Free will was a necessary idea, once upon a time. For the religious, it was the plaster over the holes in their god’s benevolence. For the wronged, it made revenge feel like justice. It bolstered the pride of the great and nursed the resentment of the foiled. It was a useful lie. And it thrived, so long as there was metaphysical wiggle room for it to inhabit – some cunning dualism that shunted decision making away from the body and towards ethereal incorporeality. Yes, thirst and hunger and sex are grounded in the mechanisms of the body, we were told, but there is real, tangible freedom tucked away deep within us all, rescuing us from our clockwork natures.

There’s a desperate charm to that idea, but we’re quite beyond it now. The mechanisms of decision making, the chemistry of empathy, the physics of neural plasticity, each gnaws away every day at the few remaining supports of a free will model of individuality. We are forced to either redefine free will to something existent but meaningless, or chuck the idea altogether and make peace with finding the subtle joys of our exquisite programmability.

Generally when an atheist talks about joy, what follows is a series of verbal contortions intended to recast finitude as something really quite lovely, and in all ways the equal of religious ecstasy. I have no ambitions towards ecstasy, but I do believe that a constant baseline of indefatigable pleasantness is the reward of thorough-going determinism and that, far from necessarily resulting in a gloomy nihilism, it can rather beautifully enhance one’s engagement with the world and those living in it.

In the absence of will, what we have left is a system of massive mutual programmability. The logic of evolution has rendered us hyper-social, constantly monitoring our surroundings for behavioural clues which get fed into our self-corrective systems. Through the marvel of neural mirroring, we mentally experience the actions of others as our own. We fire all the preparatory neurons as if we were doing the actions ourselves, stopping just short of physical re-enactment. We do not merely observe others – we become them. Each human is a shifting conglomeration of influences – a tangle of other people’s actions and emotions woven around a genetically and epigenetically forged chemical system of evaluation.

All of which is to say, identity is something of a farce, and existential angst over one’s authenticity is mostly unnecessary. It’s an engaging game to work out where different parts of your personality hail from, but so much of your waking self is made up of sub-routines foisted upon you by other people that this sort of hand-wringing will only get you so far. When you accept yourself as a shifting amalgam, the game of living well and truly begins. Knowing your unwritten impact on others, and theirs on you, lets you partake in a grand social alchemy, to view and savour the swirling personalities engaging with your own basic routines, and to be aware of your own responsibility for the well-being of everyone in your proximity.

More than allowing you to be a connoisseur of humanity’s subtle shadings of mutual influence, a thorough determinism lightens considerably the starkness of envy and scorn. The success of others rankles less, just as your own successes are less self-damaging, when viewed from the perspective of necessary mechanical processes. Striving without envy, victory without condescension – these were long deemed impossible for a humanity that had been taught that its Will was outside the natural order, but become the stuff of psychological routine when you view yourself as an elegant machine performing its unique role as best it is able.

For the individual, determinism means a lifetime, ringside seat at the shifting spectacle of one’s self, a chance to cheer and wonder and weep, but without the dire need to take everything that happens to you so damn personally. There’s a bit less ego there, a good deal more room for compassion, and the potential for enjoyment in even the most mundane social circumstances is a bonus all its own. For society, however, the benefits are weightier still.

Consider just how much of humanity’s inhumanity is predicated on the notion of choice. Believing in the evitability of human actions, we incarcerate (or, here in the United States, execute) our societal transgressors. We lionise those who seek and achieve revenge. We construct societies that keep the poor poor on the strength of the Horatio Alger notion that they can simply will themselves out of it. Our political discourse is aimed at bludgeoning the opposition with insincere rhetorical flourishes rather than seeking a comprehension of the structure of their alterity. We construct educational systems that agonise over adhering to a set of numbered standards while turning their backs on supporting the humanity of the teacher.

If we see ourselves as intertwined, linked brain to brain by a magnificent evolutionary gamble that paid off and gave us dominion over the planet, the structures we build will reflect that sensitivity, and we’ll start building better systems to capitalise on that interdependence. We’ll be less willing to institutionalise wrath in the form of an electric chair, or conceit in that of a slum. Jails will still exist, but with a better understanding of what it takes to shift decision pathways in a positive direction, just as homeless shelters will continue, but with dehumanising, “choice”-laden pity replaced with enabling respect.

And what will we lose when the change from believing in dualistic will to accepting determinism comes? For some, free will is the last barrier between decent humanity and a state of lawless debauchery. People, rather disappointed that the loss of God didn’t push society into rampant cannibalism and leather fetishes, have moved the goalposts back, claiming that free will was the real issue all along, and that once we stop believing in it, there will be nothing we won’t allow ourselves. After all, if we consider ourselves machines, and others to be machines, why wouldn’t we just rape and pillage our way to an early death?

We wouldn’t, for the same reason that we are able to calmly discuss the ramifications of a determinist world-view in the first place – to create a world stable enough to have the leisure to contemplate its own mechanisms of decision, we had to heavily grow into each other’s mental spaces. Each level of interdependence brought with it new success, and new generations whose chemical experience of happiness was rooted more in contributing to societal progress than experiencing isolated moments of individual desire satisfaction. We are at a point where so very much of our internal reward and motivation wiring is keyed into the collective project of humanity that any new levels of humility we achieve must feed into the enhancement of communalism rather than solipsism. Our philosophy has at long last caught up to our biology, and there is no way of turning back that process without subjecting ourselves to an isolation that our communication-hungry brains are no longer equipped to withstand, let alone enjoy.

What would happen in a world that accepted determinism would be, first and most bureaucratically, a clearing away of cumbersome vocabularies, of the lexicon of choice that allowed humans to blandly dehumanise each other with a mass of words and a clean conscience afterwards. A superman can write off a sub-human, but a self-aware empathy machine cannot so easily dispose of another. Once the metaphysical baggage has been chucked, the real task of remaking society, of actualising the potential within our interdependent primate survival strategy, can begin, with consequences that might well de-medievalise the will-encumbered assumptions underpinning our health, welfare, and justice systems.

God, it turns out, was our next-to-last delusion. Behind him stands the real Big Bad of Western Civilisation, one whose fall will usher in the true modern age of humanity, when we finally emerge from the tidepools of Victorianism we’ve convinced ourselves are the end-all of secular progress, and start figuring out just what an elegant machine can do, once it has accepted, and found some source of entertainment and even pride in what it is.