Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to describe my position on free will.

We make countless choices each day, and we feel that these choices are ours, that they originate inside the self, that they depend on personal volition, which is to say that we are free to decide one way or the other – it’s up to us – so the outcome belongs to us. But what does this mean?

If I can make a choice by flipping a coin, or I can make it for cause, where does free will come into play? If my choice is made randomly, it is an act of chance, not one of will. But if my choice is made deliberately, for specific reasons, how is this different from saying that my choice is determined by those reasons? The choice is not up to me, it’s up to the reasons! Some of those reasons, of course, may be internal ones, aspects of my unique self, but the things that are unique about me are not things I asked for. I have judgement, but I never went shopping for judgement, picking a model that I liked off the shelf – it’s the sum total of the experiences I’ve happened to have and the qualities I’ve inherited.

If we are both invited to a party and you go but I stay home, do our differing behaviors show that we exercised free will? Perhaps I declined because I’m an introvert and you accepted because you’re an extrovert, so our choices depended on our individual personalities for sure. But if we didn’t also choose to be introverts or extroverts, where’s the freedom?

True, I can step outside the constraints of my personality and do something uncharacteristic, but when this happens, it’s for a reason too, and that reason itself has a reason which I probably didn’t choose. If I overcome my reluctance and go to the party after all, because I hear that John Doe is also going and I want to see him, then John Doe’s decision to attend can be said to have determined my own decision. My personal affection for John Doe may have been a factor here, but that affection is not something I chose to possess: it’s determined by preferences that I didn’t choose to have, and attributes of John Doe that I didn’t choose for him to have. I may have been on the fence about going, and when I finally decided to go I may have been unsure why I did so, but my own lack of insight into a wavering decision doesn’t mean it was free. Surely there were reasons that swayed me without my knowing.

How can we reconcile the feeling of freedom, the sense that we are making our own choices, directing our own lives, deciding which parties we will attend, so to speak, with the awareness that our choices are determined by things that we did not choose, and that every chain of causality – the reasons behind the reasons behind the reasons why we decide one way or another – followed long enough, must extend outside the self, into the realm of what we cannot choose?

If this is a conundrum that appears unsolvable, that’s because we forget that freedom is relational. I cannot simply be free. I can only be free in relation to something that might possibly constrain me. If the party was on a Saturday, and my boss doesn’t control my weekends, then my decision to go or not go was made freely with respect to my boss. He could neither have forced me to go nor stopped me from going. But it might be true that my friend Gary insisted I go, threatening great upset if I didn’t, so my choice was not free with respect to Gary. In the country where I live, I may possess something like freedom of speech, but that freedom only exists with respect to a government that could possibly constrain my speech; at the same time, I might be tightly constrained in what I say by customs I follow, agreements I’ve made with friends, contracts I’ve signed with employers, the language I speak, and the person I happen to be. Remove all possible constraints, all possible factors that could limit or control my speech, and I would be left howling, not exercising freedom.

And yet when we think about free will we think of it as an independent quality, something that exists on its own, something we either have or don’t have. We desire free will, or claim to have it, without specifying what it is free with respect to. Did I exercise free will in going to the party? To an observer who focuses on my boss’s influence, my choice will have seemed free; to an observer who focuses on my friend Gary’s influence, my choice will have seemed constrained. The appearance of freedom depends on which circumstances the observer knows about and considers important.

Still, we are bothered by the thought of an omniscient observer, an alien possessing superior cognition who could understand all the circumstances affecting our choices and use this knowledge to predict the outcomes. Where our behavior seems free to us because our understanding of its causes is limited, perhaps it would seem deterministic to a being that knew everything about us, a being who could see the causes that are hidden to us, a being whose viewpoint was panoramic where ours is narrow. And if our deepest, most intimate decisions could be predicted by an omniscient being, even just a hypothetical one, then our sense of freedom must be illusory, right? We insist that our actions make sense, that we have good reasons for what we do, that our behavior is coherent, on the one hand; on the other, we wish for assurance that no being could guess our next moves, even in principle. Our identity is bound up in the conflicting convictions that we are both rational and unpredictable.

What is undeniably true is that we have the experience of freedom, whether that freedom is real or not, just as one may have the experience of communion with God whether there is one or not. It feels a certain way to make choices. The feeling ranges from one of open possibility and even mystery, when external constraints are few and we’re not sure which way we’ll go until the moment of decision, to one of greater confinement when we’re pressured by circumstances to act one way or another, and the chance of resisting what’s prescribed seems slim. This feeling of freedom, in all its variations, affects our behavior: we may love and seek the experience, or we may fear and avoid it. An alien who sought to predict our behavior would have to understand our emotions, including those surrounding freedom itself. This leads to something of a paradox, because if the experience of freedom depends on our limited comprehension, our ignorance of predetermining factors, how could a being with unlimited comprehension really know what that’s like?

So my position on free will is this: freedom requires a point of reference. Absolute freedom is incoherent as a concept. To say we don’t have absolute free will doesn’t mean we’re missing out on something available, unless one thinks we’re also missing out on empty cups that are full or sunny days that are cloudy. At any moment, our will is free with respect to some things and constrained with respect to others. The factors that constrain our will are different from choice to choice, moment to moment, and this swirling, ever-changing multiplicity of factors is often so complex as to be, from our mortal perspectives, unknowable. If we’re bothered by the possibility that a being with superior cognition could guess our next moves, we should remember that the experiences we hold dear, including that of freedom itself, depend on our obstructed viewpoints, on our partial ignorance. We might wish for more knowledge, but having too much would deflate the experiences that give us meaning. ■

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