Talking about free will, part 1

A: I recently read that it’s a scientific fact that we don’t have free will.

B: Yeah, well, don’t believe everything you read.

A: Ha! The author had a response for people like you – belief in free will is so comforting that people will deny all evidence to the contrary.

B: Wow, that really is a knockdown argument……not. The truth to me seems something like the opposite.

A: Huh?

B: Belief in the non-existence of free will is comforting. It’s the ultimate conspiracy theory.

A: How do you figure?

B: Conspiracy theories, no matter what flavour, are essentially the idea that some force or some agent outside of us is controlling our actions or influencing their outcomes. Thus, it’s not “my fault” if my life sucks, it’s because I’m not part of the “in group”. And that can obviously range from being somewhat true to completely ridiculous. In the latter cases it’s just a failure to take responsibility for our own predicament. Sartre called this “bad faith” and he tied it to people’s fear of freedom – to be free is to be forced to accept responsibility for your own life. Anyway, most people who deny the existence of free will do so purely intellectually.

A: What do you mean by that?

B: Their behaviour and pronouncements often reveal the fact that they do believe in free will after all. Kant pretty much got it right when he said that one can’t act “except under the idea of freedom”. What that means is no matter what you think you believe about free will, in order to act you will tacitly accept its existence. Even choosing not to act or choosing not to believe in free will is making a decision – “I choose not to believe that I am free to choose not to believe” – it’s a paradox.

A: Er….

B: Look, I’ll give you some paraphrased examples of the kinds of arguments made by people who publish works claiming that free will doesn’t exist:

People need to know they don’t have free will so they can stop holding other people responsible for their actions!

Give up your illusion of free will and become truly free!

People need to know they are slaves of circumstance….”

To which I might respond, “Why do they need to know that? Will this knowledge affect the choices that they make about how to live their lives?” Do you see how this all seems just a teensy bit paradoxical? Why write a piece about free will at all if we don’t have it? Because you didn’t have a choice but to write it? You mean you have no intentions regarding the influence that this piece might have on other people; you just had no choice in writing it? Maybe you also want to argue you have no choice in believing that your work can influence the actions of others? Hmmmm…..I really want to invoke Ockham at some point here….

A: OK, I get your point.

B: Don’t get me wrong though; there is genuine insight in the idea that surrendering, giving up our attempts to control everything, is a way to achieve greater freedom. Here’s a nice quote on the subject:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

A: I thought you were an atheist…

B: Doesn’t mean I don’t recognise wisdom when I see it. But sure, how about a “secular Buddhist” version then – surrender “the illusion of self” (i.e. that which controls things) and break free from the suffering caused by desire (for things to be other than they are). A wise Buddhist once said something to me, which struck home and has stayed with me ever since:

Happiness is wanting what you have, not getting what you want.

A: That is definitely wise, but I don’t think you’re really getting at the free will issue here are you? The article I read had all sorts of arguments against free will.

B: No doubt, there are many such arguments. A great deal of ink has been spilled over the issue of free will. To dive into the literature on the subject is to enter into a warren of rabbit holes from which one may never return. People have been writing about this for millennia and unfortunately if you really want to get a grip on the subject you are going to have to do a whole lot of reading….

A: Nah, that’s what I have you for!

B: Fair call, I’m always happy to be of service by wading into philosophical quagmires on behalf of the less motivated. The thing is that a lot of the debate is a storm in a teacup, a paper tiger, a naked emperor – a lot of it is just people debating the concepts that have arisen during the debate itself. It’s an ouroborus, a snake biting its own tail.

A: That’s probably enough metaphors.

B: Never! Anyway, Kant’s argument proactively refutes pretty much any argument that comes after it, at least as far as “acting”, doing stuff, is concerned. Nonetheless, the free will debate is absolutely fascinating and engaging with it will involve taking a close look at some fairly major concepts like causation, dualism, and of course evolution. So if you want to go there, you better strap in….or you could just ignore it all and get on with your life.

A: I’m interested….but I have to get to work, so can we continue this later?

B: Absolutely.

One thought on “Talking about free will, part 1

  1. Nicely done. I ran into the issue as a teenager reading philosophy in the public library. The idea that everything I did was inevitable bothered me, until I ran across this thought experiment:

    Suppose I have a choice between A and B. I feel myself leaning heavily toward A. So, just to spite inevitability, I’ll choose B instead! Seems too easy. But then I realize that my desire to spite inevitability just made B the inevitable choice. So now I have to choose A to avoid the inevitable. But wait, now A is inevitable again … it’s an endless loop!

    No matter what I choose, inevitability always switches to match my choice!

    Hmm. So, who or what is controlling the choice, me or inevitability?

    And that’s when I saw through the paradox. Donovan had a song that referenced a Buddhist story, which is in Wikipedia now:

    “The lyrics refer to a Buddhist saying originally formulated by Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US. Qingyuan writes: Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_Is_a_Mountain

    Luckily, I was able to solve the koan without have to spend 30 years studying Zen.

    Like

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