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Does free will exist?
And does it matter?
A few weeks ago, in the stretch of time I had before I needed to shower and put on my suit, I sat back in my hotel bed and went down a rabbit hole of reading about free will, as one does before a wedding.
I find myself going down this path often. Sometimes, when I get so deep that I can no longer see the surface, it feels pointless—an abstract exercise of mental gymnastics that has nothing to do with the tangible world of weddings and taxes and tiramisu. But then I remember that choosing to believe in free will saved my life.
During this particular journey, I stumbled across a quote that struck me:
“All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” - Samuel Johnson
This seems to capture the history of philosophical inquiry into the topic pretty well. Many philosophers have employed intricate trees of logic to conclude that we couldn’t possibly have free will. That there are too many elements outside of our control, too many hidden biological and environmental forces acting upon our existence. Genetics, upbringing, conditioned responses, subconscious impulses, cultural constructs, primal predispositions—all of these, the argument goes, preclude the possibility of us being able to truly act of our own accord.
It’s true that nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything is in some way an effect of something else, the result of an infinite causal chain. So if your definition of free will holds that actions have to be completely independent of the influence of that chain, then, sure, free will is an illusion. Unless you go back to some theoretical beginning of time, there is nothing in our world—nothing that I’m aware of, at least—that came to be without cause.
But I think this is an unimaginative definition. Something being the product of prior influence doesn’t make it a slave to that influence, nor does it necessarily constrain its future evolution. The automobile is largely the result of horse-drawn carriages and the internal combustion engine, but that doesn’t explain why it came to exist in the form that it did or what it might look like in the future. This is because, unlike other animals, humans have an ace in the hole, as Immanuel Kant astutely pointed out: the capacity for abstract thought and imagination.
A piece from Philosophy Now sums it up well (emphasis mine):
“Kant's argument turns on the view that, while all empirical phenomena must result from determining causes, human thought introduces something seemingly not found elsewhere in nature—the ability to conceive of the world in terms of how it ought to be, or how it might otherwise be. For Kant, subjective reasoning is necessarily distinct from how the world is empirically. Because of its capacity to distinguish is from ought, reasoning can "spontaneously" originate new events without being itself determined by what already exists.”
His view is that it is precisely our ability to go down these rabbit holes of abstraction, to imagine and reason outside the bounds of what is front of us, that creates the possibility of independent choice, and thus free will. And I tend to agree with him.
So why does this matter?
For much of my adulthood, I let life happen to me. I let the world make choices for me. My career, my clothes, my hobbies—all outsourced, the products of scripts that others had written. My life wasn’t my own.
This feeling of dispossession over my existence was corrosive. I don’t know how to describe it other than that with each successive ‘choice’ that I deferred to others, life felt more and more viscerally wrong, until it reached a point at which I didn’t want it to go on. A point at which countless others have, in fact, chosen—using something that might be called free will—not to go on. I understand why they made this choice; I have not experienced a more haunting, disembodying, empty feeling than that of having no control.
Thankfully, I did choose to go on. But I knew I had to do it in a completely different way. Otherwise, I’d end up back in the same place.
Here’s the story, from a previous post (no need to rewrite the wheel):
I started to write some better scripts, ones that accounted for my actual beliefs and desires. This inspired some progressively scarier decisions that inched me toward a life that was more my own. More importantly, it also sent a message to myself that I was the kind of person who does scary things because they feel right.
Then I made the big, scary decision: I bought a business.
And that’s when my own crazy voodoo shit started.
The elusive life that I had dreamt about for so long started to become reality. I met, and eventually began dating, a lovely girl. I started to write. I started another business, then another one. I moved to a new city. I signed up for an EMT class. Opportunities in all areas of life started to appear. They continue to do so. My existence is now very much my own, and most of the time I wake up excited about the day ahead.
This complete shift in the nature of my being—from suicidal to a radiating, palpable zest for life—was the direct result of choosing to believe that, by virtue of being human, I had the agency to actively shift my life in a direction that suited me.
It wasn’t that I suddenly decided I could control every outcome. Rather, I focused my attention on the things I could control: what to pursue and how to pursue it, based on my own instincts and unique orientation to the world. The outcomes would, as always, decide themselves. But I was no longer letting life happen to me. And that made all the difference.
Admittedly, though, I wrote that when things were going well. It’s easy to retroactively justify a belief system when it’s tied to positive outcomes. A better way to stress-test it is to see how it holds up to adversity. And luckily—for the sake of this analysis, at least—things are not going very well right now.
As a result of a perfect storm of circumstances largely outside of my control (ha), the business I bought is under existential threat. My other businesses haven’t yet reached the point where they’re producing meaningful income. This, as you can imagine, leaves me in a very tight spot, which is an excellent time to ask: How’s that whole free will thing going now?
Well, I’m happy to report that I stand by my hypothesis—perhaps even more so than before.
This is not to say that I’m unbothered. My recent vacation has been marked by sleepless nights spent working on or worrying about the situation. I’ve lost hours spinning in circles, trying to find a solution that may or may not exist. It’s rough.
But the fact that these are problems I’ve chosen, that they are part of what comes with the path I’ve created, makes them worth the cost a hundred times over. It gives them an entirely different flavor. Instead of being forced to deal with the challenges of circumstances that were decided for me, I’m grappling with adversity in an arena I’ve built.
The objective is different, too. Rather than trying to stay alive for someone else’s war, I’m fighting for a life that is my own. That’s a battle I’ll show up for any day. This doesn’t mean that I’ll succeed, of course. I could lose it all. But I would rather lose everything on my own terms than keep it under someone else’s.
I know that at any given point my life will be the product of a historical chain of influences—known and unknown, controllable and uncontrollable, biological and circumstantial. But as long I’m still breathing, I choose to believe that I can use my imagination, my humanity, to shape those factors in the direction of a future that is uniquely right for me. It doesn’t matter whether that future comes to bear as I imagine it. It is the act of imagination itself, the agency of self-direction, that makes life worth living.
I’ve observed in myself and others what a life without agency looks like. It’s a life of victimhood, of learned helplessness, which casts a dark cloud over not just the individual but everyone they come into contact with. If you multiply this effect, you get corrosion and emptiness at a societal scale. This is why I think it’s crucial that we each choose to believe that we have free will, regardless of what the philosophical algorithms might tell us.
Because ultimately it doesn’t matter whether or not free will is real. Perhaps this was all predetermined, that life was always going to go this way. Maybe we’re all just following a script that was written long ago. But whether or not free will is capital-T True, and whether or not believing it is actually changes what happens, it does, in my experience, radically transform the texture of being—so much so that it can save a life, or a thousand.
It was time to get ready for the wedding, so I closed my laptop and walked over to the closet. I asked myself which suit I should wear: blue herringbone or charcoal windowpane?
I chose blue.