By Tim Bearly
Alas, this is the mind-numbing monotony of everyday life: the alarm beside your bed rings, you hit the snooze button, wake up again, go to work, clock in, take orders from those above, give orders to those below, clock out, enjoy a few minutes of leisure time in the evening — rinse and repeat. You’re a gregarious and agreeable representative; you always go the extra mile, and that’s because you must obey the first law of customer service: the customer is always right. With your nose to the grindstone, you have no time for creative work — no time for existential questions. But occasionally, like a robot from an Isaac Asimov novel, you ask yourself: “Do I have a soul?”
“Or am I merely a biological machine?” You wonder.
“It can’t be true,” you contest. “Because, unlike a machine, I have free will.”
But is your sense of free will, as philosopher Baruch Spinoza asserted, just an illusion?
In Spinoza’s words: “Experience teaches us no less clearly than reason, that men believe themselves free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.”
Ask yourself: what control did you really have over the stardust that you were composed of? And what about your DNA? (Did you get to configure your genetic information, like an avatar, before you started the game?) Did you get to choose your parents or the environment that you were brought up in? How about the trillions of cells in your body or the concoction of chemicals that flow through your brain? To what degree are all of these components — like the circuitry of a positronic brain — determining your thoughts and actions?
Despite not having any control over these factors, we still vehemently feel as though we have free will; however, an argument for or against something should not be based on mere feelings — we must contend with the evidence. I felt like I was five feet in the air when I landed that kickflip on my skateboard but based on the photographic evidence my board was only a couple inches off the ground.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have removed the blanket from Descartes’ proverbial “ghost in the machine” and revealed that there is, in fact, no mind-body duality. We now know that our thinking comes from our brains; our brains are biological systems, and biological systems are physical systems — as such, it stands to reason that our thoughts and actions are under the yoke of the laws of nature.
For some, like cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, the notion of free will and the belief in determinism are not mutually exclusive. Dennett, who contends that determinism does not imply inevitability, considers himself a compatibilist.
Although we may be at the mercy of external factors which are beyond our control, compatibilists believe that we still have free will because we have, they argue, “the freedom to act according to our own motivations.”
But that argument begs the question: what are the underlying causes of our own motivations?
As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it: ”Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
Sam Harris, who has written and lectured extensively on the topic of free will, used similar words: “You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”
Confused? Don’t feel bad — your confusion is perhaps just another link on an infinite chain of prior causes and effects that you had no control over.
To say that we have free will because we can choose to do what we want to do — when what we want to do is determined by external causes (natural selection, etc) — is a bit like saying that an android has free will, so long as it acts in accordance with the parameters of its programming.
If pursuing that which you desire has been predetermined, does pursuing that which you desire really mean that you are free? Or — like a marionette with the laws of physics pulling the strings — are you merely a sentient robot?
Have a good night. Sleep well. Recharge your battery. I’ll see you at the office tomorrow — bright and early.
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