Wil on free will, for free

The question of whether man has free will seems to have resurfaced in the blogosphere as of late, prompted partly by a new book (reviewed here) on the subject. As a result, I’m tempted to comment on it. (Or, perhaps I am “ordered” by my brain and mind to comment on it, and I am helpless to resist.)

The debate over free will has, of course, been fought by philosophers and scientists for centuries; I’m not going to solve it in one blog post (though I might in two or three.) Let me simply offer some thoughts.

Let’s start off with the optimistic supposition that man does have some kind of free will. With that said, there are certainly actions that cannot be considered to be free. Physical reflex actions would be the most obvious — someone throws a ball at me, and my hand instinctively leaps up to deflect it.

There also seems to be something automatic about emotions. You see a snake, or an enraged girlfriend holding a knife, or a panther in your living room (or all three) and you reflexively feel the experience of dread — your stomach tightens, your muscles tense, cold sweat dampens your palms. At that moment, you have no control over these bodily reactions (in the long-term, there are techniques one can pursue — meditation etc. — that seem to mitigate these bodily responses in moments of fear.)

But these are all reactions of the moment, so to speak. It would seem that we certainly have free will when making more thoughtful, important decisions — where to go to college, where to eat lunch, whether or not to ask so-and-so out on a date.

But let’s consider the nature of decision-making. You are presented with a dilemma (say, choosing between four colleges) and have to choose a course of action. (In this example, you really have five or even more choices — the four colleges, plus not going to college at all which in and of itself represents innumerable possibilities.) Most people would, of course, attempt to make this decision “logically” — they would add up the pluses and minuses of each college, balancing factors of academic esteem, location, geography, weather, closeness to friends. But each of those factors is weighted by a person’s emotional response. There’s no really logical reason to avoid snow, but there can be an emotional one: you really hate snow! Maybe you’re particularly antiauthoritarian and are turned off by academic esteem. Maybe you have certain friends you’d actually like to distance yourself from. These are not logical reasons, they are emotional ones, and as we’ve noted, emotions “tend” to be automatic. Can a decision made under the influence of emotion really be called “free”?

The more I think about it, the more it seems the question “do we have free will?” is the wrong question to ask. I’m not quite sure what the right question is, however.

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