Free Will?

 (Originally written on January 16, 2011)

Free will… is sort of a vague term, I think. You know? What does it really mean? If it simply means we can make voluntary choices, then I don’t think there is much room for argument there. I think I am voluntarily pushing these keys here. But there are various depths of consideration, such as free will as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary (second entry): the "freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention."

But what does "determined by prior causes" entail? If I punched someone in the face because he made me angry, then that anger was an emotional state of my mind-set, which is influenced by my experiences and thought processes, which are determined by my considerations of each moment… I mean, nothing ever happens without a cause (except apparently some "quantum" events like individual cases of the decay of radioactive elements), including all of our choices. Something influenced our thinking at every point where we ever made a choice. Some choices are much more spontaneous than others, but I think there must always be some level of rationale applied even if you don't have time to spend considering the options.

I don't know who said this, but it's pretty intense: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.”


I don't know… it's tough. This is stuff on such a fundamental level, and I at least have some thoughts and ideas that I've come to, as of this point in my life (it could change!), and so I'm writing this out of boredom (and curiosity, if anyone has the time of day to have an interesting chat!) and also to have something documented that I can reflect on at some later (hopefully wiser) point of my life.

Anyway, I think one of the most powerful arguments, for or against this idea, is whether or not you could have made a different decision at any point in the past. But the trouble with this is that you cannot know. And that frustrates the !@%#$^& out of me! You cannot demonstrate free will, because without reliving the moment you can never, ever prove that it could have happened any other way. For all anyone knows, you HAD to make whatever decision they witnessed you make. Each of us (I hope) knows the thought processes we made use of to come to a decision, but nobody else truly does… right? It's terribly frustrating to me, the nature of so many things to be impossible to demonstrate, to prove. So when all else fails (and sometimes even before!), I turn to the good old thought experiments.

Imagine having a time machine, and with it the ability to put yourself back to any point in time. For simplicity, assume you can only go back to a point in time you've already been. Like rewinding a movie. The way I see it, there is one crucial factor to gain consideration of here: whether or not you actually have the knowledge that you've gone back in time, which should determine whether or not anything could have happened differently. Maybe you were in the drive-through at some restaurant, and you ordered some certain sandwich. I imagine, if I were to ask you, that you would tell me that you had every possibility of making any other decision. And I believe that's true, in a way. But I believe that if you traveled back in time to that fateful moment, and relived it in the exact same mind-set, you would make the exact same decision. However, if you traveled back in time with full knowledge of your intention of proving me wrong, then of course you could make a different decision, because the factors have changed. It becomes an entirely different situation, and so it loses its relevance to the original.

This is difficult to convey. What I'm trying to say, and I hope it's coming across, is that considering what you might have done is fruitless. You could only have done something differently if there was another factor involved (such as the intent to have done it differently). Every decision you ever make is determined by the sum of your experiences and your mind-set (a ridiculously complex thing for your mind to make sense of, I'm sure!). You ordered the sandwich you ordered because of this sum of experience and wisdom, accumulated throughout your entire life, and any number of influences within came together to shape your response. Within any number of exact replications you would not make any other decision.

You might go back to the restaurant tonight and order a completely different meal, and feel like you did so because of simple free will, and maybe just to reassure yourself that you could. But your mind-set would have been influenced by having read this, and in turn, your decision. Would anything really be accomplished? You're only proving that a different outcome required a different set of circumstances.

I think the only time a consideration of free will has any relevance is when planning for the future. Although you can't affect what sandwich you purchased in the past, you can certainly make plans to purchase the best possible sandwich in the future. And once the moment arrives, and is past, it will be like all the other sandwich purchases of your life--done and gone, with no chance of having done so in any other way. But until that moment does come around, everything you say, do, and think could have profound effects on whatever you will end up choosing. Free will, I believe, certainly applies to future events.  As I'm sitting here right now, I know that I can make an informed, well-considered decision on what I'm going to order at dinner tonight. But tomorrow I will know that, at the moment of reflection, without somehow inserting alternate factors (which is impossible, of course), it could not have been any other way.

The past is so full of choices we've made--each one concrete, said and done, an indication of the life we were living at the time, and to have done anything differently requires that we had been living a different life. Maybe the difference between a chicken sandwich and a Whopper is nothing more than one day looking at the nutrition facts and almost having a heart attack then and there, and removing that one influence would make all the difference. But you can't. : \  Your view of the Whopper will be forever tainted… unless you forget completely what you saw on that label. Of course you can still defy better judgment and order the Whopper next time anyway.

I don't even know if I'm saying anything that actually means anything to anyone else…. it makes sense inside my own head, at least… and so I hope it might elsewhere. But if you're reading this line, and have read all of the others, I hope you don't feel like you've just wasted however long that took you! If so, I'm sorry I don't have a time machine to let you borrow, and that your free will, if you believe you have it, was not better utilized.


Posted by Eli Stanley | at 5:14 PM


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