The question of free will is a central one that philosophers agonise over. It is fundamental to our understanding of what or who we are. It is a question that only exists if it is true. Without free will the asking of the question has already been answered. Free will is not only the obsession of philosophers, to be free is the central tenet of our modern liberal societies.
Though it’s important, it is hard to get agreement on. The perspective with which you walk into the conversation seems to drive your answer. If you’re religious, you believe you have it because god gave it to you. Then by that logic he can take it, if that is so then did you ever have it. Non beleivers see life as a set of evolutions, did free will evolve? If so at which point did we receive this gift?
Free will seems also to be dependant on the country to which you are born. Do the Syrian people have free will? They can make a choice but it is so restrictive and most often would result in death. You would be hard pressed to find a westerner who would demonstrate for that kind of free will. If your free will is a choice between oppression and death, it is a choice but is it free will?
Free will as per the dictionary is simple, the freedom to choice without earthly or heavenly prior intervention. There you have it problem solved, the Syrian people have free will, but we would not call them free. That seems to be the problem, on paper it makes sense, perfectly sensible. Then humans come and complicate matters.
Here are the Big 3:
1. Social Engineering – it’s about the big view
One of my first jobs was in a call centre. I was at university and needed some extra cash. I though it would be a job to connect the dots, nothing of much interest. I was wrong, it opened my eyes to the ideas behind social engineering and really made me question free will of the species.
Call centres are able to predict how many calls they will get to within 5% and the good ones within 3%. Did I mention they can know this to fifteen minute intervals. I thought that was absolutely amazing. The idea that people act within a pattern as predictable as that. That with some pretty simple math you can predict how many people will call is mind-blowing.
That is pretty passive though, and really isn’t an argument against free will. This though is the basis for social engineering. With social engineering instead of observing and predicting, you observe and act. There are plenty of examples of this and I will write a post on it in the future. For now let’s understand it to be true and ask what does that mean for free will?
If I had the power, I could control people’s actions. Now it needs to be done on a large-scale and it’s not 100% effective but I can control people. If I dive down to the individual it’s harder to do and see. My thought is perhaps like many things we focus to heavily on the individual. If I can prove to control one person through prior intervention does that say free will isn’t absolute. Only few have it and when we congregate we tend to lose it.
In a group I can affect your actions and are we not group animals. The argument for free will is often said to be the idea that we have choice. On the individual level and from time to time that may be true. If I look at your life as part of the group and not at one decision but the accumulation there is a pattern. You will at some point act in accordance with social engineering, even if just once doesn’t that demonstrate your free will is not absolute. Therefor it is not real and can be tampered with.
I believe that I have free will, I believe the Byron that is apart of the group does not. Perhaps that is the greatest challenge, we like to see ourselves as individuals. In reality we are a hive and will act with them. Free will is an impossibility because to have it you need to choice to sever all group ties. That would be a choice for self-destruction.
Free will broken at the group level, once broken is free will broken always. The individual has free will but we are group animals and as such tend to act without choice.
2. When choice is limited what happens to free will?
Take for example the current battle of computers. There are two camps available to most, windows and Apple. I realise that there are others but for simplicity’s sake I’m limiting them. Now I am an avid Apple user, it was my choice. In fact when I broke with the Windows crowd I felt like I was making the best choice. I still feel like I’m making the best choice and have converted many.
Now I feel that I have free will, that I have made a choice. In reality I have chosen the best of a limited option. It is the computer market who has chosen for me, they have said you have these two choices. Is that free will? Do I really have choice if it is limited? I think I have choice, free will between the two but not free will in absolute.
I could choose to not have a computer but that isn’t going to happen. Is it that my expectation of free will is wrong? Am I free will entitled? How much choice is reasonable to have, what if I could choice Apple or a pen and paper. It’s still choice in principle but not in practicality.
When our choices are limited is that a problem of free will or our expectations? Then if it is an expectations problem who chooses where the line is for how much choice we have? To me this sounds like an affront to free will, at the same time I understand reality says that choice cannot by unlimited.
This is a sticking point for me and free will. If choice is limited than free will is not absolute. If we acknowledge that choice needs to be limited who controls it? That same person than controls your free will. You may be able to choice Apple or Windows but those binary options were put to you by someone with real control.
3. Is free will a binary?
The biggest problems when I think about free will is that it seems to be binary. We have it or we don’t. I think this is the problem, free will for me seems to be on a continuum. The Syrian and myself each don’t have perfect free will but you couldn’t say our free will status is equal.
It would be truer that my will is freer, I can make more choices freely and without prior influence. I can go to a politician and tell them they are wrong, I will not be swayed and controlled to not do it. My will is my own, my choice my own. I don’t although have a choice between Apple and Windows, while trivial it does demonstrate my free will is impeded. Something has told me I need a computer and that needs to be one of two.
The top two thoughts are mediated to an extent when you stop looking at them in a binary choice. That doesn’t mean that the idea that it is a continuum is right, it does mean that it allows us to understand free will better.
Free will as an absolute only lends itself to be proven a fallacy. One example of its non-existence is an example of its non existence in absolute. Using the example of a Syrian person and myself you couldn’t in practicality say both our free will are the same. In fact you can if only looking at the dictionary definition. I posit that the practical is more important than the theoretical.
Free will grows and wanes with your life circumstances and the choices you makes. Some will bring it and some will take it. At times you can opt to forgo it for a more important cause. The practicality of it says that only on a continuum can it exist, I am a romantic so I hope it does.
I believe we have free will, if we look at it as the ability to choose. I would hazard a guess that most people would not think of that as total free will. In practicality free will is either more complicated or non-existent.
If you are among a group than you will seek out to forgo you free will at some stage. It is more important to be apart of something than to be free. Free will changes the further from the individual you look. I can’t tell whether you will call a call centre, but I can tell how many of your group will. To be happy in a group it seems that you need to give up your free will.
Free will is choice, so those who limit choice limit free will. If it can be limited by man or god than it never existed. If it is a problem of expectation than who sets it? Because again that person sets free will.
From these my thoughts have landed on free will not being a binary choice and it cannot be absolute. It is a sliding scale from those with no free will to those who have more of it.
Free will is elusive and always being tested, where do you think you fall on the free will continuum?
As you can imagine this is an incredibly large and complex subject. With that in mind I’m sure I will be revisiting it in future. I’d love to get you thoughts on it, to give me more to think about. Please leave a comment, I look forward to the conversation.