“Every politican wants every voter to believe that he was born in the log cabin he built himself.” — Robert Strauss
The philosophical debate on free will is one of the most interesting and consequential topics around. It lies at the center of many discussions on religion, the nature of right and wrong, and it may even have implications on how we practically treat others.
Most people on Earth are walking around with an intuitive sense that they are the conscious authors of their thoughts and actions, and they assume the same of others. If we do the right thing in a difficult situation, we are proud for having triumphed over our instincts. If others commit immoral acts, we may think them evil for not taking a better path.
These judgements are all underpinned by the concept of free will: the idea that we are all free to make our own choices, and that whatever our actions, we were free to do otherwise.
I don’t believe in free will.
Just like many philosophers and scientists, I believe that our thoughts and actions are ultimately constrained by factors beyond our own control. That does’t mean we don’t have a will or a mental life; clearly we do. But the mental life we have, is ultimately not of our own choosing; it is the product of unconscious factors that lie beyond our control.
The short-hand definition for this view on the brain is determinism.
(An important note here is that the universe must not be ultimately deterministic, for the deterministic view of the brain to be true. ¹)
My own views on determinism and free will were mostly formed by the old Reasonable Doubts Podcast, and more recently by Sam Harris’ treatises on the subject.
Sam Harris in particular has made interesting contributions in his short 2012 book on the topic. Notably: we often think that what’s weird about free will is that we strongly feel that we have it, but yet we can’t make sense of it in the real world. So it must be an illusion.
But Harris contends that once you pay close attention to this supposed “feeling of free will”, you notice that it’s not even there. In any particular moment, it’s clear that your thoughts are constrained by all kinds of preceding factors and traits, and you’re not capable of freely thinking at all.
Thus the idea that we feel a sense of free will, is itself an illusion.
I want to zoom in on a what for me is the crux of (the confusion in) the free will debate. It came up in a Q&A during the Bon Mot Club in 2012. Harris was asked to “explain” Oprah from the perspective of determinism.
And in my opinion, Oprah is indeed the answer to everything (these are words to live by). Funny as it may seem, she actually hits the centerpiece of what most of us imagine under the concept of free will.
Never thought I’d research Oprah for my blog, but there you go.
Oprah was born in 1954 to an unmarried teenage mother, who worked as a housemaid. Soon after her birth, Oprah’s mother left her to live in rural poverty with her grandmother for six years.
One of her early memories is wearing a potato bag to school, as her grandmother couldn’t afford any actual clothing. She ran away from home at age 13, got pregnant and had a miscarriage at age 14.
But finally, after some hard high school years and jobs at the local grocery store, she was noticed by a local radio station who hired to do part-time news. With her media career slowly taking off, things would finally begin looking up for her.
Putting it mildly: Oprah grew up extremely underprivileged, in a bad family, with bad role models. It would seem that all the forces in the universe conspired to deliver her to a life of poverty, unhappiness, and potentially crime. Yet against all odds, she went on to become the first (and still only) black multi-billionaire in the US, and many regard her as the most influential woman in the world.
The attempted moral behind these and many other ‘self-made’ stories, is that external factors ultimately don’t matter. A horrible upbringing, a toxic environment, a lack of opportunities; these are no excuses for behaving badly. You could have done otherwise. Oprah did!
Yet from a logical perspective, this clearly can’t not true. Oprah ultimately made her choices for a reason; and whatever reason it was, it must have been strong enough to counteract the negative influences. Ultimately, she was lucky.
Most of us strongly push back here: surely this is the one situation where it can’t be luck? Everything around her went wrong,… If Oprah succeeded, it must be because of her own merits.
But here’s the crucial point: even if her choices were innately hers, remained uninfluenced by any and all outside pressures, and she simply woke up one day with the innate drive to improve herself… she didn’t pick that either. Even in the case where a choice was completely yours, you can take no more credit for the initial state of your brain and the way outside influences misfired their potential for impact, than for anything else.
If we are going to claim that Oprah woke up one day with the unbreakable motivation to build herself a better life -then that is where she got lucky.
There is no escape from the iron rule of determinism, and common sense: your decisions are the product of either your natural impulses and desires (whom you did not construct) or the outside influences that shaped you (whose success in shaping, you did not control). Neither is something you can truly claim responsibility for, and no combination of them offers respite.
Hearing people defend free will is rather amusing though.
There are many stories we can tell about the decisions at the core of our life, and about how we changed our destiny and what our environment was molding us to become. These stories are always filled with many details and emotions, and delivered as if they fundamentally change the deterministic arithmetic. They don’t.
Perhaps the defining moment in your life was when at 16, when your naturally rebellious tendency prompted you to reject the conditioning from your parents and environment. You did not create your rebellious tendency.
Perhaps you were in a store and your gaze fell upon a self-improvement book that you knew instantly you had to read, and it became the center of your life. You did not direct your gaze, nor the certainty you felt in wanting to read it.
Perhaps the shift in your life came when you decided to try to build your own mind, using the tools you had picked up on Dr. Phil. You didn’t chooose that this impetus popped up for you, or that you were impressed by some TV techniques.
We do not ultimately control the things that influence us. And we don’t control why influence sometimes works and sometimes fails. And even when we do make conscious decisions, these conscious decisions are themselves influenced by prior factors.
Despite our pretenses, we are at the mercy of what our deterministic brain has cooking for us.
This philosophy (and this fact, really) is not about negating the importance of effort, or about becoming a fatalist (that’s also a choice).
It is about humility.
We must be more aware of the role that luck plays in our own life, and the potential lack of it in others.
Seeing people not as individual agents but as inextricably linked to their environment, makes you far more compassionate and understanding in dealing with your fellow humans. And it also happens to be true.
¹ Determinism in the free will context mostly just means “brain determinism”, i.e. what happens in the brain, can be explained based on the laws of nature and previous states of the universe.
It’s possible that there are in fact many places in nature where chance and quantum states play a significant role; rendering the universe indeterministic. But for the deterministic view on free will, all that is required is that the states of the brain are constrained by nature and not by ourselves -to what extent nature consists of deterministic vs indeterministic components, is a moot point.