Freedom and Free Will

I recently had an article in The Humanist magazine, entitled “Is Freedom a Mistaken Idea?” Click here to read the whole thing; below is a condensed version (but with jazzier illustrations):

Freedom means doing what you want. But is that really important? Or even meaningful?

Some might say that individuals doing what they want isn’t even good; that we exist chiefly as social creatures, and the group comes first. Such ideas characterize some Eastern cultures, notably Japan’s; in stronger form this is the essence of ideologies like fascism and communism, where individuals exist to serve the collective.

But we don’t really want a society like a beehive full of drones. Indeed, when individuals are motivated to advance their own proclivities, you actually get a society better for everyone in it. Further, it’s when we have a strong sense of ourselves as individuals, rather than as cogs in a societal machine, that we can truly respect the individual worth of others. While people do have naturally groupish and even hivelike instincts, they’re best served when free to choose for themselves how to express those instincts.

Yet a deeper question is whether we can truly be free, in any genuine sense. Arthur Schopenhauer said you can do what you want, but cannot will what you want. That is, you can fulfill desires and wishes, but can’t choose what desires and wishes to have.

This is the ancient problem of free will. A recent Humanist article suggests that punishing Anders Breivik for mass murder may be as immoral as his crimes themselves, because the shootings were caused by brain events over which “Breivik” had no control. I put “Breivik” in quotes because, on this analysis, the person virtually disappears. Does this make sense?

We start with the premise that everything has causes. If you choose chocolate over vanilla, that’s caused by a pattern of interactions among neurons in your brain—a product of your whole life history. Your choice is thus actually predetermined. Ponder this deeply enough, and the “you” that “chooses” does disappear, like a computer program that does what it does because it’s programmed to.

Moreover, science has shown (as discussed in books like Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational) that not only don’t we choose our wants and desires, but often we don’t even know what they are. We can misjudge what we think we want; and how fulfillment will actually affect us. (As George Bernard Shaw said, there are two big disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.) This leads some to consider the assumption of “rational choice,” supposedly underlying free market economics, a myth.

But let’s go back to the most fundamental question: What matters? Why does it matter? And to whom?

The only possible answer is sentient beings, capable of feeling. Without someone or something feeling, and being aware of it, nothing can be said to matter. Thus such feelings—principally, of course, human feelings—are themselves the only things that ultimately matter. And the only ultimate good versus bad is good versus bad feelings.

This idea is easily mocked. There is a suspicion that humans aren’t important or worthy, and fixating on our feelings is narcissistic and trivial. And you can loftily argue that something can be good or bad in some objective sense, irrespective of human feelings. But what is the point of considering something “good” if it doesn’t somehow contribute to sentient beings feeling good? Remove that from the picture, and what is there to care about?

I will not purport here to fully resolve the problem of free will. True enough, thinking and decision making are deterministically governed. However, what’s unique about humans is that we think about our thinking. This gives us an override capability—exerting what might legitimately be termed “will.” (Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has called this “free won’t.”) Sigmund Freud too, who considered us creatures of unconsciously rooted primal urges, nevertheless recognized in Civilization and Its Discontents that most of us suppress these impulses. And surely long-time smokers exhibit a particularly powerful form of determinism—physical addiction on top of the psychological and behavioral aspects—yet they can quit. Some functionality in the mind is making a choice that is real—and free—in every practical sense. Thus, people live their lives feeling they have that kind of free will, and behave accordingly.

So returning to Breivik, his brain did produce violent impulses he couldn’t control. But, as psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued, so do all our brains; yet to act upon those impulses crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone is able to control. Hence it’s not immoral to punish the behavior. It is no mere illusion to feel we have that kind of free will.

And again, the only thing that can ultimately matter is feeling. The fact remains that actual human beings experience actual feelings that are more positive the more they perceive themselves able to advance their desires. Further, notwithstanding all the ways in which we misjudge our desires and their likely results, surely there is a greater probability of being happy with outcomes produced by acting on your own desires than when what you get is merely random or chosen by others.

This is true even if those desires arise deterministically, and even if people pursue them with imperfect rationality. That’s still better than not choosing at all. In fact, despite all the imperfections, we nevertheless act, in our day-to-day continuous decision making, with a very high degree of rationality. The overwhelming majority of your choices are more or less reasonably calculated to enhance the quality of your life, in fact with long-range forethought to increase pleasure and avoid pain. And you are by no means clueless about what pleases or pains you. You know exactly how dark you like your toast. Thus the idea that “rational choice is a myth” is simply wrong.

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