Variations on a Theme of: Free Will



In the dreamy realms of amateur philosophy, when it becomes clear that an answer to a Big Question about life is not forthcoming, it is usual to re-frame the question in terms of why it interests us. This is something we do so that, even absent the hope of solving the matter, we can continue to meander about our own minds, probe and quarrel with other meanderers, and generally avoid cleaning our houses, paying bills, or doing laundry.

And it is in that spirit that I reflect on one of the all-time puzzlers, pointless in a way, crucially important in another. It is the matter of free will. We all feel as though we have it, we can't easily define it, and there are a number of either clever or at least clever-sounding people who have looked into it and insist it is an illusion.


Free will an illusion? Nonsense. Why, I can demonstrate it right now! Before me are two glasses. One is filled with water, while the other has in it a healthy measure of good red Spanish wine. Using my freedom of will, I choose to lift the latter glass to my lips and warmly reflect on how the tables have turned in favor of the Common and against the Clever. I saw what I wanted, I chose between options, I acted on the choice.


And yet, completely oblivious to their defeat, I am accosted again by the Clever. The only reason I made the choice that I made, they tell me, is because the state of my brain at the time was entirely dependent upon previous states, all corresponding to the ironclad laws of physics, all interacting in uniform and (at least in principle) predictable ways, in an unbroken sequence of events that one can see disappearing over the old horizon of the past. Because of our understanding of basic physics we can predict simple things like dominoes falling or basic weather patterns, but it is the intense complexity of minds that muddy the waters and allows us our illusion. In principle, if we knew all the parameters of mind, we could predict a person's choices with just as much confidence. It is at this point that I wonder if the universe itself willed me to drink wine over water. Perhaps it was out of my hands.

But there are immediate problems even among the Clever, and at conferences where they gather, disagreements break out all the time about the nature of free will. Some think of it as an entirely meaningless concept. Others argue for a dramatically narrowed definition which keeps the deterministic view of the universe but attempts to introduce some indeterminacy in decision making processes. Like most of the Big Questions, the longer one argues about them, the more likely one is to arrive at the fundamental question: what is meant by the Self? Is the Self an amalgam of things we call our bodies? Are we rather just our minds which have bodies? Are we only our conscious, not unconscious, minds? Or are even things like emotions and intentions peripheral to a fundamental Self – one which at its most essential is the experience of awareness? How we answer this question about the Self will alter our perception of free will because it establishes the perspective from which we see ourselves as either doing something in the world or sitting inside a process which is doing something. And when it comes to this Big Question, people who spend the most time thinking and writing about it still disagree at the most fundamental levels. In fact, when discussing these things with others, it sometimes feels as though we reach the limits of our language, our main mode of not only interpersonal communication but internal thinking.

Dante's Commedia has been on my mind, and inevitably so have notions of the afterlife, death, and ideas of cosmic justice. I've started reading Dante's masterpiece this month in honor of the 700th anniversary of his death, and it seems either my subconscious or the Youtube algorithms have taken notice. The other day I came across one illustration of the apparently elusive nature of free will conceptions. It was given by the philosopher and Biblical scholar David Bentley Hart on Robert Wright's MeaningOfLife program. In the midst of a discussion on universalism, Hart tried to illustrate the nonsense of free will specifically as an explanatory (or exculpatory) answer for those who believe in eternal damnation after death (as a universalist, Hart does not). We have all heard this defense before, by some Christians, of the existence of Hell: As unpleasant(!) as it may seem, God loved us so completely that He gave us the highest gift of freedom of will. And while we now can freely choose between water or wine, work or family, good or evil acts, etc., the downside of this arrangement is that some of those choices happen to be existentially wrong, and there are some choices which will lead to being landed in a realm of eternal torment, or at least eternal alienation from the presence of God. I hasten to add that there are many variations on this belief, some of which strike me as more morally defensible than others, but generally when this view is explained I can't help but feeling as though I'm hearing something like an elaborate moral defense of children being allowed to drive tanks.


