Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Illusion of Unlimited Free-Will

I'm not really going to talk about the issue of free-will here. I'm going to talk about the conception of unlimited free-will. The difference between the two is that, with free-will -- at least in terms of common conceptions of it -- you are free to make your own decisions, whereas with unlimited free-will you can always have 100% full control. In unlimited free-will, your all-powerful will is a resource you have at your disposal, and you just need to show enough determination or resolve to apply it. And should you not be able to muster this determination this is a because of some weakness, some lack of resolve, on your behalf. With the distinction between the conceptions of free-will made hopefully made clear, the rest of this post will be concentrating on the notion of unlimited free-will.

I'm not sure how many people explicitly subscribe to the view of unlmited free-will, but I do have the impression that most people tend to implicitly belive it. I suppose I won't need to say my view of unlimited free-will, becuase I've given the game away with the title given to this post -- I think it's an illusion.

It certainly feels like unlimited free-will exists. You're trying to cut down on fatty foods, but, damn it, those chips as tasty little buggers. You know if you'd just had just exercised a bit more willpower you could have held back. You know you're definitely capable of exercising that level of will -- in fact, you've done so plenty of times in the past. Sometimes you've exercised an enourmous level of will power. There was that time that you could have easily gotten away with a tidy sum of money that you almost certainly would have gotten away with -- it was so tempting, but you knew you had to hold back because it was the right thing to do. So if you can hold back then, you could hold back when it comes to some measly chips!

If you have the capability to exercise an enourmous amount of free will, an amount of free-will that is potentially large enough to overcome any desire, then it would seem you do have some sort of unlimited free-will. I'm going to argue that this is in fact wrong. It is an illusion. My argument is basically this. Your mind is a battleground between a number of drives and desires. They are not necessarily all against each other, but at least certain gruops will be in conflict with each other. You have your inbuilt, instinctive desires, to do with food, mating, and so on. And you have your concious desires (to be pedantic, I think 'desires deriving from experience' might be more accurate, for they don't necesarily have to have been conciously chosen or conciously accessible, but I think that's besides the point). The role these opposing forces -- with instinctual and concious desires on both sides -- play in decisions you make is the key to my argument.

In my view, will does not spring from some source of your "resolve", as if this resolve was something you just had. We should pause for a moment to consider this "resolve" (or whatever you want to call that ability you have to apply your will), because the notion that will comes from your resolve is very circular, and this should give us reason to be suspect of it. Saying that you've got something like resolve from which your will power springs is really saying you've got the will to apply your will. Where does this original will come from? Where do you get the will to apply it? And so on, and so on... I suspect the only way you'd be able to resolve this regress would be to resort to some sort of mystical explanation.

Rather, in my view, your will arises from the battle between conflicting desires. The temptation to steal some money is pushing you in one direction, but pushing back against it in the other direction is the your desire to "do what's right" and the concern you might get caught. You don' t have some well-sprint of resolve to apply your will to overcoming this temptation, you simply have a stronger desire to do the right thing and to avoid being caught. That is, I'm saying what we call resolve comes from the strength of the forces opposing the desire or temptation. There is no pure source of this resolve -- it is simply whatever oppposing forces populate your mind. There is no single source of this resolve either -- your resolve against any particular temptation will simply be whatever forces opposing that particular temptation there are in your mind.

Even supposing my argument might be correct, what good does it do to claim unlimited free-will is an illusion? Wouldn't that just diminish our feeling that we are in control, and if so, what good could that do? If you're thinking that pushing this view is not a good idea, I can tell you that I'm afraid I think exactly the opposite! I think that the notion of unlimited free-will has been extremely destructive and counterproductive, strange as that may sound. In short -- becuase I don't have time to try and explain myself fully at the moment -- I think it provides a great excuse for all kinds of things (because you can just blame people for not exercising their will, which they could if they really wanted to), and it's a major barrier to actually doing something to build up your will-power (rather than doing something that could diminish the forces on the side of temptation and to strengthen the forces on the opposing side, you're just meant to "try harder", whatever that's meant to mean).

1 comment:

  1. “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices...until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between heaven and Earth...between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.