An Essay on Free Will
I was recently involved in an online discussion with a Witness about the Adam and Eve fable and my argument that they were set up according to the tale. We went back and forth a bit but I could tell that he just couldn’t understand my point of view. He was literally confused and admitted such, though in more derogatory terms, I think implying that my arguments were poorly constructed. But I think the problem wasn’t in my arguments. I think he was legitimately confused because he and I do not view free will the same. I also started to realize that my own views of free will were changing practically as I was typing my rebuttals, and I didn’t even realize it until I attempted to figure out why he was confused at my arguments.
This article is going to be more of an essay. By that I mean instead of trying to defend a position, I’m going to write this as an exploratory exercise. It will be a way of sorting out my own thoughts and exploring this complex topic. This form of writing is described very well by computer scientists and essayist Paul Graham on his website. This article on Essays directly influenced my approach to this article.
Instead of starting with a statement like, “free will exists”, I’m going to start with a question: “Does free will exist?”
I’m not so arrogant as to think that I will figure this out in one article. My intent is to explore the open doors and see what is behind them. I’m looking for truth, not attempting to prove something. I hope to find something interesting and I hope it’s interesting for you too.
The Adam and Eve Argument
As I mentioned, my exploration of free will began earlier this week in an online discussion on the Garden of Eden story, where I argued that Adam and Eve were set up and that God unfairly tilted the odds against them. I argued that Eve’s decision was based on internal and external motivations and desires. She wanted the fruit because it looked tasty (an internal motivation that God had to know about when he made the fruit), because it offered her something of value (knowledge and wisdom) and because of a talking snake that tempted her (that she thought nothing of).
My “opponent” kept repeating that despite these motivations it was still Eve’s decision and she was at fault. I kept insisting that her decision was the result of influences beyond her control, including her own internal desire for whatever knowledge the fruit would give her, and that desire couldn’t have materialized out of nothing. It had to have been either innate (she was created with it) or learned from the environment, both of which were ultimately the work of God, thereby making God himself a guilty accomplice to Eve’s failure.
But none of this seemed to matter to my opponent. No matter how much Eve was influenced or swayed even by God himself, she still could have made the right decision. I began to wonder if that were really true.
I started thinking about decision-making and the idea of free will. While typing a rebuttal, I used the phrase “Eve may have had free will, but it was certainly less free than it could have been”. Less free. That is an oxymoron. If something isn’t completely free, it isn’t free. Free is all or nothing. It was then that I fully realized that the biggest problem in our discussion was that we didn’t agree with what free will is.
What is free will?
Well, in my own words, free will is the idea that we are the ultimate decision makers in our lives. Our futures aren’t predetermined and our path has not been chosen for us. We may have influences, motivations and desires, but ultimately our decisions are up to us.
It certainly seems as though we are in control of our destiny and that our decisions are ours. Should I have scrambled eggs or over easy? The red shirt or the blue one? Pokemon Sun or Pokemon Moon? Or both? Should I take the teaching job or the software engineering job? Should I lie about how much I spent on computer parts or should I tell the truth? Perhaps even heavy-duty moral questions like: should I save my child with a blood transfusion or let them die? Or should I conceal my doubts or confess them and lose my family when I get disfellowshipped?
Decisions seem to have varying degrees of difficulty and I would agree that that’s true. Scrambled or over easy for me isn’t a difficult decision. Either way results in deliciousness and ultimately they would both be fine. So I may simply make an apparently arbitrary decision to have scrambled and move on. Seems like free will to me. But the decision to allow your child to die when medical technology could prevent it has to be difficult. So why does the parent make that decision? I think that’s a question worth asking.
In my online argument I made the comment that people make decisions based on what they value and that when one makes a decision this reveals what was more valuable to them at the moment of the decision. We can then question why they valued the decision they made more than the one they didn’t. I still hold this to be true.
The case of refusing medical treatment for a dying child is a revealing one. The parent has two choices. The first is to accept medical treatment and in effect, disobey what they believe to be a divine order. The second is to refuse medical treatment and very likely watch their child die. There are negative consequences to both decisions, making it a truly difficult choice. Regardless of which choice is made, I think it reveals what they valued most in the end. If they refuse medical attention, it reveals that they placed a higher value on obeying their religious rules than saving the life of their child. More than likely they also believe that they and their child will both be rewarded for this demonstration of obedience and that the child’s death was merely temporary. If they accept the medical attention it shows that they valued the “earthly” life of the child more than obedience to God. Perhaps they felt that they could make up for this shortcoming with enough penitence, prayer or service. Maybe they weren’t entirely confident in their belief in an afterlife and wanted to make sure they spent as much time with their child by keeping them in the one life they know for certain exists.
So I think that for most decisions in our lives it’s easy to demonstrate that they reduce to which desires we value the most or which outcomes we desire the least. This is a very easy rebuttal to the argument that “people often do things they don’t want to do, proving free will exists.” After voicing my opinion in the online argument that our disagreement about free will was at the root of our misunderstanding, another person in the online argument posted a link to an article about free will. In this article it was stated that “people take out their garbage even though they don’t want to” and “people often desire revenge but decide they will not”. It then concludes that this is a demonstration of free will in action because people are going against what they desire.
However I disagree. They are still acting according to what they desire most. Taking out the garbage may seem onerous. It’s possibly stinky, requires some lifting, maybe hauling trash cans out to the street or putting bungee cords on the lids to prevent wildlife from getting in or any other manner of activity that probably has a much more desirable alternative. It certainly doesn’t seem like very many people would desire this activity.
