Do you believe in Free Will?

This question was posed to me by someone with whom I enjoy thinking. You read that correctly. I’m referring to someone as a person I like to think with.

Now and then we pose questions such as this to each other. Questions that require more than a simple yes or no response. Questions designed to make you think, digging beneath the surface of the question and truly contemplating or even arguing your response. Questions that make you struggle.

This was the most recent question he posed to me:

Do you believe in Free Will?

The arch to his brow and the gleam in his eye warned me of a trap. But the smirk indicated that he knew I’d sense the trap. It’s a game we like to play. A game of words and thoughts and perception challenging and devil’s advocacy.

I tilted my head, matched his expression and said something like, “Sure. But it’s not that simple, is it?” I added something about tabula rasa and imprinting, but that line of thought fell away pretty quickly.

The restaurant we were in was a bit rowdy with a spirited lunch crowd, and we easily distracted ourselves as well with the delightfully tangential nature of our conversations.

You keep looking at that broken clock. But you don’t wear a watch. Tell me why.

Why do you lay your phone face-down on the table? Explain the thought process to me.

See what I mean? Someone I like to think with.

~

Do you believe in Free Will?

My knee-jerk response to this question is, “Of course I do!” But that’s simply not good enough. It’s an incomplete and flawed answer.

Tabula rasa. Do you remember hearing this phrase in school? I can’t remember the first time I heard it, though I suspect it first really resonated with me in college. The concept is usually attributed to John Locke. Though it predates him by a long shot, I think Locke did much to crystallize the philosophy – at least according to his own interpretation of it.

Tabula rasa, Latin for blank slate, as a philosophy posits that each man and woman is born completely blank. Not imprinted upon by some collective conscious or unconscious. No input from past lives or ancestral or astral projections. Blank. We come into this world, blank and ready to be written upon. And the ones with the chalk to write upon our blank slates? Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, teachers, clerks, neighbors, rich and poor, young and old, pure and evil, selfish and selfless. All of our encounters add information onto our slates. And at some point, we receive our own piece of chalk to add to or categorize the information which has now been imprinted upon us. And we also have our very own chalk to print upon the slates of others.

What does this have to do with free will?

Well. I think that we do have free will. To an extent. It isn’t a pure and unaffected free will. How could it be? A man who was born to the ghetto and imprinted upon by all that happens in the ghetto will make different free will decisions than a man born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. They won’t even have the same options to choose from in life. A woman who was born within the confines of a prison and later raised in a halfway house will make different free will decisions than those of a woman born to a movie star or politician. Do they both still have free will? Yes. To an extent.

What if my free will conflicts with yours? What if my free will pushes me to apply for a job working for an NPO in the mental health field (fingers crossed), but your free will pushes you to select someone other than me? What if my free will causes me to text and drive, while your free will lands you on the highway moments before I crash into you, killing your family with my free will?

Let’s look at another important scenario. What if my free will leads me to a movie theater moments before the free will of an American Terrorist takes my life? What if my free will conflicts with yours? What if your free will conflicts with mine?

Is free will a good thing? Yes. To an extent.

Chick at work today reminded me of the free will conversation of a week ago (has it already been a week?). She said:

You know what I need? I need a rich servant. Someone to make all of my decisions for me – choose the right house, lay my clothes out for me every day, set food on the table in front of me at meal times. Someone to make all of my decisions. I’m over it.

She, in essence, told me that free will is burdensome to her. She’d rather not have free will in all instances. But can we pick and choose? We kind of do already, don’t we?

We “elect” government officials to make decisions on our behalf, decisions we believe they’re better suited to make than we are. That’s putting it simply, but that’s the premise, yes? So I’m turning over portions of my free will to them. And in return? They get to inflict their free will upon me, because I’ve given them the power to do so. When I’m up against them, do I still have free will? Yes. To an extent. If I choose to act upon my free will and drive to Baton Rouge to participate in rallies and peaceful protests, I could end up dead at the hands of a cop who has the free will to shoot me for blocking the streets and gathering en masse. That knowledge impacts whether or not I act on my free will, doesn’t it? Of course it does.

