Free will

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Sometimes I think I have free will and sometimes I don’t. For instance, I just bought Paul Johnson’s Modern Times from Amazon and I believe I did so of my own free will. I could have chosen a different book but I didn’t want a different book. I therefore acted according to my wishes. You can’t get much freer than that.

On the other hand, why did I want that particular book? I suppose it’s because I am just that kind of person, which in turn was determined by my genes and their interaction with the world. My desires and tastes were created by my biology and my external circumstances, forces beyond ‘my’ control. These forces made me buy Modern Times. According to this view I don’t have free will.

I now think that both these views are correct and it is all a matter of definition. If free will is defined as simply being able to follow your desires or even to act against them, then I have free will. But if it means being able to choose what shapes my desires in the first place, then no, of course I don’t have free will.

I think the version of free will we do possess we have to varying degrees. Animals, children and retarded people have less of it because they find it hard to rein in their desires. Their desires largely control them. Or maybe they are their desires and there is no internal battle between want to but shouldn’t. These uncomplicated beings are less conflicted than we are.

Normal adults on the other hand can think things through and choose not to act on a desire if they wish. For example, someone might decide to stop eating chocolate even though they love it. This ability to not act upon a desire is what the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran calls ‘Free won’t’. Your free will can’t generate its own desires but it can stop you from following those desires once they have arisen inside you, seemingly from nowhere. Free won’t requires intelligence, restraint and an ability to do battle with yourself, something that establishes two forces inside you rather than one. Gaining free will thus inevitably means losing some internal unity. It’s a trade off.

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2 comments on “Free will

  1. jewamongyou says:

    You might also say that a retarded person’s free-will is not hindered by intellect or self-control. Again, it’s a matter of how we define “will.” If we divide our personalities into various mental components (base desires, contemplation of long-term consequences, fear etc.) then we may either look at all of these components, together, as “will,” as you have. Or we may choose to only consider “base desire” as our will, and consider the other mental components as add-ons that get in the way. In this case, a retarded person has more free-will than the rest of us.

    We’re used to viewing the other mental components as assets, but this is a subjective view. What about obsessive compulsive people? What about paranoid people? What about liberals?

    • Hi jewamongyou,

      I had never really thought of free will in those terms i.e. that rationality and reason act as a straight jacket on our primary desires. Having thought about it now, I think you are probably right. What you describe is certainly freedom, just like a tiger roaming through the jungles of India is free to act on its primary desires. However, whether there is any ‘will’ involved is another question. Even so, I like the idea and will bear it in mind.

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