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.