Exploring the “F” Word: Freewill
For over 2500 years, humans have been debating the issue of freewill. There are numerous books on the topic, entire university courses, countless recorded lectures on the Internet, and even more unique thoughts and opinions on freewill. I promise you, this will not be another opinionated rant claiming to have solved the 2500 year-old mystery, nor will it be a lecture rehashing the arguments made by dead white men, nor will it be an essay comprising philosophically pompous terms such as “compatibilism”, “libertarianism,” and “contra-causal.” What this will be is a solution (not the solution) to the philosophical problem of freewill from a positive humanist’s perspective.
Whether you realized it or not, the problem of freewill pervades virtually every aspect of our lives from social justice to personal success and ignoring it or just assuming we have it are not good options. Another option that we have is to spend an eternity (or at least a very long time) looking for “the” answer, while living with an inconsistent view of freewill that leads to unnecessary human suffering and a lack of prosperity. This, too, is not a good option. Yet another option, consistent with the scientific approach, is to choose the best answer that is consistent with our observations and the natural world, one that doesn’t require special pleading or supernatural intervention, and one that empowers us while promoting kindness and helping us to realize that hatred, revenge, and contempt are irrational emotions not worthy of expression by a being capable of reason. This is a good option.
What is “Freewill?”
There are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of different definitions of freewill. The reason for this, I suspect, is partly due to the fact that the concept of freewill is nebulous and partly due to the fact that our language lacks the terminology to define freewill accurately. For the purpose of this article and within the context of positive humanism, a basic and general understanding of the term from virtually any perspective is all that is required. We can define freewill as simply the possibility to have made a different choice than the choice that was made.
The Real Problem of Freewill
If you wanted to, could you become a Nobel laureate? A billionaire? How about a teacher? A firefighter? A McDonald’s employee working the drive-through window? Clearly some paths are more difficult than others, but are they all possible? If the motivational gurus are right, we can do anything if we “put our minds to it.” We are in charge of our destiny. The only thing holding us back, is us. But what if we don’t want to become any of these things? Many discussions of freewill overlook this simple fact: freewill is not just about doing what you want; it is about metadesires, or wanting what we want, wanting what we want to want, and so on. For example, I don’t want to be a McDonald’s employee working the drive-through window. Frankly, and perhaps it’s my hubris, but I feel that I am overqualified for that position, and it would not be fulfilling for me. I believe that I could hold this position if I wanted to, I just don’t want to. But can I make myself want to? I believe if I made myself want to, I could want to, but I don’t want to make myself want to. Could I make myself want to make myself want to? You get the point. The real question is, what is behind these desires that guide our thoughts, actions, and behaviors, and are we in control of that? My response to this ultimate question is, it doesn’t matter.
The Freewill Controversy
Although I believe in a world of cause and effect with the possibility of randomness and uncaused causes, I also accept the empirical fact of decades of psychological research that demonstrates convincingly that our beliefs and desires are part of this causal chain of events. So far there is nothing too controversial here. The freewill controversy begins when claims are made whether these beliefs and desires that are part of the causal chain of events in the world originate from outside the causal chain or within it. Again, from a positive humanism perspective, it doesn’t matter.