and as we do more things – like advertising – these things become phenomenal forces standing against us. All we can understand in these circumstances is how weak, useless and pathetic we are. Our only response can be to come to terms with our failings. This is an utterly fatalistic outlook. There is no prospect of learning more about ourselves being a way of moving forward to something better.

This expresses a heightened sense of alienation from ourselves. Increasing knowledge must lead to more rules and regulations to stop us doing what we do now, apparently. In the case of parenting, this expresses itself in a sense that the more we learn about children, the more we realise how much we are screwing them up. Even in pregnancy, this leads to an astonishing degree of scrutiny and oversight of pregnant women’s behaviour. Choice must be constrained, we are told; choice is the biggest casualty of this deterministic worldview.

Dr Ellie Lee is reader in social policy at the University of Kent, and director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS).

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Topics Politics

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