Do human beings have free will? Or are we subject to unconscious forces that govern our thoughts, feelings, and actions? Is it possible that there is such a thing as partial human agency, where we are in control of some but not all of our lives?
I submit that the prevailing and most popular thinking when in comes to human action is that we have free will. This is almost taken for granted, and it’s safe to assume the majority of people you interact with on a daily basis will hold this position. After all, it’s what we’ve been taught from the time we are born. We are told one person is good because he made good choices and is successful, while the other is bad if he is on the wrong path, choosing a lifestyle that runs counter to his well being.
It’s also the central tenet of most religions. Religion is an easy club to join. It only requires you to say a prayer, or hold a certain set of beliefs that you regard as true. However, one thing that all religions have in common is that they require participants to choose that particular faith. Failure to do so requires in some form of eternal punishment, justified by the individual not making the right choice. The point being, is that religion is one of the most potent forces for positing the concept of free will. Without free will, how could churches hold people accountable for choosing the wrong beliefs?
There are exceptions of course even within religion, Christianity namely. The Presbyterian sect of Christianity believes that God chooses who his followers will be, with no foreknowledge of their faith, prior to their birth. Therefore, if you’re not one of the lucky chosen ones, too bad for you! But I would say religious determinists are a very small minority. The majority of religious people you meet will say they believe in the power of every person to choose God, find redemption, and so on.
You could say that free will is the most common ideology because it seems the most accurate way of viewing human action. After all, in any given moment we appear to have a myriad of choices in front of us. I could continue to write this article, I could stop and check facebook, or I could shut my laptop and go get something to eat. Which path I choose is up to me, right? The variety of choices we have at any moment creates the perception that we have free will. If someone were to literally force us to do something, we might say we have lost free will. But in normal everyday circumstances, we have the freedom to make decisions and live our lives as we see fit.
Free will is also an appealing perspective in many ways. No one has control over me but me. In the Matrix, the character Morpheus asks Neo is he believes in fate, to which Neo replies that he doesn’t. When Morpheus asks Neo why not, Neo replies, “Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of life.” That sums up the appeal of free will nicely. Free will encapsulates a hopeful optimism, that we can change course when we want to, steer our life in the direction we choose. And if things aren’t going well, then we have the power to change our circumstances by making new choices and creating a new environment for ourselves.
On the downside, when you have the perspective of free will, you tend to look at people very one dimensionally. It creates the perception that people are as good or as bad as their choices. If a person makes a bad choice, then it’s their fault. They’re no good. Criminals and people who violate others are sick, hopeless. Such people are undeserving of rehabilitation. They made their bed, now it’s their time to lie in it. When you believe in free will, it creates a kind of mental hierarchical system, where human beings are placed higher or lower depending on the choices they make.
Determinism postulates that the universe, and the human action contained within it, are subject to a mechanistic chain of cause and effect, originating at the start of the universe to present day and beyond. This meaning that, throughout your entire life up until now and carrying on through the rest of your life runs the principle of cause and effect. You do this because you did that etc.
Einstein is perhaps the most famous proponent of this belief system, seeing the course of events as something far greater than human beings could ever possibly control. He claimed, “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”
The 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, also viewed the world from a determinist standpoint. He said, “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.” For example, I can go buy chocolate ice cream if I want to, but I can not decide the fact that I want to have chocolate ice cream. The decision to eat ice cream arises from beyond the sphere of volition. The feeling of wanting ice cream is the present moment sum of a lifetime of prior experiences, that has all led up to this moment of me wanting ice cream.
Where free will seems like the obvious truth, determinists like Einstein and Schopenhauer look deeper than the surface appearance of things. The question they had is not “What do I want to do?” but “Why do I want to do what I want to do?” What causes mankind’s varying impulses to take certain actions? And they concluded that these impulses arose from beyond conscious control. That every impulse is just another effect in the long chain of cause and effect. Not only is every event, including every thought, every step, every cone of ice cream, an effect, but it is also a cause. Nothing is only a cause or effect, every thing must necessarily be both.
The perspective of determinism has some obvious advantages. It gives you very compassionate eyes. A criminal is a victim themselves, unable to NOT commit the crime for which they are guilty. Of course this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go to jail. We always need to take measures to protect society from the mentally ill, a group to which criminals universally belong. However, when you believe in determinism you no longer resent someone who has done you wrong. You see them as not being able to act differently in the moment they did what they did. No different than a puppy who pees on your floor. You no longer see them as evil.
