You are ultimately not in control of your fate. You have no real choice in what you do, think or say. It’s not up to you who you become — it is already determined by a trillion coincidences.
This idea is very difficult to entertain. It goes against everything I want to believe in. Without free will, we would just be soulless marionettes or machines, unwillingly responding to external stimuli. We’d be robbed of what makes us human. We’d have no reason to make plans or try to influence our fate, because everything would be either completely random or already set in stone.
Or so people say. Is the belief in free will really necessary for life to be meaningful? I used to not care the least about it. Didn’t really cross my mind. But now I cannot overstate how important it is for how we treat other people and ourselves.
You’ll see why as we go along. By the end I might have you convinced that the world becomes far more beautiful without free will. If we can dispel the illusion, we can put an end to hate, arrogance and envy.
The first order of business is to clarify what free will is not.
People most commonly confuse free will with agency, and you’d be immediately forgiven doing the same. Agency is the ability to engage in logical reasoning, to exert self-control, to learn from past experiences and to consciously make new choices.
Say you’ve fallen for a bad boy and you want to sleep with him. But you’ve been in this situation many times before and learned the hard way that, in the long run, doing so usually causes you more pain than pleasure. So when this new bad boy makes a move on you, you reject his advances. You want to avoid the pain that comes when he dumps you for someone else. In this case, your desire to avoid emotional suffering has grown stronger than your desire for sex and an intense rollercoaster relationship.
So we can learn from our mistakes and adjust our behaviour to avoid pain. But then again, so can a mouse. Our agency may be more advanced, but we cannot infer that it is therefore free.
2. Complexity of Behaviour
Secondly, people confuse free will with being able to have, and to choose between, very complex desires. Where a hyena might typically eat a piece of meat without much hesitation, you might refrain from doing so for religious reasons, for dietary reasons, or for ethical reasons. The desire to please God, to maintain low cholesterol, or to have a clean conscience may, in a given moment, be stronger than the desire to eat meat. And those reasons require high intellect.
But just because your religious, moral or health-related desire overpowers your basic one, that isn’t free will. These sophisticated desires may prevail when they are easy to meet, but if you’re stuck in a North Korean prison cell and the guards only serve you meat, you probably won’t hesitate much longer than a hyena before eating it, abandoning all admirable principles in favour of staying alive. For most people, the desire to preserve one’s own life ultimately overrules culturally inherited ideals. Our desires are simply more numerous, complex and conflicting than those of a hyena, but still not necessarily freer.
Finally, some people believe that, in the absence of free will, all behaviour would be arbitrary and erratic, without any order. I believe exactly the opposite. I think our behaviour is strictly non-random. It is determined by a million variables, most of which just happen to be out of our control or conscious awareness.
Whether the universe is ultimately random or non-random at a quantum level is still up for debate (there is a limit to my incredible wisdom). I am a determinist, meaning I believe only in cause and effect. But even if the behaviour of atoms turns out to have an element of randomness to it, that does not allow us to infer that our behaviour is free. It only means that our behaviour contains an element of randomness, too.
Now we know what free will isn’t. It isn’t agency, the ability to think logically, to learn, to do new things. It isn’t the ability to weigh complex desires against basic desires. It isn’t randomness, that everything is just haphazard and orderless. So what is it?
When a court of law passes judgement on a criminal, their job is to establish whether he is really responsible for his act. Did he have evil motives, or was he unaware or under constraint? If he is punished, the justification for punishing him is that he preferred the lower motive when he should have employed his free will to do the appropriate thing.
But what is the appropriate thing? That obviously depends on one’s circumstances and perspective.
If he was abused and raped as a child, grew up in a dysfunctional home where he only experienced neglect and rejection from his single parent who also did drugs, never made any good friends, never received an ounce of love in his life — is it difficult to see why beating his own child appears as a natural thing to him?
Most of us can follow the law, most of the time. But this is not by virtue of free will. The only ways we differ from the criminal is in our circumstances, coincidences, biology and personal history.
We have food, friends, and had a decent childhood without psychological trauma. It’s no surprise, then, that our desire to commit a crime is lower than the desire to stay out of jail. Put differently, we follow the law because we estimate that the value or joy we’d lose by going to jail is greater than the value or joy we’d get from committing the crime. We have a long-term perspective, clear minds and a place to live. But when you’re living on the street, your brain is fried from drugs and you really need a fix, going to jail isn’t as scary as being sober and alone with your tormenting thoughts.