Hart's illustration of this issue is expressed through a thought experiment based on Frank Stockton's story “The Lady or the Tiger,” in which a fictional “semi-barbaric” king discovers a man of low social standing is coveting his daughter, the princess. His punishment is a customary trial-by-chance: he is set before two doors and made to choose. Behind one door is a ravenous tiger who will devour him, behind the other is a beautiful woman who he would then be made to marry. The man does not know which leads to which.


Hart departs from the story, which in its own right is interesting, to ask the following question. If instead the man knew which door led to which fate, would his (then obvious) choice be any more free? In other words, once the man's ignorance had been removed from the decision, as long as he were sane, there would be no rational way of choosing the door which had the tiger behind it. Says Hart: “It's not the choice that makes you free, it's knowing what you're choosing. But the more you know the less there is to choose.”

This is the basis for his claim that the gift of free will cannot possibly justify the doctrine of eternal hell. The choice to act in ways that would lead to hell could never earnest be made unless one was ignorant or irrational. And in the context of his thought experiment, it's hard to see how he could be wrong.

So can we think about any sort of free will in the absence of perfect understanding? I offer another version of this experiment to consider: Suppose you are the man before the two doors. But in addition you have a companion with you, a random citizen, and this person will be made to enter whatever door you do not. If you know which door leads to which fate, how do you choose?

This introduces a choice which is not at all as straightforward as the first example. One's natural instinct to avoid being eaten by a starving tiger is decidedly still intact, but choosing the beautiful woman would mean sending another person to that terrible death (one does not need to stick with the traditional sexist prize of a bride here...it could be a ham sandwich with lettuce for our purposes. The main thing is to avoid the tiger). The survival instinct has suddenly bumped up against a moral principle most of us try to follow – to avoid causing others to suffer. So a division has occurred within the Self. In keeping with the Christian context of the Wright/Hart conversation, it would seem fairly obvious that the morally right choice would be to voluntarily accept suffering and death for the sake of one's neighbor (or indeed, stranger). Yet in practice, how many people would act on that conclusion? First, there is the most basic survival instinct to overcome. A Christian might take solace in the possibility of being rewarded in the afterlife, but how many Christians are actually certain of an afterlife? What “data,” to put it terribly crudely, would they be relying on to make this choice? At some point in this decision, either at or below the level of conscious thought, a person would have to draw not only on what he or she knew, but what they believed. And that means to some extent relying upon the values which, at some point earlier in their life, they had chosen to hope for.


In the end, all this does not settle the earlier question of determinism. Am I really making choices based on some kind of weighing of options and exercising some mysterious and autonomous thing called will? Or am I only part of a long and complicated chain of events which are bound to play out a certain way, already determined at the origin of all things? The more I think about this question, the less I know what to think or how to think about it. I don't know what the answer is or what the difference is. I can't wait around for people who are cleverer than I am to settle the matter. It doesn't seem like they're going to settle it. And I have no intention of abandoning the sense of free will, the thing which I once heard Noam Chomsky refer to as “our most immediate, phenomenologically obvious impression.” Much more interesting, I think, are some of these questions hanging out on the periphery of the unanswerable one. Not to mention, of course, why does it interest us?

In the absence of *knowing* the nature of things, half-ignorant and half-wise, what is our framework for choice when difficult questions divide our competing, inner natures? If we were fully wise, the free choice on difficult matters would be identical with the “good” choice. But since we aren't, our conception of free choice is more chaotic. It may be that the most reasonable hierarchy of values for the half-wise should not be built only out of what we think is true, but also what we hope is true. That imaginative, participatory element, anathema to the purely rational part of ourselves, may nevertheless be the only thing to get us over certain moral chasms which we will encounter in the actual world.

Putting the glass back up to my lips I can faintly hear the sweet high hum of the angels moving around the rim. I have forgotten for the moment which glass I have picked up, and for the moment I wonder at what it is the angels are humming around. Wine, water, or anything at all?

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