Let’s consider a man named Scott who suffers from insomnia, an addiction to speed, and an extreme fear of flying. One morning Scott wakes up to start his day and head off to work. He wakes up feeling very tired from a poor night’s sleep due to his chronic insomnia. Last night was the first night he slept in 2 days and he only got 4 hours. After he wakes up, he takes a quick shower, eats cereal for breakfast, and takes some speed that he’s been addicted to for a few months as a remedy for his insomnia. On his usual route there is a slight accident which delays him 5 minutes but fortunately he left early enough to make it to work on time. Later at work his boss calls him in to his office and offers him a promotion with the condition of a special assignment overseas and informs him that if he choses to accept he’ll be flying out the very next day. Unfortunately he has an extreme fear of flying but he doesn’t want to disappoint his boss or miss the opportunity for this promotion. Additionally, he becomes worried what he’ll do at the airport to avoid being caught with speed.
In this scenario there are events that seem fully out of Scott’s control, events that seem completely of his own choosing, and some events that seem to have elements of both his own choosing and the inhibition of his ability to choose. His extreme fear of flying has significant bearing to whether or not he’ll be able to take this opportunity though it is not something that he has control over.
On the other hand, his decision to take a shower before he goes to work and eating cereal for breakfast are both events that he seemingly had utter control over. His insomnia and addiction to speed seem a little bit confusing though. On one hand, he is choosing to take the speed, but surely his decision to take it at least heavily influenced by his addiction and his chronic insomnia. Complicated events like these may challenge us to wonder whether we do really have free will and how much or to what degree are we able to exercise it?
What is Free Will?
Most of us feel free, that is, we have the capability to make decisions leading to beliefs and actions which are completely of our own choosing. We choose to eat certain foods because we simply feel like it. We buy clothes that we desire and paint our houses in colors we prefer. In contrast, most of us agree that all physical events are caused by past events and that nothing other than what occurs could occur. For example, when a book is dropped it will fall to the floor. However, books don’t pick themselves up; an agent is required for a physical event to occur. An agent is a person that is behind the physical event, aka the person dropping the book. When it gets it a little convoluted is when we combine agents and their experiences with the physical events and then try to decide whether or not it happened due to a past event, or because the person simply chose to do it.
Our brains have roughly two systems of thinking: a faster more automatic system which acts with little or no effort (reacting to a sudden sound, making faces at disgusting pictures, etc.), and a slower more concentrative system which is associated with choice and thought out decision making (deciding what product to buy, looking for a person in a crowd, etc). The thoughts we have that seem to be out of our full control, are argued to simply be boundaries of being human, that we still have a free will within these limits. If we can hesitantly agree that we don’t have control over everything that we do, let’s look at the processes of our mind that influence our decisions from moment to moment.
The ability to pick and choose what we like seems a little far-fetched. If you’ve ever been on a diet, or a distracted student during finals week, this one is pretty easy to understand. If we had this autonomy over our desires we could simply stop eating unhealthy foods, and start eating the foods that our diet allows. We could just as easily start liking whatever subject our finals are in and we’d have no problem studying for hours on end. Unfortunately, even if we already like eating healthy or studying for finals, other desires get in the way. Sometimes we would rather binge watch Netflix or eat sweets and junk food.
Typically we don’t ever ask what instrumental value emotions have for us, we just know that they arise. When a loved one leaves us we can’t help but feel sad about it. It may not be serving a purpose, and certainly we don’t desire to be sad, but still we feel sadness and grief. Most of us are good at preventing emotions from affecting our behavior to some extent, but not able to control whether or not they arise in the first place. Our emotional response is determined by other events that have already taken place. Maybe you drop your chipotle burrito on the ground and begin to cry because you’re incredibly hungry, lacking sleep, and stressed out, or maybe you don’t really mind and you just buy another. You have some control over how you express the emotion that is arising but not whether or not it arises in the first place. Before we become sad or happy we don’t first decide that we’re going to become sad or happy.
Our involuntary muscles like our heart, lungs, stomach, and endocrine glands do everything that they do without our say so. We have no control over our immune response, or the hormones being released in our bodies. Furthermore, physiology greatly impacts emotional tendencies as well. When our body expresses an emotion (faster heart rate, dry mouth, dilating pupils, tense muscles, etc) our brain then recognizes this expression and consciously accepts the current emotion (“I am stressed”, “I am scared”). Physiology is also linked to desires; when our bodies send signals to our brain telling us we are hungry or thirsty it elicits our desire to eat and drink.
Surely we are able to change our values and principles over time with new surroundings and experiences, like a traveler can adopt a whole new culture after living in a new country for a long enough time. Nevertheless, we cannot abruptly decide to believe in new things, like a new religion, or a different political party. We can entertain thoughts with the potential of adopting these beliefs, but we won’t suddenly believe it. Even if we do research on the new religion or talk to people in the different political party, whether or not this research convinces us to believe in it or not is out of our control. Either we end up aligning with the new ideology or we don’t. Beliefs seem to be the hardest things for us to control but perhaps the most instrumental in guiding our behavior.
We have minimal control over our desires, emotions, physiology, and beliefs. Yet, these processes have great impact on our behavior and conscious thought. As I mentioned, we do not have control over involuntary thought like reacting to a sudden noise or making faces at certain pictures, but is there such a thing as voluntary thought? Do we ever decide to have a thought before having one? If thought is the driving force of most behavior we must ask ourselves this important question in the quest of free will.
Consider the example of someone changing religious beliefs or political ideals. If they’re journey of discovery leads them to change their beliefs, what caused them to have that thought of acceptance? Eventually it made sense to them and they decided that they could believe in it. Why? It happened to align with the knowledge that person already had about politics or existential concepts that they’ve gained through their own experiences. Why? Their specific lives set themselves up to experience those things, read those books, meet those people, etc. If it was possible to trace life experiences back to find out all the reasons why someone has the desires they have or the thoughts they think, we’ll realize that there isn’t a root reason. Thoughts just emerge into consciousness they are not authored by the person or decided upon. The thoughts that we may feel like we’re willfully thinking are just the thoughts that we happen to align with.
Of course, this is not to say that we don’t have a will, or the ability to do something, but we don’t get to choose what this will is. Some of us have the will to run marathons while others will to write books. Even if we decide to drop a book on purpose to demonstrate our “ability to do something just cause we want to” all it really shows is that our sum of life experiences have led up to a moment where we think dropping a book is a good demonstration of free will.
What’s the Point?
If we can recognize that our actions and will are out of our control we can quit blaming ourselves and others from some moral high ground. If we compare two people that make a different amount of money, live in different parts of town, have different jobs, and eat different kinds of food, there is no need for us to blame one for being unsuccessful or a bad member of the community, and the other successful or a good member of the community. Sure, we should be responsible for the actions that have already passed, law should still deter us from crime, and ambition should still drive us to achieve goals, but ultimately whether or not we will do this or that is not the product of the agent, but the product of circumstance. In the end, we are still humans with different reasons for being who we are and thinking the ways we do.