Part of a four-part series of essays on human nature:
What is the Meaning of Life?
Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking? (you are here)
Belief: Are We Just Fooling Ourselves?
Ethics: Do They Work Anymore?
Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?
(Click here for related posts on freewill)
Examining the dynamics of personal choice and self control
Note: To examine this issue fully we would need to stipulate exactly what we mean by the words “free” and “will”. I’ve found that only one-to-one dialog offers any hope of that. That said, Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations (p.565) may help, if you’re up to it.
Most people believe humans have free will. However, is this belief based on empirical fact? The problem in answering this is that our belief in free will influences how we weigh the evidence. Perhaps examining our belief in free will can help. For example, how does having a belief in free will benefit us?
Like believing in Santa Claus, believing in free will serves a purpose, whether or not it exists. Santa makes kids feel happy. Likewise, free will makes us feel happy with the idea that we control our lives. The belief in self-control also boosts our faith in the viability of a responsible society.
A responsible society means that its members can conform to their culture’s ethical standards… our need for fairness underpinning much of this. Few things upset us more than not receiving fair treatment. Consider this research that shows how other species share this need for fair treatment.
It is reasonable to suppose that our ethical standards arose out of this primal instinctive sense of fair play.
This sense of fairness probably evolved naturally as a way to motivate social animals to interact in ways that contribute to social bonding. Thus, for us, there is a strong social motive behind espousing our group’s ethical standards. As social animals, we need to feel connected to our group, and supporting our group’s beliefs does just that. Finally, our need to win social approval motivates us to exercise our will to do the right thing as defined by the group.
Ethical standards, along with our ideals of free will and responsibility, form three pillars of society. However, without ethical standards, there is no need for the other two. In other words, who needs free will if all behavior is of equal moral value? This suggests that ethical standards underlie a need to believe that the other two—free will and responsibility—are truly possible.
Presumably, our instinctive sense of fairness stimulates the human mind to conceive of ethical standards, and then assign an alpha-male cultural authority to validate them. These are historically notable ones: Aristotle, Plato, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius.
Once we deem the ethical standards true, we have a strong emotional incentive to believe we, but especially others, have the free will to abide by them. The ideal of free will is essential for believing that the self can control moral behavior. It also gives us a very effective rationale for judging other people’s behavior.
In summary, our concept of free will could simply be a consequence of espousing ethical standards that arise out of an innate sense of fairness. Curiously, belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Our belief in free will promises fairness through the power of free will, and this makes our faith in free will unquestioning… a lack of free will becomes inconceivable.
A case against free will
We’ve seen what may bring about a belief in free will, but we have yet to address its existence. Alas, it is difficult to prove that something as intangible as free will exists, and impossible to prove that it doesn’t. While we can cast doubt on its existence, as we can for UFOs, in the end, it’s in the eye of the believer.
Here is an example. Let’s say core instinct actually drives your choices, but conversely you believe that free will drives your choices. The odd result here is that instinct becomes essentially synonymous with free will. In other words, when there is no conscious awareness of whence your underlying motives arise, your instinct-driven notion of self concludes: “I am in control, I choose to do it”. In short, belief prevents you from perceiving anything other than itself, which makes all beliefs a reality in their own right — anything outside the belief becomes incomprehensible. How blinding this is depends on how passionately you hold a belief.
What happens when the reality of instinct doesn’t mesh with the reality of free will? Generally, a believer of free will can find excuses for when free will fails to work. The most common excuse is lust or a similar pressing emotion. Isn’t this like saying we have free will until our biology overwhelms it? Surely, this is a naive desire to have it both ways. If free will were real, like pregnancy, it would be there! Human history is a record of the lack of free will in the face of emotional forces… these are a few examples: diets, drugs, adultery, dishonesty, bigotry, shopping, gambling, war. Yet, we unthinkingly excuse ourselves even as we point out the bad choices of others. Just imagine how different our lives and the world would be if we actually had free will.
