24 June 2014

The Illusion of Free Will (is that we can ever escape it)

“My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
-          William James

A friend of a friend made a really intriguing comment on my Facebook page the other day. “On the subject of free will -- the Bible would agree that you can do anything you want to. You just risk the eternal judgement if you go against what God made known, especially for those that known better and ignore or reject it.”

His comment provoked me to articulate what was rattling around in the back of my mind. This is one of the great perks of exchanging ideas: you not only learn what other people think but what you, yourself, think.

Hieronymus Bosch, detail

Free will is inescapable. If you are raised in Indonesia, where 88% of the population is Muslim, it might look as though you have a clear choice between free will and obedience. But the instant you know of the option to be Shia instead of Sunni (less than 1% of Indonesians are Shias), you lose this clear choice between free will and obedience; at this point you have to choose to blindly obey what you knew first or to change. Either choice involves the exercise of free will. At that instant, free will is your only option.

And once you learn about Christianity, you are forced again to exercise free will: convert or stay Muslim?

And once you convert you are forced into free will again: be Catholic or Protestant?

And then you have to choose one of the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations. Should you be Amish or Presbyterian? Calvinist or non-denominational? Meet in a mega-church with tens of thousands or in a home?

And which version of scripture do you accept? Do you include the Book of Mormon as more recent but true revelation? Do you exclude Revelation once you learn that it was only included because the Council at Nicea wrongly believed that the John who narrates Revelation was John the apostle? And do you accept the Biblical teachings that hard times are about testing you or that hard times are about punishment for what you have done or had in your heart?

And when you learn about secular humanism you are forced to choose again. Do you believe only in scientific consensus and your own conscience? Or do you continue in faith in the teachings of others, whether in the form of their writings or their sermons? Do you struggle to obey the voices from the pulpit, from the media, from private-sector or public-sector managers or from inside your own head? If you choose the secular life do you choose to realize your own potential or to enjoy life more sensually, more short-term? Or do you choose not to make it about you at all and instead dedicate yourself to improving life for others? And then which others? Future generations who might benefit from your inventions or philosophy or current generations of poor who might benefit from your volunteer work now? And if current generations, do you focus on those who live close by or people on the other side of the world? Do you follow your bliss or follow the money?

On it goes. The decision trees are endless and are growing more complex every day. One of the biggest differences between the medieval world and modern world is the degree of choice, from what to eat to what to believe. And because of the overwhelming complexity of freedom, you can see why people pretend there is an option to simply obey instead. Freedom is overwhelming.

And it isn't just religious leaders happy to tell you what to obey, sparing you the burden of choice. Political leaders, military leaders, civic leaders, business leaders, advertisers telling you what shows to watch or products to buy or .... well, obedience is always the easiest choice even if you prefer not to make that choice consciously. As I once heard Peter Block say, "The myth of leadership is a collusion between control freaks and people who don't want to take responsibility."

Even if you choose - each time - to stay obedient to your original Sunni faith, you are in each moment exercising free will. It's free will all the way through, no matter how desperately you might want not to be responsible for your own life and judgments. The Dark Ages was in part so dark because so many people gave in to the luxury of not accepting any responsibility for their own lives, rejected the hard work of critical thinking, and simply obeyed.

Some people have thought that free will is an illusion, that our lives are the products of fate, that the very decisions we make are the products of causality too complex for us to understand but inevitable nonetheless. I don't agree.

The only illusion is that you aren't - at all times - exercising free will. You are always responsible for what you choose to believe and can never blame any one verse, person, doctrine or group whether you choose to live your whole life in blind obedience or willful rebellion. This is true whether you were raised a secular humanist or Muslim and then chose to stay that way or whether you change from Muslim to secular humanist or secular humanist to Muslim. It’s true of your big choices and all your little ones.

So maybe I do believe in fate after all. My belief? We all share the same fate: we can't escape free will.


Ben said...

And on the other hand, is there really such a thing as free will?

I read a great book by Sam Harris last year about just that. Fascinating stuff. A repudiation of 'free will' from the opposite end of the spectrum as the inciting comment above.

Ben said...

And a timely recent article: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/528136/searching-for-the-free-will-neuron/

Ron Davison said...

Ben - that is a really interesting article. You might get a kick out of the User Illusion. The book may be dated now but I found it provocative enough to blog one of its key points here:
This notion of free will at the level philosophers talk to it, though, strikes me as not particularly useful. Unless it gets translated into compassion for others and yourself, assuming that to some degree we are who we are.