For any of you who are foolish enough to read my blog you are used to a lot of rambling. I can’t promise this will be too different, but I would like to be a little formal and have an actual thesis for this post. I have posted my thoughts about free will in respect to religion, but even if one is not religious the idea
that we have free will is extremely pervasive and I think it is ultimately a not necessarily helpful concept to believe in. The choices that we think people have are an illusion and we tend to instead judge others because people do not make choices that we would make. It prevents us from really helping those who are violent, disturbed, hurting, depressed, etc. It has us believe that there are people who are inherently evil allowing us to dehumanize them and cast them aside, when instead they might simply have brain abnormalities, be traumatized, influenced by people as messed up as they are, or simply lost and confused in a world that is beyond them and behave desperately. I think it also acts to separate us from nature and is a great source of human conceit. Free will is not something we ascribe to plants or animals and thus also gives us the illusion that we lie in a place above all else. Whether you believe that the supernatural has imparted us this blessing of greatness or you think that evolution is a pyramid in which humans rest on top, both these notions are ultimately dangerous because they allow us to justify great atrocities against nature as we continue to satisfy our own self-importance.
In the first 8 months of watching my son grow it is clear that free will is not something he was born with. He started out simply crying when he was hurting, uncomfortable or hungry, and sleeping when he was sleepy. Not a lot of free will going on there. As I watch him change, I see him simply become aware of more things. When he first could see our cats, not surprisingly he was curious and wanted to touch them. Now that he’s been outside he asks to go outside (well not in words). Now that he realizes the comfort of being held he asks to be held. He also mimics. He sees us eating something and he wants to eat it. He sees us using a remote, our phones, computers, and he desperately wants to use those too (or rather put them in his mouth).
Before I formally begin my argument for the absence of free will I want to put an excellent quote from an article I read some time ago from the New Yorker which has had a large influence on my thoughts in trying to understand why we are the way we are and where this sense of self comes from that I blogged about some time ago.
“I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”
The reason I want you to keep this in mind, because not only does it support the argument I am going to make (doesn’t of course make the statement true), but most importantly I want to reveal to you that just because I don’t think we have free will, doesn’t mean that I don’t find life absolutely amazing. The idea expressed in this passage speaks to me in a way I cannot fully express, but I find this idea beautiful. It tells me that we are product of processes that function over many different scales of time. From what we learn each day, to what nature has molded us into over millions of years. We can extend even further and look at the billions of years of evolution which has produced us , and we can go back further to old stars dying and being the seeds for our own sun and solar system which allowed one fortunate planet to even allow life to evolve. So the fact I may not be quite as in control of the process is hardly depressing. In fact it removes a lot of the pressure if anything. I can simply marvel at all that has taken place for me to sit here and write these thoughts out today back to the beginning of time. It is humbling, inspiring, and magnificent.
I shall now let you pause a bit before going on to the next blog post, because going back to the beginning of time is something that requires some deep reflection. 🙂
8 thoughts on “How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part I”
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Although I agree with a lot of what you say (that even people who make choices we would not make may have brain abnormalities, be traumatized, influenced by people as messed up as they are, or simply lost and confused), I believe we still have to draw the line somewhere as to what is right and wrong as far as treatment of others go. We can’t always say that whatever they did was beyond their control because of their situation. Each of us has to begin to take responsibility for our own actions and behave respectfully to others – no excuses.
Thank you for your comments. You are sort of criticizing me for a point I didn’t make, although this is not an uncommon criticism of this type of world view. Let’s say someone has a brain abnormality that makes them violent, just because they might be acting in accordance with their nature, doesn’t mean that we should just let them continue to cause harm to people. However it also doesn’t imply that they are evil either. To me this is an important distinction to make. Because when we say that this person with an abnormality is actually evil, we will treat that person differently than if we say that person is sick. Which is really what they are. The brain is an organ like any others, yet when that organ goes awry leading to someone to cause harm to others, society tends to treat that person as not only evil, but that they had a choice just like everybody else who doesn’t have that abnormality.
A brain, whether through nature or nurture that allows that person to have behaviors which are harmful to others does not make their actions right. I think society can come to a consensus on what actions are moral or immoral by analyzing the harm that actions cause, and immoral behavior needs to be dealt with. It needs to be corrected. But I think we can make better choices in how we correct someone’s immoral behavior by ask what influences might be causing this immoral behavior instead of just assuming that they are inherently evil, bad, and had a choice like all of us and simply chose not to make it.
I actually wasn’t criticizing, I was simply giving another opinion. Not all of us see these people as evil. And even when we see them as sick (instead of evil) we tend to make allowances for bad behaviour (due to their illness) that really should not be tolerated. I speak from my own experience of tolerating bad behaviour from people as over and over and over again I make allowances for their background, or their situations, or their illnesses etc
When, as an individual, can you assess in an instant that someone is behaving badly for a legitimate reason, with an underlying cause for their bad behavior, compared to someone else who should have known better.
Thanks for the response. I didn’t mean to imply that everybody thinks people who do bad things are inherently evil, but it nevertheless is a prevalent attitude towards criminal behavior to simply punish and judge without looking at the underlying causes. I feel that the notion of free will contributes to this idea that people always have the same choices or that the same choices are equally likely to all people, thus when someone doesn’t choose the morally correct choice that there is something inherently wrong with that person instead of investigating why they might have made the immoral decision they did and how we might correct it.
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