But what is the alternative? You let the garbage pile up in your house. It starts to rot and attracts flies and other vermin. You begin to risk disease. You start to run out of room as you begin piling it up in different rooms. To put it simply, it becomes a very miserable place to live. So the decision to take out the garbage isn’t whether or not you desire to engage in an activity that has more pleasant alternatives. It is whether or not you want to live comfortably and safely. Most people are going to take out the trash, precisely according to their desire for a comfortable and safe home.
How about the revenge example? You are wronged and harmed by someone and you instinctively wish to inflict this harm back upon them. A desire for revenge is probably wired into our behavioral psychology and does not need to be learned. It sure would feel good to get back at them, wouldn’t it? Give them a taste of their own medicine and maybe then some more! Yet despite this urge many people forego the act of taking revenge. Why are they seemingly going against their desires? Does that mean they are demonstrating free will?
No, it doesn’t. If you take revenge there will likely be consequences. If you bring harm to someone you may have a legal price to pay. It could involve jail time. The revenge also doesn’t really solve anything. Worst of all, you are intentionally causing harm to someone and this act could have a butterfly effect and cause collateral damage. So you avoid the act of revenge, not because you don’t desire it, but because you desire the alternatives even more. You wish to avoid jail, avoid harming someone, cause unintended harm and to avoid wasting time on an act that will not likely improve the state of affairs. Even though you opt out of the revenge, you are still acting precisely according to your desire. Neither of these examples prove the existence of free will.
The Toddler Solution: Keep asking “Why?”
When someone makes a given decision, you can do what toddlers do and keep asking “why?” I made this observation in my online argument about Eve eating the fruit, like so:
Eve ate the fruit. Why?
She must have desired it more than she desired obedience to God. Why?
Desires come from somewhere. She thought the fruit looked good and the knowledge and wisdom it would give her sounded good too. Something about both of those was appealing. Why?
People’s desires don’t manifest randomly. We are either born with them or we learn them. Eve must have either been born with her desires or she learned them. Why?
If she was born with them then God had to have deliberately created her that way. If she learned it, she must have learned from something or someone. Since there was only Adam she could only have learned it from him or God. And Adam himself had to have learned it from somewhere which could only have been God. Therefore, Eve’s desires were either given to her or taught to her by God. Why?
Now that’s a good question. But the chain of events never leads to free will. We never get to a point where the only option we have to explain someone’s decision is “free will”. It can always be explained by what a person desires and how they believe the outcomes of their decision will correspond with their desires.
This certainly doesn’t mean people always act rationally. We are all victims of biases, cognitive errors and logical fallacies and many of us act directly according to these psychological vulnerabilities and are thus acting irrationally. Yet their decisions are still according to what they believe will meet their desires, even if those beliefs are irrational.
But does that mean we don’t have free will?
What is free will anyway?
I’d like to explore free will a little further. Let’s assume for a moment that we do have it and that it is ultimately at the root of our decision-making. If you peel away all the layers of influences, motivations and desires, you are left with this kernel of decision making we call “free will”. This “free will” portion of our decision must be free of any external influences, or it is not “free”. If you can still give a reason or a cause for why someone made a choice, then you are still saying that their choice was based on a motivation or desire, which isn’t free will. So when a decision is made, after passing through all the layers of motivations and desires, you come to the component that all decisions must pass through: free will.
But what is it? What could free will be without motivations or desires? According to this view, free will is completely without cause. It is the exercise of one’s will free from motivation.
This seems to me to be a very strange sort of place to be. If there is no cause to someone’s decision then is the decision random? If it’s random then is it truly something we can even call a “decision”?
Is it this thing we call “will”? Is that the component that ultimately determines their decision? If so, why does the will of some people behave differently than the will of others? Some people seem to have a will that leads them to freely decide to do good things, while the will of others seems to lead them to decide to do harmful things. Why? Can we control this will? If so, what is the mechanism and why do different people control their will differently? Keep in mind, if you say that it’s based on any kind of motivation or desire, then we are no longer talking about free will.
I think one of the primary means to answer that question is to rely on the idea of a “spirit”, “soul”, or a part of our selves that is distinct from our physical bodies. But we have yet to prove that such a thing exists, despite how appealing the idea may be to those who wish to believe that humans are more than physical beings.
When I continue to ask questions about free will and explore all the doors that are ajar, I just keep finding more doors and more questions. Any time a hypothesis leads to more questions than it answers I start becoming very skeptical of it. This doesn’t mean it isn’t true and I may simply need more information, but right now “free will” is leading me to more questions than answers.
Determinism it is then, at least for now
I think it’s safe to say I’m some sort of determinist, which is to say it looks to me like our decisions are the result of cause and effect. This path has led to the fewest additional questions and requires the fewest assumptions, so it has the support of Occam’s Razor.
A quick duckduckgo search reveals that there are different varieties of determinism and I know very little about them and their specifics, but it seems that I must explore them as well as their rebuttals.
This idea may be uncomfortable at first. It makes it sound an awful lot like the entire universe is just one big cause and effect and we are at its mercy. In a way that’s true. But the causes are so incredibly complex and numerous that it would be impossible to accurately predict anyone’s decisions, even our own at times. So even if we don’t have free will, we certainly have the illusion of it. If the universe is cause and effect, we should be very mindful of our causes and effects. We should understand why we behave the way we do and what effects it has, and to alter our behavior such that there are more net positive effects than negative, especially in the lives of others. How do we alter our behavior? But understanding the causes.
This means education and lots of it from various fields, particularly psychology and history.
That’s where I am today in this complex topic. I’m going to read some more and see what else I can find on my path to real truth.