Determinism also can raise your self esteem and allow you to forgive yourself for past wrongs you’ve done and mistakes you’ve made. You realize that on a fundamental level you are no worse than any other human being. You are no better either. You are able to relate to other human beings as their complete and total equal. You realize that, had you been born into that person’s body, with their parents and their life circumstances, you would be that person. So I am not really this person, Edward Carmichael, nor are you your name or life situation. But rather, you are the consciousness that inhabits the particular form that we call a human being.
I am both Mother Theresa and Hitler. I am every human being that lives, has ever lived and ever will live.
The downside of having the perspective of determinism is that initially, it can lead to despair. If everything is determined, doesn’t that mean we don’t have the power to change events? And that is a discouraging thought when we see the immensity of suffering in the world. Is mankind doomed to suffer eternally? And if I’m not in control of my life, how do I escape unwanted circumstances or make a meaningful difference in this world? How do I contribute to alleviating suffering under this paradigm?
There are also well known scholars who submit something of a blended theory between free will and determinism, commonly referred to as compatibilism. Daniel Dennett often writes and speaks about such an approach, where we don’t have the degree of agency that’s commonly thought, but we’re not completely subject to the laws of determinsm.
My current operating model of reality could be described as something akin to compatibilism.
It’s rather obvious to me that we don’t have free will in the traditional sense. We can only act according to our beliefs, which we don’t choose in the strictest sense. We believe what we believe because it’s what seems true to us. And we don’t get to choose what we perceive as true. What seems true is simply a dictate of our intelligence. And we do not get to chose how intelligent we are.
There is a checkmate argument that invalidates the concept of free will that goes something like this. If you don’t believe in determinism and do believe in free will, is it possible for you to have a different perspective at this moment? In other words, if you believe in free will, you can’t NOT believe in free will. Are your beliefs not subject to your current state of consciousness, which has been evolving your entire life up until this moment? If you look deeply into these questions, you’ll see that the traditional notion of free will is ludicrous.
However, it is equally obvious to me the way in which we think dramatically influences our experience of reality. Strictly speaking, we don’t choose our thoughts, thought happens to us. So our only real power lies in the way in which we interact with those thoughts, our relationship with them. While we may not choose our thoughts, we can certainly cultivate the appropriate relationship with them over time.
The key aspect of improving your relationship with the world of thought is to realize that not every thought is true and to engage only with those thoughts that are most conducive to the happiness of yourself and others. In this way, although you may not be able to actively choose which thoughts enter your consciousness, you can evolve to intuitively know which thoughts are consistent with truth (an accurate perception of reality) and also consistent with the kind of world you want to inhabit.
The Higher Order
Philosophers have been wondering and debating since time immemorial if there is indeed a higher order to reality. Marcus Aurelius, the second century stoic and Roman Emperor, said in his book “Meditations”, “Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?” He believed that the realization of a higher order was what enabled him to live in peaceful accordance with the world.
Is it an accident that we are here? Are our life circumstances orchestrated by a divine intelligence, and if so, does everything we experience in our physical reality exist for our individual betterment? These questions, of course, can only be answered anecdotally and have no bearing in scientific reality, and therefore, are often briskly dismissed by many.
I believe these questions are still worth exploring on an individual basis. One thing is undeniable, that you grow and evolve throughout the course of your life. Although there is no direct evidence, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that points to how the outward conditions you find yourself in have shaped your character in positive ways. You are not the same person today you were 5 years ago. Nothing is static in life, which includes your innermost self, who you are as an individual. You could make the argument that you evolve regardless of circumstances, and thus evolution is no evidence for an intelligent or higher order. And that’s a fair point. But can you find an example of where a challenge or limitation in your life actually worked for your good? Where NOT getting your way turned out for the best? No doubt everyone has had not only one, but countless experiences like this.
My purpose in writing this article is to invite you to consider adopting some new perspectives. Trying on a new lens or worldview is a very healthy thing to do. When we consider the possibility that we might be wrong, that are previously held ideas are not as infallible as we once thought we were, then that is the foundation for true growth. It is the beginning of perceiving reality more accurately.
I invite you consider that perhaps you don’t have free will. That the course of our lives is determined. And consider that there may be a higher order, in which case, your fate is a benevolent one. And in that realization to have gratitude for every single circumstance in your life. To not resent people or events. To not be afraid to make mistakes, because under this model, there are no mistakes. You cannon step outside the higher order even if you try. And to fully appreciate what is. That it’s all for you. And most of all, that it’s all good. 😉