We treat criminals as if they chose to grow up with drug addicts for parents. But it’s about time we admit to ourselves that we are just luckier than the child abuser. If we were in his shoes, had the same brain and genes as him, had lived through the same abuse, shared his desires and fears, we would do exactly the same. At least there is no way we can prove that we wouldn’t. We have no logical or scientific reason to believe that we’d magically be able to disregard all our motives, feelings and perceptions of life just to follow the law; just to do what some people have decided is “the right thing”.
And that is precisely the “free will” we are expected to have: the supernatural ability to detach from all motivations, desires, biological urges, past experiences and future dreams. The ability to make a decision free from all those things. The ability to be free from causation.
This is impossible. Why would a person ever do something that is completely against, or detached from, their motives and their perception of the world?
It is inconceivable to act without cause, or to choose without any motivation. What would that be like? Without a will, without your personal desires and your idiosyncratic view of the world, how would you make a decision about anything? How would you decide what the next course of action is? Why would you even get out of bed, eat, or talk to people if there were no desire to do so?
“Free will” is an oxymoron. A will that is free has no will to anything. You can’t have it both ways. Either you have will, in which case you aren’t free, or you are free, in which case you have no will.
Your choices come from somewhere. They are always influenced by internal and external forces. Anything you think, say or do has a cause. There is always a will towards or away from something. The desire may sometimes be subconscious and weak, but it is there. If you look long enough, you will probably figure out what desire might’ve caused you to act how you acted. Even sitting completely still and doing nothing has a cause. It could be the desire to avoid angering a bee, the desire to look good and pose for a picture, or simply your body’s desire to rest and maintain homeostasis. If you had no motives, preferences or dislikes, only then would your actions be truly random.
Imagine you flip a coin. Theoretically speaking, if you could measure every relevant variable with infinite precision — how heavy the coin is down to the last nanogram, the exact force and angle of your flip, the strength and direction of the wind, and so on — you would be able to predict, with complete certainty, whether it would land heads or tails. The coin has no choice in the matter; it cannot influence the outcome. It is bound by the laws of the universe.
The argument against free will is the extrapolation of that line of reasoning to human behaviour. Your next action, your next sentence or your next thought is a non-random result of your knowledge, your personal history, your biology, your desires, your circumstances, and everything that has ever happened up until this moment. And if, hypothetically speaking, we had insight into every relevant variable as well as how they interact, it would be possible to predict your next move. We are impelled to act on whatever desire is strongest at a given moment, and we are not free to choose what desire that will be.
Whatever you do, you “have” to do it. How this moment unfolds is strictly determined by everything that preceded it; by all the moments that came before it. This moment could not be any different. It was predestined from all eternity.
“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”
— Albert Einstein
Evil By Choice
So we are compelled to do as we do. Whatever choice we make, it is the only one we can make at that time, given our priorities, our past, our circumstances, our DNA. Let’s get back to the issue of whether anyone, criminal or otherwise, is ultimately responsible for their fate, and whether it is fair to punish and hate them.
We may strongly disagree with other people’s priorities, we may facepalm at their ignorance, we may feel sorry for them that they are so misguided. But we have to accept that, in their world, in that moment, whatever choice they make, it seems reasonable, necessary, or overwhelmingly compelling to them.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: Have you never done something wrong while knowing at the time that it was wrong? Have you never snapped at someone and said something you didn’t mean, have you never forsaken one of your responsibilities? Have you never talked behind someone’s back who didn’t deserve it?
If you knew it was wrong, why did you do it?
Put differently, have you always exerted total self-control, always kept your word and always lived in absolute accordance with your moral values? Why not? After all, you have free will, so why don’t you always do the right thing? Why aren’t you living a perfect life?
I’ll tell you why you talked behind someone’s back: You were insecure about yourself and wanted to look cool (or did you use free will to choose to have low self-esteem?). You hadn’t yet developed enough empathy or awareness to understand how much harm gossip can do to a person, and found it very unlikely that you’d get punished for it. So, at the time, your desire to say something interesting and gain attention from your friends was bigger than the desire to do “the right thing”.
You’re just lucky that gossiping isn’t illegal and that your desires didn’t compel you to a bigger crime. The fact remains that you succumbed to a compulsion, a low desire. You did something wrong, knowing it was wrong.
