Free Will Revisited

Back in 2009 I made a video about free will. What’s interesting is that I largely feel the same way today as I did back then. I just know more about the subject today.

There are three main categories people tend to fall into when it comes to free will. Those are:

Libertarian free will is the kind of free will most people (who know nothing about this subject) believe they have. It’s the idea that you are going around making your own choices. Sure you may be influenced by different things from time to time but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still making the choice to carry through on those influences or not.
Religious people tend to be libertarian when it comes to free will. Although not all of them and that includes some Christian perspectives.

Most of my life I would have viewed myself this way. As I really never put much thought into the idea of free will, I just accepted the fact that my choices were mine and some of them were mistakes while others worked out great.

But around 2009 (maybe a little before then) I started thinking about it more. I’m kind of ashamed to say it took me until I was thirty years old (or around then) before I really thought about it. Even then, when I made the video I mentioned above, I was not aware of these three terms. Had I been, I would have used the word determinism to describe the position I was talking about.

Determinism is the idea that everything is already determined. Probably since the big bang or maybe even before then, if we invoke ideas like our universe bubbling out of a larger multiverse or something. Your actions are a consequence of the causes that came before. Everything is cause and effect. Almost like a series of dominos that are lined up and tipping the next one over.

At first this idea may not seem very intuitive. You might be thinking “um no, I know I make my own choices.” Of course you think you do. But let’s run through a couple ideas. First, think of a color. What was the first color to pop in your head? Be honest. Changing that color to something you prefer doesn’t count. You really had no choice of which color popped in your head first. Or which brand name, city, sports team, etc. if I had asked you about those. These all seem to just come out of nowhere. But there probably was a process at work, somewhere in your subconsciousness. Some reason why that color instead of a different color. Maybe it’s your favorite color or a color you’re looking at right now, or a color you hate, or the color of something dear to you. Who knows? Maybe you do and it easy to figure out. Or you maybe you’ll never know why that color. Either way, that color popping up wasn’t a conscious choice. it was you, your brain generating it, but it wasn’t you consciously choosing to generate that color. So either your subconscious picked it for some reason, or it was random. Maybe our brains have random generators. Just like we can install random password or color generators on our computers. Even then it wasn’t a conscious choice to pick that color, at best it was just a conscious choice to generate that color randomly. But even then, was it? Could you have stopped your brain from popping up a color after reading the sentence I prompted you with or did you brain just auto-respond when it read that prompt?

You did have the choice to change the color afterward, if you decided you wanted to pick something else. But then ask yourself, what was the motivation for changing it and why? Did you not like that first color? If so, why? If you ask yourself why enough times, and you’re able to answer the why questions, you will eventually (usually only two or three steps) get to an answer where you realize your choice was based on some outside influence and/or your biology. Maybe even “that’s just how my brain works, I don’t know why!”

The idea of determinism is that we are ultimately not in control. Everything we do is a result of influences (and maybe even some randomness on a quantum level) that is out of our control. For example, why do you find certain things funny and not others? Why do you find yourself interested in the hobbies or interests you have and not all the rest that are out there? Why do certain political or religious ideas make more sense to you, when the other ideas make more sense to other people?

There is so much about us that is predefined. We didn’t have a choice in it. Even the ideas that pop in our heads and the things that motivate us to do one thing and not another or one choice and not another are the result of all these preset biases, traumas, influences, likes, dislikes, indoctrination, feel good and feel bad moments, and some degree of genetic predisposition as well. That at best we have a sort of illusion of free will that we can’t help but feel and live by, but ultimately we are puppets of cause and effect.

Some people (myself included – to some degree) really don’t have an issue with the idea of determinism. Others however seem to have a really big issue with it. They don’t like the idea that they aren’t in control of their own life. And they especially don’t like the idea that if you take determinism to its logical conclusion, you realize that ultimately none of us are responsible for our own actions, since none of us were responsible for putting ourselves together into who we are to begin with. We’re operating under biases and influences that affect a brain we didn’t put together. And because we didn’t put it together, we didn’t design how it would process those influences and what the results would be after that processing was done. So how can we ultimately be culpable for those results?

