What You Should Think About Freewill

November 13, 2007

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”

–Jawaharla Nehru

Many people turn to philosophy in a search for purpose. “Why are we here?” has driven much thinking throughout, and no doubt before, history. Yet there are even more fundamental questions to ask. Understanding humanity’s purpose, or lack thereof, must follow from some understanding of what it means to be a human being. “What are we?” is a question with answers much less self-evident than superficial analysis would suggest.

There can be no doubt that making decisions, and taking action based on the results of decisions, is part of the human experience. Then again, had apples the capacity to appreciate their existence, growing ripe and falling from trees would be part of the quintessential apple experience. As scientific inquiry reveals more and more about the physical workings of the brain, mystery yields to empiricism. Can it be that we are nothing more than chemistry and biology at work?

Truth be told, even in times of abundant mystery there was no evidence substantiating the existence of supernatural components to human existence. The cosmos as it is at present results from the cosmos as it was before. The future will follow from the cosmos as it is now. Understanding all of the processes as they unfold would require an unfathomably complex information system. For that matter, computing all the electrical and chemical activity in a human brain while also modeling the environment from which all stimulus emerges is an impractically complex challenge.

This brings us to the heart of a concept like freewill. It may be reasonable to believe in physical predestination — that the properties we are born with and the experiences we have in life are the only forces that shape human behavior. However, given that those causes defy comprehensive comprehension, an analysis of our decision-making processes takes on a form necessarily different from an analysis of the growth and descent of a falling apple.

Too often, predestination is used as a shield against the notion of personal responsibility and other ethical considerations. Someone who is quick to anger may walk away from a violent outburst thinking, “well, I have a short fuse, of course that was going to happen.” Even worse, forethought along similar lines may motivate people to act more boldly on malicious or selfish tendencies. Yet without the vast inaccessible collection of knowledge required to be certain in calculating an individual’s destiny, we may instead look to one of the most useful forms of uncertainty.

Even if one grants the notion that freewill is an illusion, it is an illusion that adds to the meaningfulness of being human. Uncertainty is resolved as potential gives way to action or inaction. Self-awareness creates conditions in which reflecting on the outcomes of behavior can change the behavior itself. A strictly natural view of the universe holds that all such reflection is inevitable and predictable, at least in theory if not in practice. Being aware of ourselves yet not possessing perfect self-knowledge or comparable knowledge of our environment, we perceive contemplation and introspection to be spontaneous.

With the natural uncertainties of unresolved human decisions, the value of activities like reflection, meditation, and analysis become real. As alternatives to acting on impulse, they do not free us from metaphysical predestination, but they can liberate us from practical folly. Recognizing the usefulness of freewill as a concept provides a foundation for recognizing the usefulness of much of philosophy and psychology. Ethics becomes especially crucial once one accepts that carefully weighing a decision to act, while itself also a decision, offers up the potential to better control the outcomes of our actions.

Even so, recognizing the human responsibility to restrain the worst of our impulses and pursue the best of our aspirations can be taken too far. Neurological damage, chemical addiction, or even a genetic predisposition to mental illness can create conditions that inhibit sound decision-making processes. In some instances the mysteries shrouding human motives are less significant than identifiable externalities that also have predictive value in assessing human behavior.

This insight goes beyond justification for providing treatment to people with psychological problems. Action on a societal level can result in significant change. Strong anti-poverty programs do not insure that any particular individual will never commit a theft. Yet property crimes and crimes of violence both tend to decline as poverty is alleviated (and rise in response to a surge of poverty.) It may be unfair to characterize advocates of cutthroat economics as culpable in the same way that actual thieves and murderers are. Yet, as far as useful illusions go, social responsibility seems to deserve a place alongside personal responsibility.

Perhaps the most important consideration in assessing predestination and freewill is the role of uncertainty. Rare is the tyrant lacking a conviction born out of certainty that his personal destiny involves taking bold action as a national leader. Even worse than shrugging at the impulse to do wrong is surrendering to a sense of fate driving some grand plan forward. If indeed a particular grand plan is worthy of pursuit, then it will stand up under the rigors of methodical analysis. In fact, thoughtful reflection on any worthwhile agenda should only serve to refine understanding of related goals and methods.

Predestination is a useful concept when it comes to the philosophy of the natural universe. It also has some application when it comes to the formulation of social and economic policies. However, it has very limited usefulness when applied to personal perspectives on individual behavior. Limitations in that understanding remind us that freewill is crucial to understanding our own behavior. It is through processes that create the perception of freewill that we are able to escape our most destructive tendencies. Be they delusions of grandeur or compulsions to do harm, the perspective freewill offers is a means to transcend it all.

Yet is it really just a perspective . . . just a perception? If one grants that view, so much else must be written off as illusion. Emotions and reasoning may be the way we experience neurochemical processes, but those experiences have a reality of their own. Living within our mortal limitations, it is this reality that defines the human condition. In one sense we are a small part of a complex chemical reaction that has been ongoing for billions of years. Yet in another very real sense, we are the sum of the choices we make.