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Does free will exist?


“Of course,” you might answer, “I’m choosing to continue reading this, rather than the exactly 317 other things I could have done instead. Keep asking stupid questions and I’ll choose to stop reading, and abuse you with venomous comments.”

But would your torrent of insults really then be an act of choice? Wouldn’t your act of cyber-bullying be the result of your mental math telling you: “This guy is a douchebag; douchebags need to be confronted; therefore, I will inform him of his douchebaggery”?

Yup, there goes that ball again

Yup, there goes that ball again

I thusly propose that the above scenario is not an act of free will, but rather a causal series of events. Let’s unpack this a little. If I drop a ball from my hand to the ground, it will fall. If you had a time machine, and went back in time to observe me dropping that ball a million times, I feel pretty confident that each and every time, the ball would fall.

And why would the ball not fall? If free will existed, maybe on the 7th time you re-wound time, I’d decide to put the ball in my pocket or something instead of dropping it, because of the unpredictability of free will. But, just as physics mandates that the ball fall downward, the laws of nature also mandate that I should make the same decision if all the conditions that convinced me to drop the ball in the first place are still there. For me to not drop the ball, my magical free will would have to intervene and somehow change my conclusions, for no reason.

I don’t believe in magic. I believe humans are rational creatures who respond in definite ways to definite situations. Even if someone makes a bad decision – such as a heroin user who continues to use even though they know it’s killing them – they’re only reacting to the information available to them. Using heroin makes sense when you’re unaccustomed to having to think in the long-term. When you’re not really thinking about some possible future death – or if you calculate that your possible future may not be one worth living – heroin’s short-term benefits are, in a sense, completely rational.

I think there are two visceral, and rational, reasons as to why we all feel like free choice must exist.

The first is the obvious one: we can’t see the future. There are simply too many variables to crunch in order to know what’s going to happen to you down the road. The day-to-day decisions we all seemingly make are impossible to ignore. How can free choice not exist given all the choices we make each day?


The second reason relates to our fear of the moral hazard. If free choice doesn’t exist, then we can’t really assign blame, because we’re all just machines responding to inputs. The murderer can’t be sent to jail because she had no choice!

I’m sympathetic to both of these concerns in the defence of free will. In living our lives, we have to try and act as rationally as we can manage. Allowing the world to pass by without trying to make the best of things will probably make the worst of it. And we can’t simply let crimes happen and mistakes be made with a shrug, or else we’ll see them continue.

My point is somewhat contradictory, then. Free will does not exist, but the illusion of it is so powerful to the way we live that we must act as if it does. So, why does it even matter to make this distinction?

I feel that it goes back to magical thinking. If we allow that our distinctly human condition of living in a haze of choice can be applied to the way the universe works, it can negatively impact our lives as humans. By allowing free will as anything other than an illusion we must live with, we risk conflating the criminal with the crime. It absolves us of finding out more reasons as to why the crime happened. “The murderer killed that guy because he made the choice to do so; there’s nothing we could have done.”

I think that’s the coward’s way out. I think the more courageous position is to say, yes, that person murdered someone and we must therefore apply justice, for the sake of society, the victims, and perpetrator. But then we must also admit that because ‘free will isn’t some magical effect that dictates the way we live, and is instead simply something we perceive given our inability to see the infinite variables that drive human behaviour, there is a moral imperative to better understand those variables to the best of our ability.

In other words, we need the free choice illusion for society to function efficiently, but need to remember its proper place as an illusion so that we can make society better.

Lucifer: the original defender of free will

Lucifer: the original defender of free will

This perspective can also dampen that most deadly of sins, according Dante: pride. The archangel Lucifer felt that God wasn’t giving him the credit he deserved, sparking the ultimate tantrum. God created Hell as a way of telling Lucifer and all those after him who put too much stock in their own worth, “You didn’t build that.” Lucifer wrongly felt that his advantageous position was due to some magical, inherent quality he possessed.

Thus, if only Lucifer had taken the view of his greatness being related to the environmental conditions around him, we wouldn’t be worrying so much about who to blame for bad choices because we’d all be going to heaven anyway.

By Ross H


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This entry was posted on February 12, 2013 by in Life? and tagged , , , , , .

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