On Free Will
In this article, I hope to achieve three objectives:
- Convince you that free will is an illusion;
- Partly debunk the first proof and show you how to build better habits, and perhaps most importantly;
- Leave you with more questions that you came with.
Free Will is an Illusion
In order to debunk the existence of free will, first we have to agree upon a common definition for it. I will define it as the ability to completely control your own actions. At first, you might think that it is a foregone conclusion that you have complete control over your actions, but that’s not actually true. Your actions, and the choices you make, are determined by a lot of external factors like the actions of others, the availability of options to you, and many other variables outside your control. Okay, but you can also ultimately control the choice you make as a result of these external conditions, right?
To answer that, let us examine the structure of an action:
In other words, your “want” for something ultimately decides whether you choose it or not; any decision you make is determined how much you want something, for example when choosing between mango and strawberry, you pick the one you want the most. The only reason anybody does something is because either: a) they want to do it, or b) they are forced to do it. Now, being forced to do something is naturally not an exercise of free will. However, some readers might raise an issue with clause a, stating that sometimes we all do things we don’t want to do, like going to the gym, studying, or eating healthy. But I want to challenge the assumption made here that you don’t want to do these things; in fact, the only reason anybody ever goes to the gym is not because of “determination” or “will”; you simply want to be healthy more than you want to sleep or be lazy. This applies to all unpleasant actions; they are only performed when your desire for the benefit they provide outweighs the resistance you feel to do them. So, we can establish the following axiom:
But this statement alone doesn’t debunk the existence of free will, so another axiom is needed:
Think about it. You cannot consciously change what you want; for example, if you want to eat chocolate, you can’t force yourself not to want it. You could “force” yourself not to eat it, but as we just discussed, that would only be possible if your want to stay healthy was stronger than your want for the chocolate. If you need more proof of this, I urge you to think about your other wants, but I will not elaborate on this proof any further here.
Hence, so far, we’ve established two main premises:
Concluding logically from these premises, then, if you can only do what you want, and you can’t control what you want, you ultimately aren’t in control of your actions. Therefore, free will is an illusion. Now, this raises a host of moral and ethical issues, which, although interesting, I won’t be covering here.
How You Can Regain Free Will and Improve Yourself
But wait. All is not lost in the deterministic universe. I actually argue that we do have a modicum of free will, and although indirect, it can be used to improve your life.
Let’s go back to the premise that we cannot control our wants for a second. Let’s say we truly can’t control our wants. If that’s true, how do wants arise in the first place? Are they biologically hard-coded in your DNA? Possibly, but it’s more plausible that wants arise from your external environment. By that I mean, your wants are created by the environment surrounding you*: the videos you watch (advertisements’ primary purpose is to create a want for the product within you), the behaviour of the people around you (peer behaviour has been proven to be an incredibly important factor in one’s own behaviour), the organisation of your desk (placing something right in front of you will make you want to use/do it), and many other factors. I propose that you can actually control this external environment to a certain extent, and in doing so, can indirectly control your actions. By using your control of the external environment effectively, not only can you regain some free will, but you can put this control to use by building good habits and tearing down bad ones. Consider James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, that I recently read. In the book, Clear proposes a four-part framework for building habits. It is to make them:
One should apply the inverse matrix for “bad wants” or unwanted habits, by making them:
This simple matrix provides the solution to self-improvement in a deterministic universe.
1. Free Will by Sam Harris, which beautifully and succinctly explores the concept of free will, and
2. Atomic Habits by James Clear.
- Yes, Free Will Exists — Scientific American Blog Network. 2021. Image. Accessed July 13. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/yes-free-will-exists/.
*This is just a hypothesis; it makes logical sense to me