Michael Singer on Why Happiness is a Choice

The Illusion of Free Will

FreeWillName a song from your music collection.

Got one?

Whatever you chose, I’m sure you’ll agree that your choice was a free one. No-one told you what to pick. I chose Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, but I could equally have picked Dido’s “Northern Skies” or Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Clearly, we made our choices by exercising our free will.

Or did we?

Think about it for a minute. Why did you choose the song you did? Did you run through a list of every song in your collection in your head, then choose one at random? I didn’t.

I’m not sure where “Dark Side of the Moon” came from, but I remember that last weekend, when I went for a run, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” came on my headphones. It made me think that I hadn’t listened to “The Wall” for a long time, and that I should do so the next time I was putting on some music. That made me think of my university days, when I first heard “The Wall”. In turn, I thought of the first time I heard any Pink Floyd, which was when a song from the album “Dark Side of the Moon” came on the jukebox at the pub I my friends and I went to during our last years at school.

I can’t be sure that that’s why, when I typed the first sentence of this post, I thought of that song. But I know I didn’t consciously choose it from a list of every possible alternative. It was just the first song that occurred to me.

Sam Harris makes a similar argument against the existence of free will in Free Will. Reflecting on a recent decision to drink a glass of water, he asks:

“Why didn’t I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not…

[Some people] insist that freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that one could have thought or acted differently. However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever I in fact did.”

We may be “free” to act in accordance with our desires, but

“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”

In other words, while we act according to our desires, our desires are not freely chosen. They have been programmed into us by the sum of our life experiences up to that point.

Harris is unconcerned by the argument that even if free will is an illusion, it might be best not to point that out to people, lest it degrade their morality. While acknowledging that some studies have found an increase in cheating and aggression after people were presented with arguments against the existence of free will, Harris suggests that others may experience the opposite effect:

“Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.”

I have observed the same change in my own thinking. As with any input, it seems clear that the effect produced in a given individual will depend on how that individual has been programmed. Someone with a well-developed sense of integrity is unlikely to suddenly become amoral by being persuaded that free will does not exist.

For the same reason, I do not believe that the argument about free will is, as one of my friends recently suggested, just a “philosophical parlour game”. The way you view life will inevitably be different whether you believe in free will or not.

Harris also says that a lack of belief in free will has not made him more fatalistic. The absence of free will does not imply that people cannot change, only that how they will change in response to a given stimulus is determined by their programming:

“Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically transform one’s life.”

Free Will is a short but fascinating read, with the power to fundamentally change the way you view the world. Highly recommended.

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