I was wondering when posted on “Free Will” last week if many would comment, let alone get what I was musing about.  I pleasantly surprised and I really enjoyed the comments.  I found Lily’s comment that this life is more for learning than being tested quite an interesting way to think about life.  Not exactly what I was taught growing up, but that sure seems to make some of life’s injustices less punitive.  From the comments I learned that there were “Calvinist Mormons”, which I had never heard of before.  Bishop Bill mentions the Texas Tower Sniper as another example of physical brain issues causing severe behavior.   Going back to the 1850’s there are similar stories such as Phineas Gage (a bit gory, you are warned before you click).  As Mormon Heretic mentions, there are theories forming right now on American football causing CTE that indicate player’s personalities are modified, and certainly not for the better.  I think the general point was made even with the stories provided in the first post.  I am sure there are more.

What to do?

No matter how much I contemplate it, I am not sure if I will figure out just how much agency / moral agency / free agency / free will I have.  But what should I do?

On this question I tend to agree with Angela’s comment of,

“One way to look at it is something an executive coach once said that I often repeat. He said that you need to believe that every situation is 100% in your control even though it’s not true because to believe anything else erodes your effectiveness.

She (or her coach) is not alone in saying that we need to believe we are in control.

free-willI have read through books like Sam Harris’, “Free Will” where he espouses that we really don’t have free will.  He puts forward, “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” (page 64) and “You are not in control of your mind – because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts.” (page 37)  He is fairly blunt in saying he does not believe in free will.  I will come back to Sam Harris in a moment.

I find the idea of not having free will very thought provoking, but mainly very disturbing.  To think that cuts right to what it is to be an individual.  What am I if not the result of my decisions?  On top of that I try to tie into how I might have a spirit or soul mixed in also with “me”.  Given that I have not figured out why there are better and worse souls/spirits, these stories about how much the mind is in control of “us” does nothing to help me figure a way to reconcile all of this.

When I read “The Righteous Mind”  it made sense that often we subconsciously act and then make justifications for these actions.  I can point to a few times where I think I have seen myself doing this.  But Haidt makes the point in his book that we generally never “feel” that is happening.  So I probably don’t notice it happening all the time.


I tried bringing in these 4 accounts in the previous post and get them all logically constructed in my mind.  So far I can’t do it and feel comfortable.  I am very puzzled about this.  But at least I know I made a good decision not to major in Philosophy.  Even though I like to tinker in the subject of Philosophy, I don’t feel I have the mental chops to make meaningful sense of it.  I would not be getting good grades in philosophy courses.

If I try the thought experiment of assuming I have no real free will, I can do that.  But I can’t seem to stay in that state for more than a few minutes without reverting back to, “No, no, that just doesn’t make sense!  That CAN’T be right.”  I think about it for a minute two, then my mind tells me something along the lines, “that is enough of that theoretical @#$% [1] and you need to get back to normal now and work on your to-do list.”

I do find it interesting what two prominent proponents of the “there is no free will” camp say about it from a practical perspective.

I heard the neuroendocrinologist [2] Robert Sapolsky [3] say on a podcastprof_robert_sapolsky

I don’t believe there is freewill.

I believe freewill is what we call biology that hasn’t been discovered yet.


I certainly can agree if you look back in history up till today, there is absolutely some truth in that statement.  When was the last time someone said a person was possessed by a spirit?  We usually consider this to be a mental condition today, but in centuries past that wasn’t the case and others assumed such a person was possessed by an evil spirit.  I don’t know how much biology will explain all human choice in the future.  I guess nobody knows for sure.

But I find just as interesting what Robert says immediately after his statement above.

But what I find to be a hugely daunting task is how you’re supposed to you live your life thinking that way and even me, I am willing to write down and print there is no free will and here’s why.  At some critical juncture of some social interaction I act absolutely as if I believe there is freewill.  […] It is a whole lot easier to operate with a notion of agency.

So Robert clearly does not believe in free will, but thinks life is easier if you assume you have free will.

In Sam Harris’ book arguing against the reality of free will does offer some evidence that assuming you do have free will has positive effects:

Many people worry that free will is a necessary illusion – and that without it we will fail to live creative and fulfilling lives.  This concern isn’t entirely unjustified.  One study found that having subjects read an argument against the existence of free will made them more likely to cheat on a subsequent exam.  Another found such subjects to be less helpful and more aggressive. (page 45)

I don’t read from this that Sam is supporting the idea of assuming free will, but he certainly brings up some studies that seem to say people are more moral when they subscribe to having free will.

The previous post on free will was shared on another site and provoked this one comment:

I really love what Orson Scott Card said about free will, in Xenocide.

card“Either we’re free or we’re not. Either the story’s true or it isn’t. The point is that we have to believe that it’s true in order to live as civilized human beings… Because if it’s a lie, why should we bother to live as civilized human beings? Because the species has a better chance to survive if we do. Because our genes require us to believe the story in order to enhance our ability to pass those genes on for many generations in the future. Because anybody who doesn’t believe the story begins to act in unproductive, uncooperative ways, and eventually the community, the herd, will reject him.”

So I hope no one was expecting me to wrap this up at the end and put this all to rest with a nice bow on top.  I certainly don’t have any of this figured out I feel like I am a bit in philosophical quicksand.  The more I work to get out, the deeper I sink and I get exhausted.  And just like being in quicksand, you finally figure out that you just need to relax and stop fighting it and it gets better.

But I can say that it seems that many people agree that regardless if we do or do not have free will, it is still better for us to assume we do and move forward with confidence.  I have decided of my own free will that I will assume I have free will!  I would recommend others to do so also.  But you can decide since you (think you) have free will. 🙂


[1] Yes, my inner voice does have quite the vocabulary.  I can’t help myself!

[2] Did you know that “neuroendocrinologist” is 20 letters long!!  Fit that on a business card!

[3] Robert can give most of the early latter-day prophets a run for their money in the beard department.