Enter Compatibilism. (a word my spell check always wants to underline in red)

I’m going to just say from the start that I don’t know if I fully understand compatibilism. I’ve spent weeks reading about it and listening to people debate it on Youtube videos, and the best I can make of it is that people (mostly philosophers) don’t like the idea that people can’t be held personally responsible for their actions, so they invented a way to make that possible without denying determinism. They seem to have done that by shoehorning free will into determinism. Or at least something they call free will.

If I’m right, the argument goes something like “we may be the sum of determined parts, but that’s us. That’s all we ever were. There was never an outside ghost that was us. So the choices we make are still our choices and thus we are still responsible for them.”

I really do hope I am representing the idea accurately.

Truthfully, I don’t dislike the idea. If I’m understanding it properly. I agree with it in part. But I often think compatibilists are having a different conversation. A conversation about ethics and responsibility, and not just whether or not we are ultimately making out own choices.

I would agree that on a human to human level we must act (to a large degree) like we have libertarian free will and that we are all responsible for our choices as functioning adults.

I’ll expand on that idea in a moment, but before that… when I discuss free will, it’s usually in the context of religion. Where the question of free will is more about whether a God is justified in judging our actions and sentencing us to some kind of eternal fate (for better or worse) as a result. In that scenario, what I call the God-level, I would argue that no it is not justified. The reason being that we didn’t build ourselves and so we have had no real control over how things affect us and what we do as a result of it. The actions we take are a result of the ideas that come into our heads and the way our brain processes those ideas. Our personalty predisposition and so on. We know for a fact that different drugs and substances and chemical variations in the brain will result in different outcomes. Mental illnesses play a role and even physical disabilities or age or sex or ethnicity or height or weight or attractiveness, you name it. All of these things things are going to color our view of ourselves and the way we think in combination with outside influences including how other people react to us. A God would have to know all of this and recognize that ultimately any judgement about us on its part, would simply be a judgement of what we are and not based on any idea that we could have done differently.

But then you might be wondering why we can give a pass to judging each other as if we could have freely done otherwise but a God should not. The simple answer is that we are not gods. We operate on a human level where we can not realistically NOT hold each other accountable for our actions. But even then we make concessions. We recognize when someone is not mentally stable and their thinking was likely influenced by brain damage or trauma or some kind of mental illness. We also recognize when people were forced to do things out of circumstance that they would not have otherwise done. But there is always a line drawn because at some point we make the distinction that some people could have freely done otherwise and some couldn’t.

The Morality Analogy
I would argue however that our ethical human to human perspective on free will may end up turning out more like our evolving ideas of morality over time.
At one point the death penalty was ethical, and compared to prison conditions that were likely inhuman by comparison, it may have been the more ethical position. But in many instances it was also likely the position taken throughout most of human history because there just wasn’t a good alternative to it. Storing incredibly violent people for decades on end with the possibility of their escape (from often less-than full security facilities – resulting in even more violence), well, the simple effective solution would have been the death penalty. Store ’em in hell! That sort of thing.
But as time has gone on, and our societies and technologies have advanced, we have the ability to make different choices today. We also have the data to back up the idea that an uncomfortable amount of people on death row had been wrongly convicted throughout history. So today, as a result of all of this, we usually do things differently.

So it may be that as time goes on, and society advances its understanding and technical prowess, we discover ways to fix problems in people that lead to behaviors we once deemed unacceptable. As a result we may look back on how we treated certain people as wrong or as criminals for their “free will” actions with the recognition they really couldn’t have done otherwise given their state of being and the influences on them. But since we don’t have the full awareness of the entire universe and how everything from the lowest level up can influence us, we instead draw a line in the sand. On one side you are responsible and on the other you are not. That is likely the way it will always be for us. It will just be a matter of what and how much is on each side of the line as time progresses. But for a God, we would assume it would know all and how everything effects everything else and as a result, nothing we do would fall on the side of us being responsible for our choices.

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