Most believe the question of human free will is a purely philosophical or academic matter. It is not. I’ll argue here that no question is more important to the human race.
Stay with me. It’ll happen fast.
Why I don’t believe we have free will
My longer arguments can be found here, so I won’t go into excessive detail in this essay, but in brief my argument is simply that future outcomes are, and always have been, the product of two things:
the location of matter and energy in the universe at any given instant, and
the laws of physics that dictate how these things interact to produce the next state of the universe
Unless humans can affect the previous state of the universe by modifying the location of matter and energy, or can change the laws of physics that dictate how they will interact, we simply cannot affect a future state of the universe.
The answer is unpleasant but true. Before humans existed the universe was creating outcomes through a physical interaction of matter and energy according to the laws of physics. All outcomes were created this way—with no exceptions. Whether or not hard determinism is true (randomness gives humans no additional control vs. hard determinism), all future outcomes of the universe are still unfolding the exact same way as before humans arrived.
Stated differently, nothing magical happened to change the simple combination of matter/energy interaction according to the laws of physics. All that happened was humans became one of the results of those interactions, as did consciousness, which gives humans the perception that we make choices.
This means, necessarily, that our “choices” and “actions” are in fact mere configurations of the universe as it progresses through time. Our brains give us a perception of choice (likely because it grants an evolutionary advantage), but no choice is truly being made.
This does not mean that our lives are without meaning, or that we shouldn’t care about the choices we “feel” like we’re making. I believe just the opposite. Just because we are, at the atomic and chemical level, not in control of our lives doesn’t mean that we cannot experience life.
We feel pain. We feel joy. We laugh, and we cry. We suffer and we celebrate. These things are as real as anything we can know, and we should not reject these experiences just because they are—at a deep and distant level—ultimately out of our control.
My choice (chuckle) is to embrace this perspective that we have. We live inside this Matrix as if our choices are our own, and in 99% of my waking day I live as if this is all there is to reality. When people are kind to me I thank them. When I embrace the love of my life, I don’t see her as a bag of protons and electrons, and when I laugh I do not deconstruct my mirth into a ridiculous chemical cocktail.
No, I embrace life for its richness and beauty. Ironically, I do so even more than most given my perspective, and the cold view of the real world remains compartmentalized in my mind to be called upon only when needed.
So, when is that?
If I embrace the world that we live in as described above, then when do I pivot to seeing the world as it actually is? Great question. I make this transition when I believe that doing so can increase the happiness and reduce the suffering of conscious creatures.
That is the topic of this essay.
Life from another perspective
From this point forward I will assume you, like me, believe humans lack free will, and we’ll explore together my perspective of how this changes fundamental decisions in our lives.
The best way forward is to simply give examples of common situations that engage our moral and political compasses. I’ll walk us through a number of scenarios and give the perspective of one who believes in free will and one who does not. I think you will agree afterward that the differences are truly remarkable.
Helping those who make poor decisions
Welfare is one of the flagship topics for left/right politics. Many arguments are given in both directions, but the core of the issue is remarkably simple.
The right largely believes that those who don’t get an education, make poor financial decisions, use drugs, join gangs, work low-paying jobs all their life, etc.— deserve the pitiful lives they lead. If they end up on food stamps, or in prison, or homeless on the street— the answer is elegant and powerful: they should have made better decisions.
The left generally takes a different position, i.e., that there are causes and reasons for these poor decisions that lie outside of the control of those making them. Broken families, child abuse, a lack of education, peer pressure in poor neighborhoods, etc. The narrative say these factors combine to create environments that retard and harm childrens’ future ability to grow up and make good decisions about education, peers, mates, when to have kids, when to buy a house, how to finance it, etc, and thus poor decisions will be made.
But this isn’t a binary thing for the left and right. It’s not as if everyone on the right thinks environment doesn’t matter, and that everyone on the left thinks personal judgment and choice doesn’t matter. Most people are a mix of these things, with the right simply being more in the “it was ultimately their responsibility” camp, while the left is more in the “they were damaged by their circumstances” camp.
Ok, great, I imagine most are with me so far. So what’s my position and point?
Well, this is a perfect example of when I pivot to seeing the world through the lens of reality, i.e. the unpleasant but real universe where we actually have ZERO choice. Zero. None.
What does that mean?
It means most people on the left are wrong about how much choice people have to make the right decisions. It’s not true that people are MOSTLY damaged by their circumstances, but that we can still hold them responsible for their actions—at some level—because…well, because it just seems like there’s some choice there somewhere.
That’s bollocks. It’s not real. It’s not true.
It also means that the right is REALLY wrong, and much more so than the left. Fox News survives 100% on the poisonous fallacy that suffering/immoral humans could make better decisions if only they were BETTER PEOPLE.