Finally, what is the cost of doubting the existence of free will? On a personal level, it returns you to being just another one of Earth’s animals. This threatens any elitist ideals we have, like the one about how humanity was created in God’s image. The concept of free choice also forms the basis of our judicial system. How can we condemn the guilty if they have no free will to choose right from wrong? If criminals have no free will, then their actions reflect more on civilization and human nature in general, than on them as individuals. Here, society overall, along with the instincts that drive it, bears the responsibility… Yikes! There is no one in charge! There is no one to blame! That is scary!
So, is it determinism then?
Briefly, determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Wishing to avoid an untenable situation, people couch the issue of free will in polar terms—free will vs. determinism—demanding that it must be one or the other, and if it isn’t determinism, then free will must be real. In the Taoist view, neither one is the constant way, so to speak.
A case for pseudo-free will
The likelihood that instinctive need determines everything has a positive aspect. The motivating force of need offers us a kind of ‘pseudo-free will’. In this more plausible version of free will, free choice occurs when the wiser need prevails and motivates us. If we deem a wiser need and free will as reasonably synonymous, we have more to consider.
The feasibility of this pseudo-free will option lies in how deeply you consider what you really want/need in life in the long-run. First, you must pause long enough to contemplate and review what’s truly important in a given situation. If that view has deep emotional backing, it will direct what you do.
We have numerous sets of contrasting instinctive needs that work in concert to move us through life. These push vs. pull needs often fall into two categories: short-term and long-term. Seeing the consequences of each is the key. If you can see and deeply feel the long-term consequences of various desires and weigh them against what is in your long-term best interest, the wiser need invariably prevails. ‘If you can’, is the Catch-22 here.
Alas, such presence of mind is only possible when our impulsive short-term needs don’t overwhelm our sense of what will truly bring long-term benefit. When you intuitively know in your gut the consequences of an action, the wiser choice happens naturally. This wisdom lies in the depth of experience — past remembrances. Additionally, as the years pass and our biology winds down, short-term needs lose some of their punch, allowing us more patience to consider the consequences before acting.
The strongest forces rule our thoughts and actions
It is likely that our instinctive need for fairness along with our need to control life gives rise to a belief in free will. It doesn’t end there, however. Holding firmly to this belief augments the “illusion of self”; as Buddha pointed out in his 2nd Truth, “The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things”. Now, the ego’s ‘I am’ and free will are entangled; each now supports the other in a uniquely human, cognitively based form of survival.
This strongly suggests that free will is mostly idealism—wishful thinking! The real forces at play are biologically based—instinct! We cannot freely choose our instinctive needs and fears that foreshadow our conscious desires and worries. We simply choose between the various conflicting forces we feel, such as: selfish vs. altruistic, fight vs. flight, binge vs. purge, love vs. hate etc., with the strongest need or fear commanding our attention and controlling our action. Clearly, instinctive need and fear, in concert with circumstances and experience, determine the course of our lives. Even our alternative pseudo-free will or rather, wise will, is not part of our genome, nor can we learn or teach it. We simply earn it as we stumble through life, fall down, pause, ponder, and remember what really makes us happy—long term!
Let’s not forget the bio-hoodwink
The bio-hoodwink refers to the underlying biology that drives life via need and fear to survive. The evolved nervous systems of higher animals have a more acute sense of need and fear. Human cognition discerns the actions driven by one’s needs and fears… the drivers of intrinsic will. This gives one’s “illusion of self” the impression “I” controls the actions, when in fact, need and fear—biology—drives the action. This is similar to the impression of personal power and control people get when riding a motorcycle, a horse, or surfing a wave… to name just a few.
Finally, chapter 38
Chapter 38 also challenges any notions of free will, e.g. Superior virtue never acts and never believes. The tipoff here is that without free will, action is divorced from virtue. We can’t credit anyone for selfless acts of virtue, or by inference, blame anyone for selfish acts of evil. We cannot in all good conscience take pride or cast aspersions on anything or anyone. Pride and blame are both off the table. Naturally, this seriously threatens the hierarchical system on which civilizations depend. Holding on to hope is much more palatable.