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Exploring the "F" Word: Freewill

For over 2500 years, humans have been debating the issue of freewill.  There are numerous books on the topic, entire university courses, countless recorded lectures on the Internet, and even more unique thoughts and opinions on freewill.  I promise you, this will not be another opinionated article claiming to have solved the 2500 year-old mystery, nor will it be an article rehashing the arguments made by dead white men, nor will it be an essay comprising philosophically pompous terms such as "compatibilism", "libertarianism," and "contra-causal."  What this will be is a solution (not the solution) to the philosophical problem of freewill from a Positive Humanist's perspective.

Whether you realized it or not, the problem of freewill pervades virtually every aspect of our lives from social justice to personal success and ignoring it or just assuming we have it are not good options.  Another option that we have is to spend an eternity (or at least a very long time) looking for "the" answer, while living with an inconsistent view of freewill that leads to unnecessary human suffering and a lack of prosperity. This, too, is not a good option. Yet another option, consistent with the scientific approach, is to choose the best answer that is consistent with our observations and the natural world—one that doesn't require special pleading or supernatural intervention, and one that empowers us while promoting kindness and helping us to realize that hatred, revenge, and contempt are irrational emotions not worthy of expression by a being capable of reason. This is a good option.

What is "Freewill?"

There are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of different definitions of freewill.  The reason for this, I suspect, is partly due to the fact that the concept of freewill is nebulous and partly due to the fact that our language lacks the terminology to define freewill accurately.  For the purpose of this article and within the context of Positive Humanism, a basic and general understanding of the term from virtually any perspective is all that is required.  If you do not have that, take five minutes now and Google "freewill."

The Real Problem of Freewill

If you wanted to, could you become a Nobel laureate? A billionaire? How about a teacher? A firefighter? A McDonald's employee working the drive-through window?  Clearly some paths are more difficult than others, but are they all possible?  If the motivational gurus are right, we can do anything if we "put our minds to it."  We are in charge of our destiny.  The only thing holding us back, is us.  But what if we don't want to become any of these things?  Many discussions of freewill overlook this simple fact: freewill is not just about doing what you want; it is about metadesires, or wanting what we want, wanting what we want to want, and so on.  For example, I don't want to be a McDonald's employee working the drive-through window.  Frankly, and perhaps it's my hubris, but I feel that I am overqualified for that position, and it would not be fulfilling for me.  I believe that I could hold this position if I wanted to, I just don't want to.  But can I make myself want to?  I believe if I made myself want to, I could want to, but I don't want to make myself want to.  Could I make myself want to make myself want to?... You get the point.  The real question is, what is behind these desires that guide our thoughts, actions, and behaviors, and are we in control of that?  My response to this ultimate question is, it doesn't matter.

The Freewill Controversy

Although I believe in a world of cause and effect with the possibility of randomness and uncaused causes, I also accept the empirical fact of decades of psychological research that demonstrates convincingly that our beliefs and desires are part of this causal chain of events.  So far there is nothing too controversial here.  The freewill controversy begins when claims are made whether these beliefs and desires that are part of the causal chain of events in the world originate from outside the causal chain or within itAgain, from a Positive Humanism perspective, it doesn't matter.

What Does Matter

While science may never uncover the mystery behind the concept of freewill, it has provided us ample empirical evidence showing that there are different degrees of freedom; external factors have a powerful influence on our thoughts, actions, and behaviors; and belief is strongly correlated with action and behaviors.  These three ideas are of utmost importance when it comes to morality, politics, and virtually all of our social interactions.

Different degrees of freedom.

Both a smoker and a non-smoker can choose to not pick up a cigarette, although what some might consider the "freedom" of the smoker is curtailed by the strong biological drives and psychological processes known as addiction.  The smoker might claim that he or she could quit if he or she wanted to, but it is these environmental and biological factors that at least contribute to the desire to smoke, overpowering the desire to quit.  These biological drives and psychological processes are not separate from the smoker; they are part of who the person is.  Once we dispel this notion that the self is a magical soul or some kind of ghost in the machine, separate from our biology and environment, we realize how much we are connected to this earth and the people around us.  Understanding that some people have more choices than others allows us to be more empathetic and understanding rather than judgmental.

External influences.

While those who reject the idea of freewill generally claim that all of our thoughts, behaviors, and actions are a result of environment and biology, proponents of freewill generally claim that there is "something else" that allows us to choose independently from the determinism of our environment and biology.  The "something else" is often a supernatural "something else," making it unknowable to the methodological naturalism that governs the scientific method.  In other words, if there is "something else," science cannot (by definition) ever find it.  Rather than speculate or believe on "faith" that this "something else" exists, we can form our belief based on what we do know—what science can tell us, which is, unequivocally, that our thoughts, behaviors, and actions are greatly influenced by forces and factors outside our control such as genetics, chemistry, social influence (e.g., persuasion and manipulation), biological drives (e.g., thirst, hunger, sex), education, and so much more.  Again, our choices are not made in a vacuum. Using reason requires drawing upon the information available to us, and all of us have a different set of information as a result of our unique histories of which proportionally, we had very little control.

Belief, action, and behavior.

While within the realm of science we must be very careful about making causal claims, we can say that belief is strongly correlated with actions and behaviors.  Philosophically we can posit that human belief is a part of the causal chain of events that unfold in the universe.  Action begins with belief, and without belief, action is less likely to be taken. The beliefs we hold to be true about ourselves are the basis for our behavior—how we treat others and how we treat ourselves.  Deep philosophical musings about if we really are free to make any changes in our lives affect our beliefs in our self-efficacy and have a real, measurable effect, on our actions and behaviors.  We can say that we need to have more "faith" in ourselves and humanity, but I would argue that faith, even in this context, is unnecessary given the abundant body of scientific research we have supporting the fact that where we find stronger belief, we find measurable manifestations of that belief.  The motivational gurus do appear to be on the right track with this one.

Freewill and the Positive Humanist

On the one hand, the scientific approach to the freewill issue allows us to have greater empathy for those who find themselves in less-than-ideal circumstances rather than take a "blame the victim" approach.  On the other hand, we realize that we are external influences on others.  We are agents of change.  We can introduce new information into the lives of others that lead them to change their beliefs and behaviors.  However, we are up against a lifetime of environmental and biological influences, and neither we nor the people we try to change are to blame for any lack of effectiveness. As for eliciting change in our own behavior, we can seek out people who can help us, even if just through motivation, encouragement, or social support.

We must work to find more effective ways to be agents of change while realizing that sometimes our best efforts might not be good enough, but until we honestly give our best effort, we will never really know.

Action Items

Take some time to think about those who you have judged for their behavior, actions, or beliefs.  If you were in their exact position—if you were genetically identical to them, and if you had the exact same experiences that they had, would you be any different?
Make a list of three people that you feel you can help in some way by being an agent of change.  What information can you share with these people that might nudge them in a new direction toward a better life?  Once you have this plan, implement it.


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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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