One of the most common arguments that I encounter as an opposition to a science-based worldview is that science proves a determined universe, and many people are unwilling to accept such a notion. While this argument has nothing to do with the actual truth of free will versus determinism, it is nevertheless something that I think seems to convince a lot of us. For a long time, it was something that bothered me enough that I was rather unwilling to accept the scientific reality of determinism. However, this dichotomy is false. Moreover, the version of free will that we are so used to believing is more than just false – it is impossible and logically incoherent.
Let me illustrate this by bringing up one of the ideas that Socrates had about the goodness of people. Normally I am very anti-Socratic, but this is an idea which definitely resonates with me and with which I agree. Socrates argues in The Republic that people never choose to do something bad. We always make a choice that seems to be the most advantageous to us. While it might be true (and probably most often is true) that we are wrong about what is most advantageous, all of our choices reflect that singular principle: “What will give me the optimal results?” For instance, when I choose to either eat an ice cream cone or some raw vegetables, I weight the consequences. Perhaps I need to lose weight. Perhaps the ice cream cone is less work than chopping up vegetables. Perhaps one is cheaper than the other. Maybe I have a craving for something sweet. There are any number of possible influences on my decision, but they all work their way up the chain and I can choose based on how important all these factors are to either eat the carrots, the ice cream cone, both, or neither.
What is interesting is that many people would say that was a free decision. It was not. I was constrained by all the different factors that led me to make those decisions. I could not choose to change any of those things. I made my decision based on the priorities that I found most important and the way I perceived them to correspond with reality. Let me give another example. As I am writing this post, the record I have playing will stop, and I will have a few options. I can replay it, I can flip it over and play the other side, I can play something else, or I can do nothing. My decision was limited by the inputs into my brain. I am ignorant to innumerable factors that I did not perceive. My decision could have been different had I known something else. Perhaps I had never listened to the B side, I play the B side, and I end up hating it. In retrospect, I wish I had not played it. Was my decision to play the B side free? No, because it was limited by the fact that I did not know I would not like the music on it.
This view of decisionmaking runs entirely contrary to the colloquial idea of free will. We like to think that we are fully in control of our lives, when in reality we are constrained entirely by our circumstances, our knowledge, and other such things. As a result, our actions are entirely determined by the factors that get filtered up to our conscious minds. This sort of free will is entirely a fantasy.
So does this mean that all of our actions are determined and inevitable? Do we really have a choice in what we do? I argue that we still do. The key word here is “inevitable.” Our decisions are not inevitable. Because of the nature of time and consciousness, we of course have the ability avoid certain fates (i.e. our fates are evitable, not inevitable). I can choose to eat the ice cream and change the record. It is my job to determine what priorities are more important than others. Our lives and our decisions are not inevitable, because we still have decisionmaking power and we can avoid consequences.
Think of the brain like a computer program. At the base level we have a BIOS which creates a framework upon which the operating system is situated. These are base-level programs, one on top of the other. On another level we have graphical interfaces. Upon that we have any number of additional programs which can have programs within them. There is no limit. Much like a computer, then, we have various levels of input and output. Our brains are layers of conscious and unconscious thought and perception. The decisionmaking aspect of our brain (our conscious selves) pulls in input from lower-level programs and subroutines and weighs them, analyzes them, and assigns values of priority. That is our job – to weigh priorities and determine what is best. We can change our minds. We can make mistakes. We still get to choose. We are still unique, and we still have free will. I think that is a very beautiful and inspiring truth.
If you have the time and are interested, I would recommend this talk by Daniel Dennett on the matter: