Motivational Speaking in a World Without Free Will


Two of my friends (Carl and David) and I have been having a long email debate about free will. They believe in it. I don’t.

It’s been going on for multiple years now so I won’t attempt to summarize here. But recently there has been a sub-debate spawned from a recent post of mine: Concepts vs. Convention.

In that post I talk about people being asleep, and I express my wish that they wake up and become more than animal automatons going through the motions of life as defined by their ancestors thousands of years ago.

Carl and David are exasperated by this. They see this as a complete contradiction with my belief that humans lack free will. The particular portion that drives them crazy is:

Wake up. Don’t sleep. Be human. Be better than the animal you are. And don’t fall prey to the narrative that it’s endearing for others to conduct their lives as if they were living 50,000 years ago.

My explanation for this has been simple: you don’t need free will to be positively (or negatively) affected by inputs from the environment. It’s a matter of giving a new perspective that can be used in a variable cocktail for future decision making–just like a chess computer.

Example: if you show someone from a low-income family who doesn’t value college at all how important college is by hitting them with salary differences in adult life, lists of successful people who went to college, taking them to college campuses to show them the girls and the dorms, etc.–you have changed the inputs into an equation that will take place in that person’s mind.

Notice that when a poor boy from a broken home in a poor neighborhood gets involved with the wrong people and makes bad choices–this boy is considered to some degree divorced from his actions because that’s the environment he grew up in. “He got involved with the wrong people.” “He never saw how good life could be outside his neighborhood.” Etc.

Those are valid statements because inputs matter.

And it’s the same for a motivational speech or seminar, or a blog post challenging one to question their motives in life. Either way, they are inputs into decision processes, and having good inputs can yield positive results. People who are never encouraged to challenge why they make the decisions they do are not likely to do so.

So, I happen to believe that we lack free will. I think that when we go to make a decision we experience the sensation of making a choice, but that in fact all the variables that will make up the outcome are outside of our control, and thus we don’t truly have control over the decision.

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.

But this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it’s good for a child to hear that college is positive. Or that one should question why they behave in certain ways. Or whether people should be encouraged to be nice to others. Those are injections into the collective variable stream which are positive, and it matters not whether the decision mechanism is with or without freedom. Either way it is likely to improve outcomes.

Let me state it as I did in our email debate:

  1. We are, ultimately, on rails. It could be that the rail is being put down randomly in front of us, but we’re not the ones putting it down. Hence, we are not in control.

  2. From the inside of our experience, i.e. as humans experiencing life, we are able to respond to stimuli. If we hear a motivational speech we can decide to lose weight or pick up painting. We can also read blog posts about not being asleep, and decide to question why we do the things we do. The fact that our responses to that stimuli are outside of our control DOES NOTHING to diminish the fact that we’re able to perceive and respond to these inputs.

So yes, you absolutely can both “make choices” as a human responding to stimuli (that’s what we experience) while simultaneously having no control over what you will “choose”. There is no contradiction here.

I’m curious as to where any interested readers fall in this debate, but it may be that I’ve argued too much for my position and not given my opponents enough stage time. Here again is the crux of their argument: They claim it’s a contradiction that I say people shouldn’t be blamed for their actions because we don’t have free will, yet in that blog post I seem to admonish people for being cogs in a wheel when they have no option to be anything different.

My response is simple, and very consistent with both the concept of improvement and a lack of free will: I’m using the post as an input stream for improvement. So people who perhaps hadn’t heard the idea before, or hadn’t heard it enough, will perhaps make a better decision next time they have an opportunity to.

So, to any interested readers, respond below with how you see it:

Poll closed

Related posts: