Trivial Free Will

16:53 Sun 20 Aug 2006
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I believe in free will, and the ability of the individual to make free choices. However, I do think that there are obvious limitations on this ability, and do not believe in what I term “trivial” free will.

I don’t think many people do believe in free will of that kind, which could be characterized as follows: if “trivial” free will were entirely valid, then it would be reasonable to approach someone (or oneself) who is upset, sad, suffering, or otherwise not happy, and to tell them that since they are responsible for their own mental state, they should alter their consciousness and be happy—and then expect them to be happy, and think that they have “chosen” unhappiness if they are not happy.

That is obviously ridiculous. But if we are possessed of free will and capable of free choice, why not? Why not just switch to whatever mental mode we like?

One answer is complexity. Our minds are extremely complicated. This brings a certain “weight”, or “momentum” to whatever state they are in at a given time. Switching states requires many interconnected small changes.

The complexity of the mind makes it difficult to master. It’s like an incredibly convoluted instrument, one whose controls are hidden and subtle. This suggests that without practice—a lot of practice—whatever changes we wish to make are going to be rather difficult.

We are also creatures of habit. Habits wear furrows into the mind, furrows that are easier to traverse, but as time goes by those furrows can become canyons, and we find it hard to get out of them, to take different paths. This is true for not just how we do things but also how we think, and altering how we think appears to be tremendously difficult indeed.

There are also external factors. We are all conditioned by our cultures and societies, and in ways that range from the blatant to the very subtle, so subtle that we fail to see them. I regard this kind of conditioning as implanted thought habits, and the canyons of the mind those habits have created may be so immense that we regard them simply as the landscape.

This question of conditioning is rather important both philosophically and politically. If we ignore conditioning and focus purely on free will, we will expect people to behave in ways that are radically unrealistic. On the other hand, if we focus on the conditioning, we will expect people to behave in deterministic ways, and we will again be surprised when they do otherwise.

On a macro level, it’s a philosophical/political problem, as stated. On a personal level, however, it appears to be a very practical problem as well. Given that we can make free choices (as I maintain), how do we do so? How do we escape the fact that we’re conditioned, both by ourselves and by our environment?

Sadly, I don’t know the answer. But I suspect that, as with so many things, the answer concerns practice. I do think that we can become aware of the habits we have, and from there we can make attempts to change them to our liking. That we can, essentially, program or meta-program ourselves. In fact, I think we do this all the time, even if the choices we make are to follow the easy furrows and not change. To make the harder choice, to do that all the time, is a lifelong project, and a hard one. The reason to pursue it? To be free. But if we’re free already, since we always have choice? I can’t think of a good metaphor, but I guess it’s like being fit. If we’re terribly unfit, we can still choose to run, it’s just really hard and probably unpleasant. If we’re in excellent shape, it’s not hard to run, and it can be a joy. Mental functions are very similar, and freedom, in this analysis, is another mental function that requires a lot of exercise to work effectively.

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3 Responses to “Trivial Free Will”

  1. mike3 Says:

    I think that it is a combination of free will and conditioning, but the latter is not unchangeable. If one has sufficient willpower they can change away from that. However, with any element of free will added in, there is always a slight change with everybody. Although over the near term it may not seem to differ much from the “conditioning”, in the long term those small changes add up, so the distant future in terms of humanity becomes totally hazy.

  2. mike3 Says:

    However, I think what we should do is to focus our lives on becoming the best people as we can. Changing ourselves in that way, like you say, is a lot of work, however we are totally free to choose whether or not to commit ourselves to it.

  3. Eli Says:

    The problem is not, however, whether or not we make choices – we can all agree we do – but what forces act on those choices. It seems logical that, no matter what we end up choosing, there was some reason for us choosing that path, and some reason for that reason, etc. Would not those reasons, knowing what we do about the brain, come down to forces either biological, environmental, or some combination of the two?

    For instance, when we make mistakes, we (hopefully) learn from them, and thus make different choices in the future. So when faced with the same situation, we have a better capacity to make the correct choice. But then doesn’t this imply that our original choice was not actually “free”.

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