It happens every day in every circumstance. I could use my free will to stand up and shout at Queen Bitch, “You’re an evil, filthy cocksucking enema bag, and I hope you rot.” And my supervisor could use his free will to fire me. Not the best idea for me to act upon my free will in that instance, then.

So perhaps the answer is this:

Yes, we have free will. But whether or not we act upon said free will is heavily influenced by factors environmental, biological, social, financial, etc.

I believe that almost everything is a choice. And we have the free will to make whatever choice it is we decide upon. But needs must dictate that we take into consideration the free will of others and how they may or may not act upon theirs. We must also consider biological necessities: I could use my free will to stop my breathing. I could use my free will to never eat again. I could use my free will to deny my body of water. But then we enter moral questions of “right” and “wrong” and “should” or “shouldn’t.”

We could argue about fate, which I believe my thinking partner mentioned as well. And perhaps this should have been more of an essay about free will versus fate. I’m not quite ready for that one yet. Because I have many conflicting views. I do believe in free will. But sometimes shit just feels as though it was or wasn’t fated to happen. But perhaps that’s the Bible Belt in me speaking. Or perhaps its my own observations of the universe and what appear to be certain immutable laws.I believe that is a conversation for another day.

~

I suppose my views boil down to a conflicting dichotomy between free will and determinism. Many Buddhists adhere more toward determinism and shun the more Western idea of free will. This philosophy essentially posits that events in our lives are caused by influences external to our own free will, thus whether or not we have free will matters very little.

While I agree with much Buddhist philosophy (and have much to learn), I think a fully deterministic view is rather bleak and just as incomplete as a full adherence to the idea of free will. Yes things happen to me. Yes things happen toward or at me. But I still have choice. Sometimes, the correct choices are so obvious that they are basically no choice at all. And sometimes the consequences can be dire: follow my own free will or live to discuss it another day? For many, I’d say they wouldn’t even consider that a choice, hence negating their own free will.

It gets rather circuitous, doesn’t it? But the question has been on my mind for a week now. I’m still thinking about it. And I still haven’t fully formed my ideas on the matter. I’d like to do more formal research, dig into the ideas and perspectives of philosophers and great thinkers and, of course, consult my thinking friend.

What say you, peopleaneous?

What say you, thinking partner?

Feel free to use your free will to comment..or not. I’ll use mine to not edit, because I’m actually tired. Wonders never cease.

~

On another totally random note: I’m researching communes in Oregon.

That is all.

Good day.

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46 thoughts on “Do you believe in Free Will?

  1. Well, in a perfectly deterministic universe, where purpose exists only in living organisms seeking to survive, thrive, and reproduce, I empirically observe the woman sitting at the restaurant table, reading the menu, considering her options, and then giving her choice to the waiter.

    “I WILL have the seafood salad”, she says. So there’s the “will”, a result of her deliberate choosing. Now we just have to find the “free” to go with it.

    The idea of “free” does not stand alone. To be meaningful, we have to know what could meaningfully constrain her choice. The meal, for example, cost money. It was not free of charge.

    The “free” in free will ordinarily means freedom from external coercion or other undue influence. Since she was sitting at the table alone, and all of the reasons for her choice were her own, her choice was made of her own “free will”.

    There are some who would argue that since her hunger and her food preferences caused her to make that choice, her choice was not free. But these same people will also argue that there is no such thing as freedom from such causation, which leaves us scratching our heads as to why they would define freedom in such a way that it could not possibly exist. Seems a bit silly and impractical to me.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Wow, thank you, Marvin. I love exchanges of ideas like this. “To be meaningful, we have to know what could meaningfully constrain her choice.” Yes, this is precisely what I mean about it becoming circuitous. She has free will, but there are constraints upon that free will…whether imposed by the self or some outside force.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m exercising my free will to not think too much today 😉
    (it is so damn hot today , my brain is shut down to prevent further generation of energy and the consequent rise in temperature )
    but on a first approach I did identify with everything you wrote 🙂 let’s see if and when I resume full thinking I’ll have a different opinion 😉
    Have a great weekend (and hooray for keeping on searching alternatives to get up there to Oregon)
    Turtle Hugs

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The Boston Marathon bombers hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist in their escape. Because the driver was not acting of his own free will, he was not charged with aiding and abetting. This is the ordinary meaning of free will. It requires nothing supernatural and it is completely compatible with a deterministic universe.