So it is with the child abuser. If he really possessed free will, don’t you think he would have used it to escape his tormenting, depressing thoughts, and change his mind to conform with the law?
When someone does something terrible and illegal, we gather in a crowd, point our fingers at them and say, “They could have chosen not to!”, as if they could simply escape their compulsions and their distorted reality. It’s like proclaiming that the sick could be well if they only chose it. His compulsions are as real as yours, and nature doesn’t care if those compulsions lead him down a dangerous, harmful or illegal path. If it were as easy as choosing the better path, he would do it. But with his mind it’s not easy, so he doesn’t.
No matter how horrible a thing someone does, they aren’t truly responsible. Nobody ever intentionally tries to be less moral or less rational than they are capable of at that moment. Some of us are privileged enough to be born under good circumstances and with a healthy mind. We have the time to train our willpower, to read about other people’s mistakes, to get an education and a higher perspective of things. But not everyone has these opportunities. Even if they do and they squander them, that is not because they are intentionally trying to be unreasonable. There is simply some pressure, internal or external, pulling them in another direction.
Did our child molester from earlier choose his own DNA, his parents, when and where to be born, how his classmates would bully and speak ill of him, or any of the other coincidences that happened to him? None of those things were up to him, just as it isn’t up to his little son that his dad is beating him now.
So forgive them for their ignorance and unfortunate circumstances. Be happy that it isn’t you, because it could have been.
And forgive yourself for not knowing any better in the past. You cannot call a person ignorant for not knowing what nobody ever told them, what experience never taught them, or what their circumstances never compelled them to explore.
What A Wonderful World
I hope you see why free will belief is so important. The shame, the guilt, the suffering, the blame, the punishment, the fear, the arrogance, the envy, the psychological torture of believing that if you are anything less than a perfect human being, it is your own fault. All that goes away along with the belief in free will. Removing the illusion allows us to reconcile with the actions of others, even if they are painful to us. And it lets us forgive. We cannot blame or hate someone else for being unfortunate or misguided.
I forgave myself for spreading ill rumours about someone back in high school, out of fear of not being interesting enough on my own. And for eating innocent animals for 24 years out of habit and sheer ignorance. When people do me wrong, act in ways that I don’t understand, cause harm on themselves or on others, I can forgive them now, because I see that they are just as compelled to act on low desires as I could’ve been. I remember that they have their reasons, even if I can’t see or understand those reasons.
I cannot be envious of other people’s success, and I can’t be arrogant or prideful about my own accomplishments, either. Whatever good virtues and intelligence I might possess, I cannot say I’ve earned my healthy brain. I didn’t earn having normal parents, I didn’t earn being born in a country where education is free. For whatever reason, I like making other people smile. But I did not install the desire to spread joy in myself, I didn’t use free will to choose it over another desire. I just have it, and it just happens to be stronger than my desire to make people hurt. Do I deserve an award for that? I don’t think so.
But none of this detracts from my feeling of autonomy or freedom in any negative way. I continue to exercise my willpower and put it to the test of life. I’m less bitter about my failures and I’m less arrogant about my triumphs, yet my feeling of being free is the same as before. Although I know I am a puppet of fate, I don’t subjectively experience myself as one. My odds of improving myself and making better choices in life have not been diminished, they are exactly the same as before.
Then why do we perpetuate the idea of free will? Why does everyone claim that we have it?
Nietzsche believed that we maintain and spread the illusion of free will because we like to punish people who do wrong. Disturbing as that sounds, studies show that he might very well have been onto something. It seems that, when we want to punish somebody, we need to believe that they are responsible for their actions before we can allow ourselves to punish them. But how could they be responsible if they are just a product of their circumstances? So we pull the argument of free will out of a hat to justify their punishment. That’s pretty fucking thought-provoking, if you ask me.
Holding people responsible for their actions might be necessary for a functioning society. I don’t yet have the imagination to think of an alternative to that. But we must believe in people’s potential, their desire to atone for their sins, and that, if free will existed, they’d choose to be good people.
I think our desire to punish is wicked, and I think it’s sick that prisons mainly exist because we want to see people rot away. They shouldn’t be about making people suffer, but about helping them get better, happier and wiser.
With that statement, I’ve opened a can of worms that I’m not going to eat.