One of the most common objections I hear to my position on free will is that it’s intellectually dishonest. I’m told that it’s hypocrisy to believe that we are ultimately not free while behaving sometimes as if we are.
This is not true. Or at least if it is, we’re all hypocrites.
We are humans living in the flesh, and as such we have all manner of constraints on our experiences and our interpretations thereof. We experience color as an emotional, vivid dimension to reality. When we smell certain things we’re teleported to another time and place.
And during the heights of romantic or sexual bliss it’s as if we exist another plane. A plane of fantasy and perfection and joy.
But as modern primates, with access to the tools of analysis and technology, we can see that these sensations are in fact chemical in nature. Even more disturbing is the fact that they can be reproduced as such. Isolate the chemicals of romantic bliss, pump them through a brain, and that brain will feel those feelings.
It’s chemicals. It’s physics. It’s truth.
But what of that plane of bliss that I experience when I hold her in the night? What of the feeling of peace that comes from loving her and being loved by her?
Are these not “real” then? Are they false because they reduce to something else? Are they fiction because they can be created and wielded by those in lab coats?
No, they aren’t. They are just as real as they ever were and ever could be. They are real because one definition of reality that we must respect is that of everything we see when we look out of the fishbowl. We cannot as humans unaided choose to see light as frequencies of radiation. We cannot experience spacetime as the equations do.
When I feel love, that love is real. One one level, experience is truth.
For many this is enough, but for the thinking person there are deeper truths to which experience is subordinate. Light is after all the difference in frequencies of radiation. And love can be injected into humans like gravy into poultry.
The mistake is thinking that these are in conflict. The mistake is in thinking that a thoughtful person must choose a narrative and stay loyal to it. It’s not only possible to pivot between these two ways of understanding the world—it’s no less than the ante at the table of modern thought.
And that brings us to free will.
When it comes to human freedom we have much the same scenario as humans experiencing God or romance or the color blue: all are understood to be chemical or physical in nature, and can be generated at will in a lab. But this doesn’t make them any less real to the human experiencing them.
So as thoughtful humans considering our own freedom we must manage two simultaneous truths:
- It seems clear from recent science that our decisions (and all other brain activity) are the product of physical processes that we do not control, thus preventing our ability to do otherwise. This nullifies in one motion any hope of legitimate praise, blame, or any other form of true moral responsibility.
This is increasingly becoming as true and obvious as anything else we accept about the world. The only problem is its apparent conflict with our experience.
- We absolutely experience making choices, and these experiences should not be disregarded for a multitude of reasons.
First, we’re not able to. We cannot choose to see light as radiation. We cannot choose to experience anger as a chemical. We cannot disable the intuition that we author our own actions, and that others do as well.
Second, even if we could live like that, through some contortion of self, would it even be best? Would it be healthy? Would it bring about the most happiness and fulfillment?
Worth discussion, but it seems doubtful in any sort of near-term.
Our only option seems to be to accept the truth of freedom as illusion, and yet to live to some degree within that illusion. To deny that we lack choice is to turn one’s back on truth, and to deny our experience and limitations is impractical and, well…inhuman.
We should avoid both of these mistakes and treat human freedom the way we treat a great many other dichotomies presented by the mixture between human experience and science: talk about brain receptors in the lab, and romance in your lover’s arms. Talk about taste buds in the lab, and euphoric ice cream at the park. Talk about determinism on the Internet, and consequentialism in the courtroom.
You don’t have to choose (and couldn’t if you tried anyway). Embrace our experiences as humans while maintaining the ability to see through the hologram when necessary.
You can have both, and you should.