Forgiveness. Hard to remember the last time I thought to myself ‘I forgive that person’. This isn’t because of some unbelievable luck that made me only interact with kind and loving section of humanity. Stupidity is uniformly distributed and I see it in action quite regularly. It is also not because I am a despciable unforgiving human. The reason I have never had to forgive is due to the fact that I don’t feel much anger or contempt at people who act stupid or unkind. Why not, you ask? Because even if there is an initial emotional response of frustration after witnissing stupidity, I immediately rationalize it with my belief that humans don’t possess free will and that their actions are just byproducts of their historical environment, inherited genes and a pinch of randomness, all mixed together. Although there are still a few loose ends that need tying, I have gone through this process of rationalization so many times that it has sort of hardwired me to not respond with a negative emotion. How could I possibly be mad at someone and then forgive them, when I don’t even consider them as authors of their own actions? This response is of course not only applicable to negative side of the spectrum of behaviors. The same logic applies to thanking a person. Although for the sake of politeness and giving positive feedback, I do say ‘thank you’ so that they know they did a helpful act and its appreciated, I don’t really feel thankful. It may sound as if I am operating like an android without feeling any emotions but that isn’t really true. On the other hand, I have noticed that this thinking encourages me to help people without expecting anything in return. And this then brings a calmness followed by a feeling of content. The reason to not expect anything in return is that the factors that would make them “return the favor” or not are beyond me or that person. To be clear though, this doesn’t mean I don’t update my understanding of that person’s nature if they happen to ignore me when I am in the need of their help. It would be stupid and more importantly inefficient to keep helping jerks (with no fault of my own I should add). In fact, on many occasions you clearly want to convey their mistreatment or irrationality for the sake of giving their brains negative feedback. This is precisely why its important to throw dangerous criminals in prisons. Its just that I end up holding no grudge against them for their behavior which allows me to keep my mind empty of unnecessary indignation.
Another benefit of disbelief in free will is that it seems to vanish the feelings of inferiority or superiority. You simply accept the fact that some people are more capable than others either because their capability was nurtured in an environment most suitable for it or they inherited just the right amount of genetic code to outperform others in that capability (in case of some good musicians, a bit of both). Disappearance of this comparison seeking aspect of our mind also helps in getting rid of emotions like envy and vanity. This doesn’t mean that you stop seeking self improvement. There are countless cases where people can improve their situations by using various motivational techniques. For example, self pep-talks can be a wonderful environmental input to encourage ourselves to achieve a goal. Getting inspiration from and then acquiring the habits of highly effective people is another useful environmental input that people consistently throw at their brains. But we have to acknowledge that the ability to pickup such strategies from others, itself may have some genetic component to it. Most people keep reading or listening about these anti-procrastinatin strategies etc., but never really execute them.
It is important to be skeptical of the above argument and ask whether we are necessarily better off by doing away with such emotions. What allows me to proclaim that such emotions need not be felt? What about folks that get motivated by them instead towards improving their situations compared to others. This could be the exact reason why some of these negative emotions exist in the first place. Take envy for example. It can manifest itself in various ways but one common instance is when people evaluate and compare their social status to their peers, colleagues or friends. If I happen to believe that I have a lower rank than the some of my friends, either I can apathetically accept my situation as part of some natural order or feel an emotion that frustrates me about the fact that others are bettering me. Since this emotion consistently bothers the mind and makes me miserable, the only way to get rid of it is to fix my current situation by working harder. Evolution will select for this emotion because the humans who felt it will end up outperforming their rivals and consequently reproducing more (this hypothesis that I just made up is super speculative and most likely not the complete story even if true). So there is a plausible way in which negative emotions can bring change for one’s own good. Same can be argued for a person fuming with anger and how that behavior can be mightily efficient in increasing one’s social status.
I don’t have a good counter response to such cases except strongly believing that the ratio of suffering caused by these emotions to the occasional good, is in all likelihood huge. I personally haven’t met anyone who constantly gets motivated by such feelings (although very few would acknowledge these emotions as the driving factor in their success). And even if they do acquire higher status in life after experiencing such suffering (by being envious for example), there will always be someone higher to compare yourself against. Where does one stop? By exposing oneself to these emotions consistently, one cannot expect to suddenly switch off the neural correlates – that were formed while immersing in such emotions – after reaching a relatively higher status. So on average, I believe they are harmful for an individual and societies will be more kind and compassionate without them.
Some people also worry that if they shouldn’t hate people for their negative actions, why continue loving someone for their positive actions? It can sound contradictory to not hate but continue loving if nobody has free will. But fortunately, there is a beautiful asymmetry here. Love is about caring for people close to us and feeling happy in their presence. Not only do these emotions communicate a positive signal to others but we also enjoy experiencing them. Free will or not, loving makes total sense. Hatred however, is completely dependent on illogical belief in autonomy of an individual and more often than not ends up making the person experiencing it miserable.
So in conclusion, I have argued that not only is free will an incoherent concept, belief in it can do significant harm to our mental health. This belief may have made sense thousands of years ago when we were competing with everyone over producing more babies, but in order to efficiently operate as a calm, kind and overall mentally healthy person in the modern world, its best if we try to do away with this primal instinct. Charles Darwin knew about the implications of not believing in free will and noted the following in one of his unpublished works:
This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything. Nor ought one to blame others.