Every once in a while, I come across a blog post, or perhaps a youtube video, claiming to have finally debunked the notion of Free Will, or individualism, or some other “archaic notion” that is much too “dualistic.” They always present it as if it is a new idea, or as if science has suddenly proven that Free Will no longer exists because they used the scientific method to look at a philosophical question.
My real question is, why are humans always so eager to reason themselves out of existence? I do not decry the notion of rational thought here, but rather the urge to find a way to think, or perhaps a better word is “deduce,” our way out of humanity. It is astonishing to me every time I see it, and the funny thing is, these people hold onto it as if it is a new idea. Just look at this youtube video. It nicely summarizes all the arguments, and falls for them without question.
All of the old trappings of these philosophical debates come out in support of determinism. A combination of outside influences from social mores or pressure, to past experiences, to baser instincts all “determine” our actions for us before we ever actually make a choice. Now, neuroscience has joined the debate. Evidence shows that our brains send impulses to our body parts before we actually move them, unconsciously. That our brains, in effect, send the impulses before we make the choice. Therefore, we must again be determined, yes? Now, some determinists use this as “evidence” of the illusion of free will, but just imagine if you had to choose to breathe, or choose to make your brain work. Of course your brain sends out impulses before you make a decision to do something. Of course your brain is working at a faster and more complicated level than you can consciously comprehend. I still don’t see how this proves anything. Let me provide an example.
Say I am struggling with a decision to get dessert after having a big dinner at a restaurant. Here are the conditions of the situation. I am full from the meal, but I want sweets. I am on a diet currently, and have committed to myself to stop eating sugary sweets for a while. I am overweight 100 pounds. My family is there with me, and I know if I got the dessert they would be disappointed in me. In the past I have succumbed to this temptation, and am generally an overeater because my mother always told me to finish what was on my plate. Additionally, my family didn’t keep desserts in the house when I was a child, and they were a rare treat, so now, as an adult, I eat more because now no one can tell me what to do. I also have the small future promise of being healthy in the future if I make a good choice, but it’s harder there because it’s not an instant gratification. I have the full gamut here of social pressure, base needs such as wanting to eat more to store more food, social norm pressure from being on a diet, and past events weighing in on me heavily, as well as a future promise of health if I keep making good choices. I would say that the ability to imagine that future and act on it itself is an indicator of free will, but more than that is probably needed to give my argument full consideration. Besides, the most determined determinist would argue that no one acts on the imagined future, just as truly noble acts of altruism really don’t exist. Alas– this is indicative of the entire argument. I’ll explain later.
Now, I don’t just get the dessert. I ponder for a second while the waitress is gone. I stop, before making the choice, long before the brain has sent the impulses for me to pull out my credit card and pay the woman, or tell her to give me a big slice of delicious chocolate cake. I weigh the two options, and consider the pressures. What weighs on me more? Social pressure? Do I want my parents approval? Do I want to be healthy bad enough, or will the past events in my life lead to me making the same choice again, fuller, but no happier? Well, here is where the argument devolves and is based solely on perception. No matter what I choose, the determinist will argue that my choice was always going to happen. If I make a different choice in the same situation, obviously some other outside stimuli pushed me over the edge toward a different choice. You see, we are indeed creatures of habit. As humans, it is very hard for us to change our behaviors, let alone change our minds. And yet, I have seen it happen. Faced with this same decision, sometimes I refuse the dessert and make the right choice for myself, not based on any stimuli or influence, but on that imagined future I have constructed. All these things are at play, and I have paused to ponder them. No other animal has this ability, to weigh options, to become fully aware of inner and outer influences on our decisions, and to choose between them. While we don’t always exercise our free will properly or fully, it is, inevitably, still there. It is intertwined with our very consciousness.
Again, the determinist would argue that any of the possible options I choose are predetermined somehow, that life can be reduced to some equation that we don’t quite know all the variables to. That I, ultimately, am self deluded. The argument devolves from here into a “you’re wrong/no I’m right” caused by a difference in perception. It is as circular as the argument for and against the existence of right and wrong. In the end, I have to make a decision to believe in my own free will, not that I believe I exist outside causality, but also that I do not exist outside responsibility. C.S. Lewis said, although talking about the existence of good and evil, “you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing… …this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them.” I believe this applies perfectly to the idea of free will. He said it better than I could have, really.
I like to think of free will, and life in general, as a Bonsai tree in a garden. A tree in the woods grows naturally, based on soil content, location, amount of sun… all kinds of factors that decide whether the tree will thrive or not, what shape it will take, and how tall it will grow. But that isn’t how humans work. Humans are more akin to a Bonsai. Although the tree will grow as it will based on it’s roots and the soil it was planted in, we can take that tree, and decide how much sunlight it gets. We can transplant it to better, more nutritious soil. We can shape the branches and grow the tree based on a future vision. The tree is still growing beyond our control, and will get unruly and grow in directions you don’t want. Sometimes the sun won’t come out, and sometimes the soil will turn sour and some leaves will wilt. Sometimes we’ll forget to water it, if we aren’t careful. And in the end, we can’t change the Bonsai tree’s roots. But we can grow them to be stronger. We can trim the dead or unruly leaves, we can direct the trunk to flow in the right direction, we can feed it new, better soil. Ultimately, we are co-authors of this tree’s life, just as our free will is a co-author to our own lives.
Kierkegaard said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” Never let anyone talk you out of that freedom. Free will, or perhaps more appropriately freedom of thought, is not an illusion. It is merely underused.