I have uncovered what I believe to be a remarkable similarity between the search for human meaning in life and the search for a unified understanding of free will.
One of these questions, the pursuit of intrinsic meaning in the world, has been answered to my satisfaction by Albert Camus’ Absurdism. Absurdism shows us that intrinsic meaning is non-existent and therefore unattainable, and then moves to what to do about this fact. Camus offers a few possibilities:
- Give up, i.e., suicide (which he rejects)
- Embrace a false meaning framework, such as religion (which he rejects)
- Accept that true meaning is impossible to find, and live in rebellion of this fact (which he recommends)
The pursuit of intrinsic meaning in the universe may seem highly dissimilar to a conversation about free will, but it turns out to be remarkably similar.
In both cases we have a hard, reductionist truth that waits for us in the dark. For meaning, that truth is that there is no true meaning that’s there to be discovered. There is only what we bring ourselves.
In free will the hard truth is that whether you have a deterministic or random universe (or some combination thereof) neither gives humans the ability to have done otherwise for any decisions they have made. And because we could not have done otherwise, we cannot be held responsible for our decisions.
- Practical Free Will
- Practical Free Will is the ability for an individual to experience having options, considering the outcomes of those options within the context of their value system, and then experience making a choice from among them based on what they want to happen.
Practical Free Will, in other words, is the experience of having free will. And I, as an incompatibilist who believes Absolute Free Will is impossible, accepts this type of free will as obvious, valuable, and…well, practical.
Here is a slightly modified version of a comment made by Marvin Edwards during the course of a free will discussion, where he defends his view of compatibilism:
A man chops down some trees and builds a house with a fireplace to survive the winter cold. Why are the trees gone? Why is there a house now? We cannot find the answers in the chemistry and physics. We have to move from physics and chemistry to biology before we can make sense of what has happened and why.
The man’s own need to survive is the reason. The man’s own muscles chopped down the trees. The man’s own mind conceived the house and made countless decision as to its design and construction as he built it.
Without the purpose that came with the man, the trees would still be there, and there would be no house. No one can dispute this.
And if the trees came from the small apple orchard in your back yard that you were tending to support your family, you would hold that man responsible for your loss.
This is reality.
I think this elegantly captures practical human life and a type of truth that it represents. We are humans, living in a human world, with all the experiences and constraints that come with that. And there is no escape from this reality.
Even strong incompatibists live within the framework of human experience, and that means doing the following on a regular basis:
- We spend less time with mean people
- We honk when people cut us off
- We are kinder to nice people
- We hire people who have a good work ethic
- We tell ourselves to do better in the future
- We ask others to do better in the future
- We hold people responsible for the way they treat others
If you’re a mindful incompatibilist you tend to control how you experience these feelings, i.e., you aren’t likely to feel hatred or disgust the same way that a believer in libertarian free will does.
But that’s not the point. The point is that we as incompatibilists (people who don’t believe free will is possible) still have these feelings. Every day. All day long.
It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s human.
So, that’s our problem. As people who both honor the reductionist truth that we aren’t actually making choices, and simultaneously know that we cannot function in the world without having thoughts and actions that reflect a belief in free choice, we must come to a similar conclusion to that Camus’ did with meaning.
Free Will and Meaning, equal in stalemate
Neither meaning nor free will can be solved satisfactorily to humans because the true answers are not compatible with human experience.
We cannot live our daily lives as if there is no meaning in the universe. We cannot generate our own and pretend it’s intrinsic. So all we can do is choose a path that is in accordance with our moral framework, that grants some measure of fulfillment, and move forward.
And it is the same with free will. We cannot live our lives as if people do not make choices. Not really. Not if we’re being honest with ourselves. If we did, we’d never blame or praise anyone for any action they’ve taken. We’d treat those who treat us badly just the same as those who treat us poorly, since neither had responsibility for their actions.
But we also shouldn’t over-subscribe to the ideology of “deserving” this or that on the grounds of the actions, because we do actually know that people don’t have choice.
So we must walk this ledge while the wind blows us in both directions.
And that’s precisely what Camus’ recommended with meaning. Never give in to the false meaning frameworks. Never believe they are real. But live within them to the degree that they satisfy you.
Live on despite the bleakness.
I would go further and say that we are ok to embrace certain structures and frameworks as long as they are not harmful. As long as people know they are false. I believe Camus warned against believing them, not using them.
One cannot proceed without using some of the handholds available to us as humans. We are too fragile for it.
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. ~ Camus