Originally, I wanted this article to be titled Answers to Stupid Questions #2: Do We Have Free Will?, but in contrast to the truly nonsensical concept called ‘meaning of life’ (Stupid Questions #1), the freedom of will cannot be dismissed a priori.
Sure, if we understand ‘free will’ to mean I could have acted differently had I wanted to act differently, then we can reject it as a mere semantic confusion, because in this case the meaning of ‘free will’ coincides with that of ‘will’. However, if what we mean by ‘free will’ is I could have acted differently because I could have chosen how I wanted to act differently, then we have some form of freedom allegedly determining our will.
But what does it mean to choose one’s will? Is my power to choose not my will itself? We could perhaps postulate the mind as an entity that is separated from our volition and capable of controlling our will. This, however, would open two further questions: First, do mental processes factually have the causal power to determine volitional processes? And second, who or what controls the mind, controls the genesis of intentional thoughts presumed to steer our will?
We know from neuroscientific research that our conscious thoughts do not have the causal power1 to determine our will, and our personal experience teaches us that we have no control over the thoughts that arise in our mind.2 So the question “How to live without free will” answers itself trivially: as we have always lived, for there is no other way.
Nonetheless, I want to mention three ways in which our awareness of the determinateness of human will can positively affect your mindset:
- In your relations with other people, it makes it easier for you to decide when and when not to take something personally, because no matter how badly someone might behave towards you, his behavior is ultimately always a mere result of perfectly natural processes, of nature expressing itself, rather than ill intentions. (It may be useful to know when someone has bad intentions, but there is no reason to fret about it.)
- In stressful situations, being aware that your will isn’t free can mitigate your tendency to double your stress by adding mental stressors like negative thoughts on top of the emotions you’re already experiencing. (Of course, you can’t choose not to have negative thoughts, but they will automatically emerge less from a more resilient mindset.)
- In situations that demand self-discipline, knowing that you have no free will helps you to realize that the only way you can affect your behavior is through slow and steady self-conditioning with an incessant focus on your goals and your vision of your ideal self. After all, willpower is not some magical ability you can switch on when you need it, but a muscle that requires consistent training. (Naturally, we don’t have the free will to choose such training, and if we had, we wouldn’t need it, but even just reading about the importance of willpower can help to strengthen it by brainwashing yourself and by linking the practice of doing what’s hard with motivating emotions.)
- A note on causality: Unconscious volitional processes cause behavior. Conscious intentions cause actions. Both these statements are true, but they are true on different levels of description—the first is biological, whereas the second is psychological and more akin to how we talk in our everyday lives.
- Sam Harris has recorded a podcast episode on this point that is very worth listening to.