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.