So many philosophers have written so much about free will that there is no room left for yet another commentary. And yet, here I sit, writing yet another commentary. Writing this commentary on free will is probably a bad idea, and yet I seem to have no choice.
A Brief History of Free Will
Free will is troublesome. In Christian theology, God gave us free will to choose between right and wrong, and to accept or reject His Grace and forgiveness. And yet, He is omniscient, with complete foreknowledge of everything each of us will ever do. How does God’s foreknowledge reconcile with our personal perception of our own free will?
Legally, a person who has no free will is obviously not responsible for his/her/their own actions, and should not be punished for those actions. This is so important that an entire body of legal opinion has developed around “state of mind” to determine legally when, how much, and under what circumstances a person might have free will. With the advent of plural pronouns, the problem gets even messier. Suppose a person identifies as Susie (she), Johnny (he), and Morgans (they). If Morgans are convicted of a crime, should Susie and Johnny also be imprisoned? Actual court cases involving defendants with multiple (split) personalities provide no consensus, only split decisions.
A soldier may be shot now for disobeying a direct order from a superior officer, and may be shot later for obeying that same order. In either case, did the soldier have free will if the alternative was to be shot? And if he had no free will, should he be shot in either situation?
Even the historic development of free will is troublesome. It appears that St. Augustine may have invented or discovered free will in his treatise “The City of God Against the Pagans,” which he wrote in the early 5th century AD. In this treatise St. Augustine attempted to reconcile the foreknowledge of God with the need for humans to have the choice between good and evil.
Prior to this discovery, did people have free will? History casts substantial doubt on the early existence of free will. The children of serfs were born to be serfs. Children of nobles were born to be nobles. Women were born to die in childbirth, often after already delivering five or ten children. Men were born to die young due to poor nutrition, overwork, or in some war. Kings were born to start wars and then die early at the hands of one child or another. Life was miserable, but at least there was the comfort of certainty without the stress of making choices.
Or maybe all these serfs, nobles and kings actually had free will, but had no other choices available. If so, free will had no practical application. How does free will interact with the number and quality of choices?
In our world today, we often have the opposite problem — too many choices, often of questionable quality. We can choose between 63 different types of salty chips on aisle 5 in the grocery store, or choose between 77 different types of sugary breakfast cereals on the next aisle. If this is free will, how much value does it add to our lives?
Free will has an irresistible attraction to philosophers. Rosseau, Kant, Descartes and others have written extensively on free will. Recent philosophers including Daniel Dennett, Jeff Hawkins, and Sam Harris have continued this tradition.
It is well established that children have no free will, by their own admission.
“How did this window get broken?” you may ask any child.
“Not my fault,” responds the child, quickly dropping the baseball bat which has no relation to the baseball on the other side of the broken window. The disclaimer is always followed by the shoulder shrug with open hands displayed, thus proving the child’s innocence.
My Personal Struggles with Free Will
I have found free will to be a troublesome, unreliable friend. Left to itself, free will often teams up with my emotions to make poor choices. As a result, I work to reduce opportunities for my personal free will.
Often I can make reasonable life choices regarding big projects, perhaps because I usually take the time to review and discuss big choices with my family, friends, and professional advisors. Also, I may just be lucky. For me, big projects usually last 3-10 years. Some last longer, like my wife and children, who are all still here and still sources of great entertainment for me.
Once I choose a big project, then all the steps in that project seem to unfold by themselves. Design the project, identify the sub-goals, define the tasks, set up the sequence and schedule. None of these require any free will, since they are all necessary to achieve the big project. Any attempt to involve free will, such as “which small project should I work on today?” usually devolves into an exercise of re-reading the project plan and then following it.
My wife and I recently completed two big projects — sell the Cloud House and relocate to Texas. Each project took a year or so. Once we made the decisions to do these projects, then the project plans, schedules, and sequences unfolded without much need for free will. Sometimes free will arose in the details, such as choosing a paint color. I like brown. My wife said off-white would sell better. We went with off-white and it sold better. So much for my free will.
Choosing breakfast may seem like a good opportunity to exercise free will. Even there, I quickly developed my list of preferred breakfast items–scrambled eggs, lox on toast with cream cheese and capers, oatmeal, granola. Within a few days, the preferred menus developed their own rhythms, seemingly independent of me.
“What shall I have for breakfast?” I ask myself.
“Pancakes or French toast? Nope, Never have those.”
“Oatmeal or granola? Nope. Oatmeal was yesterday, granola is tomorrow, and lox is the day after granola.”
“OK, I guess I’ll have scrambled eggs, since it always comes after oatmeal. Breakfast is so boring.”
My life seems to work better when I reduce my free will. Free will means making choices. Is this my choice, or am I just running a pre-determined life script?
My son Ryan, in an essay about free will on his website Snarfed.org, asked two questions, which may capture the essence of the whole issue:
Why do you think you have free will?
What would change if you did not have free will?