We’d Do Better If We Thought of “Free Will” as a Concept More Like “Physical Fitness”

There are a number of things that could go wrong in our attempts to answer questions around free will:

First, we could expect the answer to be absolute: either we have free will, or everything is determined, in which case we don’t. Either everything is determined by the way the tiniest particles have been flying around the universe since the big bang, or we’re all little gods, unmoved movers creating uncaused causes. This way of thinking might lead us not to pay enough attention to the limitations that are placed on our free will, or on the room for manoeuvre we have within a deterministic world. If we pay attention though, we will find interesting answers right by those boundaries and in exploring that room for manoeuvre.

Second, we may be looking for answers to out questions about free will to flow from general facts about the universe and human nature. I call this a top-down approach.

A different approach may be to start from something we should know very well, our own experience, and derive the general principles from that. That would be the bottom-up approach.

The problem with a top-down approach is that quite often an answer to questions about free will is already built-in to the original assumptions about the universe and human nature. So, for example, if I assume that the universe is purely physical and that human beings are controlled by the movements of physical particles in the physical brain, it is relatively straightforward to claim that everything in our lives must be entirely determined. Of course then there can be no free will. But arguably our original worldview never contained a space for free will.

You might ask what’s wrong with that? Isn’t it true to say that if the universe is purely physical as described, then there is no free will? And I would reply, yes that is likely to be so. But you haven’t deduced the absence of free will from facts about the universe in a meaningful way, you have simply described a universe in which free will couldn’t exist. For a long time many people strongly held a worldview where free will was part of their assumptions about the universe. Their worldview contained a God who had given human beings the ability to make choices and who would judge their soul in accordance with the choices they made. Again, free will was already part of an overall worldview. 

An antidote to buying assumptions about free will and determinism as part and parcel of a worldview, is focussing really on our own experience. You might say, but what if our experience is based on an illusion? Isn’t it because we can’t trust our experience that we should look to more reliable methods, such as science, to give us answers? And if science tells us that things aren’t quite as we experience them, we should adjust our behaviours.

My reply would be that, yes, it will be helpful to bring our experience into line with what science tells us. But, even if there is illusion in our experience, let’s start from a really good understanding of that. Let’s look at it, describe it and let’s get at the mechanisms by which the illusion comes about. Why would we content ourselves with concluding that an illusion is present? We want to know who the illusionist is and how the trick works. Looking at our experience of optical illusions, after all, gives us good insights about how our eyes and brains work. Understanding how magicians work, gives us insights into what can make us believe things, how our attention works and how we can be distracted or misled. If free will is an illusion, which some people believe, let’s not stop at admitting the possibility. Let’s then look for a full account of who the illusionist is and how they work.

I remember once reading philosophical literature about a related subject, weakness of will. This is when someone does something, even though they know that the rational thing would be not do that, but to do something else. It has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years. A typical example is eating the second slice of chocolate cake, even though I know I shouldn’t. In a footnote, a philosopher said something like “let’s leave aside the exceptional cases where the person displaying the weak-willed behaviour is simply to tired, drunk, neurotic or subject to phobias to do what he knows he should be doing.” I thought that was odd. It treated key aspects of human nature as exceptions, as marginal cases that need to be dismissed in order to get at a pure instance of weakness of will. But what if weakness of will largely is about the cases where we are too tired, or subject to all those other limitations that come from us being human beings with bodies, rather than just minds? What if the reason philosophers have been so puzzled about weakness of will is because they tried to distil some kind of pure version of weakness of will, purely brought about by rational machinations of the mind, that doesn’t exist. 

Third, we could be assuming that free will is either generally something we have as a given, or something we don’t have, rather than paying attention to the way we can develop, cultivate and extend, or neglect, undermine and lose elements of free will over a life-time.

It is, as if we asked whether human beings have physical fitness, and assumed there to be a general yes-or-no answer, flowing from facts about the universe, rather than paying attention to what human beings can and need to do over a life to acquire and maintain physical fitness. I’m saying that when it comes to free will, we may have a lot to learn from looking at physical fitness: The way in which it is possible to have more or less of it, within the constraints of what it means to have a human body in the world as we know it, the way in which we can cultivate, or neglect it, leading to increased or decreased levels of it, and the way it has specifically human aspects while being based on harder scientific facts about us and the world. 

In other words, I think we should look at free will not only as a physical or metaphysical concept but as a mental and psychological capacity that interacts with the physical universe and facts about human beings

In any case, I believe if we want to say anything at all meaningful about free will, we need to explore it as a relative, not an absolute concept, we need to build up our answer about what it means to be free based on human experience and we have to be prepared to see it as something we can cultivate or neglect, extend or lose.

I would argue that once we have done that, we have something incredibly precious, a free will that is worth having and an answer to some of the biggest questions about human existence. But to show that is the work of future posts.