      The other meaning of free will, “freedom from causal inevitability”, is an irrational concept. Anything free from causality cannot cause anything to happen, and thus has no freedom at all. So the idea of freedom from reliable causation is self-contradicting.

      If you have a choice between a meaningful and relevant definition and an irrational definition, which should we choose?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I think you went wayyyy deeper than I intended, lol – but I think we are on a similar track.

        I simply mean “free choice” as a concept of: We may not want to do something (thus no free will) but are presented a set of choices that we are “forced” to pick from. Many of us choose based upon perceived consequences of our actions, many of us make choices with little/no thought (or concern) of those consequences.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I think that if we are forced against our will to choose between two undesirable options, then we are not acting of our own free will in that instance, due to the external coercion. Our will would be to choose neither option.

        Liked by 4 people

      3. Granted but life rarely gives you opportunities to “opt out” simply because you do not like any if the choices presented to you.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. In terms of moral responsibility, a gun to the head may force you to participate in a robbery, but can it force you to put a gun to someone else’s head? It would be reasonable to excuse the robbery at the threat of death, but would it be reasonable to excuse a murder at the threat of death?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. One still has a very real choice: do I participate or not? Just how highly do I value my life when compared against the moral scruples or rules of others (be they individuals or society as a collective)? I am not saying I fault someone for an decision made under such duress, rather that there is still a decision to be made. No one can force me to do anything. I still get to choose whether or not my fears drive me to acquiesce.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. You are still free to choose, though. Regardless of whether you choose something you WANT to do or not, you are making the choice. I think of determinism as more along the lines of a higher power making you do something and actually forcing you to choose a certain path, i.e., you’re not doing the choosing, you just think you are. Free will means that you’re actually making the choice, whether it’s from options you like or not.

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      7. Exactly. Given a materialistic universe, the only things that can actually cause things to happen are real objects and forces. And each animate object, being a living organism, comes with a built-in purpose: to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce.

        This purpose is uniquely encapsulated in each living thing and its species. And it explains why we cause stuff.

        Determinism, when correctly defined, must include us living, thinking organisms among its causes. And it must recognize that we cause things to happen for our own purpose and our own reasons.

        Deterministic inevitability is not some intelligence forcing us to do stuff against our will. But rather our will is based upon our own choices, and each choice causally determines what we WILL do. And if it was in fact us, our own brain, our own reasons, our own dispositions, our own beliefs and values, our own reasons and feeling, that led to this choice, then it was authentically us, and no other object in the universe, that causally determined what we would do next.

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      8. I suppose this is precisely where I get hung up. When I think of free will, I think of it in the purest sense. Free will/free choice. Even the driver made a choice, though he felt forced to make a specific one. There is no freedom from external influencing factors, which negates free will in the purest sense. So yes, if we are to say we have free will…we are saying we have it within the constructs of some level of determinism. Perhaps not mutually exclusive after all.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Actually, I presume perfect determinism and causal inevitability. The thing is, causal inevitability is not a meaningful constraint upon free will. What you will inevitably do is exactly identical to you being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose. It’s like trying to say that you are constrained by yourself. And that’s actually a little nuts.

        But it’s a nut that’s captured a lot of scientists and philosophers who never see through the paradox. It’s like a Chinese finger trap. The more you pull the tighter it gets. You have to take that counter-intuitive leap and push your fingers together then slowly withdraw them.

        I ran into the paradox in the public library, reading in the philosophy section, as a teenager. I’m not sure if I figured it out myself or got the solution from one of the pragmatists I was reading.

        When you think about causal inevitability, you realize that there is no way to overcome it, but then again, there is no reason to. It is one of the most spectacularly useless facts in the universe.

