The Challenges of Free Will

Last week I made a strong case for acting as though we have free will even though we can’t be sure if we do or not.  I really do think it’s the best way to order your life.  But like so many strong statements, the fact that it’s generally true doesn’t mean it’s always true.

Msironen left a comment that illustrates this complexity, first quoting me and then adding his concerns:

“But as I said in the post, whether we have free will or only the illusion of free will, we’re better off ordering our lives as though we do.”

I’m not so sure. For one, it seems to encourage a vindictive justice system rather than a rehabilitative one.

I had started a follow-up post to explore some of the implications of free will, but then I got distracted by Fire in the Head and by a certain Forest God.  Now it’s time to take another look at the problems presented by free will and how we can best handle them.

Much of what we think of as “fate” or as “stuff happen” is simply the cumulative consequences of the choices we make in life.  This leads some people to take a rather hard-line view – you are where you are only because of your choices.  And if you chose to be here, why do I have any obligation to help you out of a bad situation?

But this is only one side of the coin of free will.  Your will and your choices don’t operate in a vacuum.  The society in which we live and work is influenced by many factors, including the will and choices of people who are far more powerful than you are.  You can control your actions but you cannot guarantee the results will be what you want.

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread” – Anatole France

A strict interpretation of free will can lead to a retributive justice system.  If I think you freely chose to harm me, I’m not likely to resist my evolutionary urge to strike back.  I’m likely to want to lock you up, ignore your mental illness or substance abuse or or abusive background and thus do nothing to help prevent a similar occurrence when you get out of prison.  This isn’t helpful to society.

A strict interpretation of free will can cause us to blame the victim.  “You were walking alone downtown late at night?  What did you expect would happen?”  A little cautiousness is a good thing, but if you are robbed or raped the fault lies with the robber or rapist, not with the victim.

Expecting everyone to scramble up these rocks is neither fair nor reasonable. But if you can, the experience is amazing.

Perhaps most importantly, a strict interpretation of free will can cause us to focus too much attention on individuals and not enough on systems.  I’m sure you’ve seen the petitions going around Facebook – some of which have been enacted into law – calling for mandatory drug testing for all welfare recipients.  The core problem isn’t that drug testing violates welfare recipients’ rights.  It does, but that’s not the core problem.  The core problem is the idea that people need welfare because they’re on drugs.  I’m sure that’s true for some, but whenever this has been tried, the testing has cost more money than it’s saved.  This simplistic approach assumes people are poor only because of poor decisions and ignores lack of jobs, inadequate education, discrimination and the oppressive environment of poor neighborhoods.

That exceptional individuals can overcome these systemic obstacles doesn’t mean those obstacles aren’t real.  Focusing solely on individual behavior and ignoring system problems is little more than a rationalization for supporting a system that works well for some but is harmful to others.  In some cases, people are so emotionally invested in the system (or so afraid of any change) they argue for it even though it does not serve their own interests – see the current debates on taxes, health care reform and financial regulation.

Now, let me return to my original proposition:  “Whether we have free will or not, we are far better off ordering our lives as though we do.”  This is true where you are concerned.  Act as though everything in your life depends on the choices you make and the actions you take.

Use your brain – if you contributed 10% of the problem and others contributed 90%, don’t beat yourself up over it.  On the other hand, even if you’re totally blameless, your best chance of improving a bad situation is to exercise your free will to make it better.

Don’t ignore the system.  Do you need to learn to work within it?  Or is it unjust and corrupt and needs to be replaced?  If so, can you do more good working from within the system or from outside it?  These questions don’t have easy answers – ignore political rhetoric and figure out what’s best.

However, while you can exercise your free will to take control of your own situation, you can’t do that for someone else – and you can’t insist they do so either.  You don’t know what their true will – their calling, their destiny – is.  You don’t know what who or what might be opposing their free will.  You don’t know how the currents of power are interacting with them.  You don’t know what challenges – and what injustices – they face that you’ve never had to deal with.

Have you ever tried to quit smoking?  (I haven’t)  Have you ever tried to lose weight?  (I have)  Ever had someone tell you “you just need more will power”?  Remember how helpful that wasn’t?  That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.  It means it’s not as simple as those who found it easy make it out to be.

When you’re dealing with yourself, assume your free will is constrained only by your true will and by the limits of the Universe.  Have high expectations.

When you’re dealing with others, don’t assume what’s obvious and easy for you is obvious and easy for everyone.  Have reasonable expectations.

Does this mean I’m telling you to think you’re better than everybody else?  No, at least not in the snobbish, playground-insult sense of the phrase.

But in terms of exercising your free will?  In terms of fulfilling your destiny?  In terms of living fully and valiantly and heroically?

Yes, I absolutely am.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Tommy Elf

    An interesting post, and one that can send people in all sorts of directions to explore nooks and crannies of their own understanding of the Self. I believe its thinking/writing like this that makes you a unique blogger out there…


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