No single belief is simultaneously so intuitive, false, and destructive to human civilization.
The very concept of deserving something—whether that’s jail or being a billionaire—is planted firmly in the soil of choice. You cannot judge or praise someone who isn’t responsible for the outcome—it simply makes no sense whatsoever. And the right loves nothing more than to place blame on those who are in bad positions in life. Let us enumerate the ways:
The poor, ignorant minimum wage worker didn’t get a college education. “You should have had a better upbringing and left your neighborhood and got better friends and developed a work ethic and gone to college. There are occasionally examples of people doing that, so we know it’s possible, therefore anyone who is unsuccessful in life should be held responsible for not doing the same.”
The single mom had 5 kids out of wedlock with different fathers who are no longer around. “She should have had the sense to be a proper woman, reject their advances, be a responsible parent, get an education, find a proper husband, and raise productive members of society. There are occasionally examples of people doing that, so we know it’s possible, therefore anyone who doesn’t do this should be held responsible for not doing the same.”
A teenage kid from a broken family living in a poor neighborhood joins a gang and kills someone in a fight. “He should have rejected his peer group, moved out of town, went to college, and got a real job so he could be a productive member of society. There are occasionally examples of people doing that, so we know it’s possible, therefore anyone who doesn’t do this should be held responsible for not doing the same.”
Hopefully you’re by now seeing how utterly ridiculous this position is. But it’s such an attractive worldview for a powerful reason: it justifies the suffering of the have-nots in the minds of the haves. It enables apathy to suffering, and the worship of the hyper-successful. It justifies selfishness and callousness, and shields them from guilt.
It’s bad, is what I’m saying.
Unsupervised Learning — Security, Tech, and AI in 10 minutes…
Get a weekly breakdown of what's happening in security and tech—and why it matters.
Anyway, it matters not. It’s simply false. In the situations above, the people who made those bad decisions had as much actual say in the matter as an atom has to join a molecule, or a cat has to go into heat, or a star does to go supernova. Namely, none.
Ok, where does that leave us?
Many wonder what can possible come from this outlook that is constructive. Great question. You’re teeing them up for me.
Let me show you how I see those situations.
Poor, ignorant, uneducated people make bad decisions because that’s what they’re likely to do. Is there a chance that they’ll get lucky and meet an amazing mentor, or will have some great genes that give them lots of self-discipline or intelligence? Absolutely. Those are the ones who escape—or at least have a chance to.
The rest go the way of the physics. They wallow in the reprocussions of bad decisions: too many kids they can’t afford, who are then raised to make the same bad decisions, with no education and little chance of reaching esecape velocity. The cycle continues.
That’s why people get raped and killed. That’s why people are hungry. That’s why people are homeless. That’s why pepole are uneducated. That’s why people spend their money on lottery tickets and tobacco instead of education and books.
Great. So what’s the answer? Do we just acknowlege this and accept it with a shoulder shrug? Do we just say, “Oh well, that’s physics!”
No, that’s silly. And depressing.
What we do is shape our policy of how to deal with suffering based on this knowlege. We already said our goal is to increase happiness and reduce suffering, so let’s simply do that.
People are suffering because they make poor decisions. Ok. Why?
They’re not educated
They’re not getting enough nutrition
They’re not raised in good families
They’re not given good role models
They’re not taught to cherish education
They’re not taught to care for others
That’s an acceptable start.
Precisely. We’re going to stack the deck properly for those who’ve had it stacked against them. And we’re going to do this worldwide, because we’re all just humans.
You haven’t been listening. Nothing is anyone’s responsibility. We’re not keeping score here. There is no score to keep because you’re not really on a team—you’re just a speck of dust drifting in the solar wind—just like everyone else.
The problem is…some of those specks are fucking suffering. They hurt. Their lives are full of pain. And they’re self-inflicting that pain—against their will—because they don’t have any. So who’s responsibility is it to help them if not those who are in a better position?
So what we have to do is adjust the variables so that we improve everyone’s happiness.
Because you got lucky. You have a good life—or a pretty good one, anyway. Be thankful. Be appreciative. And do your best to improve the lives of others.
In a world that lacks absolute meaning, this is a pretty damn good substitute. I can think of nothing better.
Help others who are stuck in a cycle of pain. Help lift them up. Show them a better path. Light it for them by providing education and positivity.
That’s why free will matters. Because once you realize we don’t have it, it changes how you view happiness and suffering. Happiness becomes a luxury imparted on the few by good luck, and suffering becomes a plague given to the masses by bad luck. And with this view the moral path is illuminated.
Help others. Help those who need it. Make someone happy. And support positions and policies that enable this to happen on a mass scale. This, more than anything can be, is the right thing to do.