        You can’t take it into account in any practical decision. For example, if I’m choosing between A and B, and find myself leaning strongly toward A, can I defeat inevitability by choosing B instead? Nope, because the desire to defeat inevitability would now make B inevitable. So now I must choose A, but wait … ad infinitum.

        Every decision we make of our own free will is also inevitable. And yet it is still authentically our own decision for our own purpose and our own reasons. Both facts, autonomy and inevitability, are simultaneously true all the time … except when I lose my autonomy because someone is holding a gun to my head.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. I suppose I disagree with you to some extent. I do believe in some inevitability…but then again, I do not. I see it used all too often as a copout for real decision making and marrow sucking of life.

        Then again, I’m happy to admit to my partial nuttiness. I also struggle with the idealist part of my self. 🙂

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      11. If you were faced with two options, and one choice, according to your own reasons and feelings, seemed clearly better to you than the other, you would inevitably choose that option. Why would you do otherwise?

        Your purpose and reasons determine the outcome.

        If you had two options that seemed equally good (or equally bad), such that you didn’t really care one way or the other, then you’d probably flip a coin.

        Physics determines the outcome.

        In either case, the outcome is causally determined.

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      1. Those things other people call ‘coincidences’ are far too frequent for me to believe in such things. I more or less feel like life is a “Choose Your Own Adventure Book” — we can do what we want, we can choose many different routes, but ultimately, in the large overview of possibilities, life’s already been written.
        But as I wrote, this is a personal interpretation of my own experiences, and uh, existential crises don’t care what we believe 😉

        Liked by 4 people

    1. Fatalism is the belief that events happen despite anything you can do. The only valid version of determinism is one that recognizes living organisms (like us) as causal agents that make stuff happen for our own purpose and reasons.

      Determinism – Free Will = Fatalism.

      Like

  3. I love indulging in philosophical musings. Did I choose to love pondering philosophical questions, or was this determined long before I was born? How can an event be fated if every individual has 100% free will? Like you, I believe we have free will, to an extent.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Having “free will” can be a very burdensome when influenced by unwanted responses to your actions.

    Owning responsibility for those actions makes the difference in how we use our free will.

    We always have to consider “cause and effect”.

    After all, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, or does it?

    Or is this too subject to the interaction of everyone’s free will?

    Like

  5. Hey Steph! ts been a while. I lost touch and couldnt seem to find my way back. I had to literally go through my follow page one blog at a time to find yours again lol but it was worth it.
    glad I did lol.

    Like

  6. Hi! *waves shyly* I’m the new guy in town.

    Free will. Hm. I like the idea of free choice, in the way you define it. And it doesn’t matter much that (in my view) everything is ultimately deterministic, since our experience is concerned only with (surprise!) what we experience, which is uninterrupted decision-making. Fuck the microscope!

    About Locke’s idea of tabula rasa… that kind of stark, confident individualism is the hallmark of Enlightenment thought. Yes, we are impacted by others, but essentially, as we are born, we are clean slates, guided only by reason and our animal needs. According to this view, morals and all social problems of choice are inflicted on us by conflicting “imprints” laid upon us. I wonder if that’s so. Maybe conflict is inborn? Maybe we are, essentially, beings born to struggle with different desires, ranging from fighting for a wretched breath to seeking transcendent peace to pushing away from those who wish to crush our spirit? Maybe we come into the world (or grow up, as we accumulate experience – even without external influence) with a certain map, comprised of reason, emotion, ego and perhaps spirit, and all those factors (and more) jostle and clamor for our attention, giving us all these endless choices? Of course, the ghetto child will be presented with different experiences than the upper-class rich kid, and they will encounter different choices, but maybe we all have more in common, at our core, than a pristine blank slate. I wonder.

    Anyway, great piece, Stephanie. I love this discussion!

    Like

  7. Well, I’m fairly late to the party, but I wanted to say I enjoyed this post. I agree we have free will to an extent. There are a lot of factors, just as you said, which influence our decisions.
    I liked reading the ensuing discussion, I’ll have to check in with you more often. I’ve been so wrapped up in business building and trying to work from home, I’ve been neglecting actually reading blogs. I’ll be making it a point to catch up soon, I hope.
    Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

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