He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fair Questions: Is the free will debate asking a meaningful question?

I was listening to a podcast on Sam Harris.org recently, and I found a variety of the topics interesting.  One of the topics Krakauer and Harris spoke about was the way in which culture narrows the range of our possible choices, and also how services like Amazon or Netflix help to funnel us into a progressively narrower channel in terms of the kinds of content we are reading, listening to, and watching.

His previous podcast with Daniel Dennett was a discussion about free will.  As someone who took too many Philosophy courses for my own good, I was exposed repeatedly to the typical positions philosophers generally take.  And these positions are generally answering the same question: Do we (as human beings) have free will or not have free will?

To put it very simply (perhaps too simply), the determinists generally answer in the negative, the libertarians answer in the affirmative, and the compatibilists don't see the need to believe that our actions being determined by some kind of causal chain reaction is mutually exclusive with having free will in a meaningful sense.  As a disclaimer, I tend to think that the Compatiblists are at least onto something important, though I have concerns about how some of them think about free will.

In particular, I wonder if the question of whether or not human beings have free will may be making some unwarranted assumptions, and I want to focus on one of those at the moment.  Is there any reason to think that having free will is some sort intrinsic property that we have in its totality by virtue of being human?  What would the evidence be for that view?

Is it not at least possible that, as individuals, we have a will which is more or less free depending on various factors?  And if so, is the free will question as posed above even meaningful, given that most of us are unlikely to have a perfectly free will or a perfectly unfree will?

The view of our will as being more or less free seems to accord very well with our experience, after all.  If you want to get a general idea of how free your will is, try to consistently do various things that work against your natural instinct to seek pleasure.  Try to stop eating sugary treats and drinking sugary drinks.  Try to stop having sex for six months or a year.  Try to quit something you've been doing for a long time, like drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes or collecting some type of object.

And if you are able to do all those things quite easily, then take the test of your will's freedom up a notch by choosing to do things that work against our aversion to pain or loss.  Train yourself to punch a hard object or take a punch from a larger opponent.  Talk to the homeless person who shuffles around the parking lot looking for aluminum cans to sell for a little money.  Instead of simply giving money to the hard-bitten man, give him a ride home as well and listen to his troubles.  And when you do give money, try to give more than you can comfortably afford.

If our wills are truly free, then we ought to be able to choose to do things we would rather not do based on some principle in all cases, whether that principle is rational or non-rational, coherent or incoherent.  And if our wills are truly not free, then we should find that we are unable to choose things we would rather not do in all cases,

For most of us, we don't fall consistently into these categories.  We have areas of life in which we have the freedom to choose things we would rather not choose based on a principle, and we have other areas of life in which we struggle mightily to choose against our transient desires even once.  And we intuitively grasp that we should be able to freely choose in all these areas of our life, though we may give up on accomplishing it.

Freedom of will is being able to choose without coercion by the ego. It is easy to say, "Yes!" to what we like and "No!" to what we don’t like with the ego pushing us. To be free we must also learn how to say, "Yes!" to things we don’t like and "No!" to things we do like.

And eventually, maybe we can have free wills if we practice enough at it.


  1. One area that fascinates me is the area of drug addiction, since it seems to be one area in which the will becomes constrained to a certain point. Since caffeine is the strongest drug I've ever used (aside from a few sips of Grandpa's beer as a kid), I don't have a lot of insight into those kinds of physical addiction. However, I have seen the tragic consequences of addiction in my work as a nurse, particularly addiction to narcotics (even legal ones). People get used to that rush that the drugs give them and require increasingly higher amounts to get the same high. The line between legitimate pain relief and "getting high" becomes very blurred. This happens to people who are regarded by their friends and family as morally upright just as much as it happens to those who are regarded as scoundrels. The difference is that the former often have an even greater need to hide their addictions, with disastrous consequences.

    I think it is a noble practice to practice doing what one dislikes, provided one has an optimal moral framework in which to choose the best practices. For example, there are some people who submit themselves to sexual practices that are repugnant to them in order to please someone else; this is not healthy. It seems that we all have a limit to how much dysphoria we can tolerate, but the practice of self-discipline will also compensate our level of pleasure with a given situation. For example, the more we talk to the man who picks up cans in the parking lot, the more we will enjoy talking to him and learning from him; the more we exercise self-control in sexual matters, the more we will feel joy at submitting our bodies to God's true purpose; even taking hard punches or riding inordinate distances on a bicycle can produce pleasure in the accomplishment of a difficult tasks that more than makes up for the physical discomfort. In all, though, we should probably always have some level of discomfort in at least one level of our lives in order to keep growing. The question is, where to start.