New Friends and Free Will
Sept. 16, 2019
I often measure the success of a day by the quality and quantity of my interactions. This is a reflection on a day that scored off the charts on that scale and the learning it prompted.
At my university, in addition to my studies, I work as a peer consultant at the Writing and Communications Center (WCC). I work one-on-one with other students, enabling them to take their writing to the next level. And it has proven to be the perfect job for me. Of the many quality interactions that I have had in the Writing Center, the most fruitful and fulfilling have been those with my coworkers. After self-publishing my book, The Pursuit of Purpose, I gave one of the first printed copies to a coworker of mine — one of the professional consultants on staff — who had trained me when I was a new-hire.
After reading the book, my coworker invited me to join a philosophy discussion group that her husband was starting with a few of his friends. It is structured like a book club, just with “modern media.” The group would watch a speech, listen to a podcast, or read an article on a specific topic ahead of the club meetings and then structure the conversation around that material. I was sold.
The first of the monthly meetings would be in November (a few weeks from the time I learned about it). When do you get the chance to just talk with strangers about the fundamental questions of life? Those are the kind of conversations that I live for, and I could not have been happier to be included in this discussion group. I attended the first meeting, and it exceeded all expectations.
This opportunity is the clearest recent example of two ideas in The Pursuit of Purpose. The first: Never be afraid to engage with people. You never know what a new relationship or a single interaction could bring. In this case, the interactions I had with my coworker and the relationship we developed led to something that I couldn’t have imagined. The second idea is that relationships are vehicles for enjoyment and fulfillment in life. It is not only the development of a relationship that provides such joy and fulfillment but the personal growth and challenging new experiences that relationships often provide.
I knew that it would be a challenging experience to meet with a dozen strangers who were ten years my seniors — all in the midst of their careers — and talk about philosophy. But I also knew that I would love it, and I was determined to make the most of the time I had with this group. I was so assured of enjoying myself because anyone who would attend something like this (for two hours after a workday) would value philosophical discussions like I do. Ahead of the meeting, we were to listen to an episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast: “The Science and Philosophy of Free Will.” The topic had me excited and intrigued; I was primed for the conversation. It was such a welcoming group, filled with thoughtful, articulate people with diverse opinions. It was incredible. The needle on my Interaction-Quality Fuel Gage was showing a full tank for the day.
Our group addressed all sorts of questions regarding this idea of free will. Is everyone merely the sum of their experiences and their current mental and physical state? Who or what is the ruling faculty when we make decisions, and is it something separate from our identity or soul? Is it reason that grants us the capacity for free will? Much of the discussion was about determinism vs. free will — which seems more plausible, which is more beneficial to believe in, etc. There was also talk about the distinction/separation between the mind, body, and spirit and the role those play in decision-making. Clearly, this is a loaded, thought-provoking topic. I was not able to respond to everything that I wanted to or communicate all of the ideas I had.
There was one question I had toward the end of our discussion that I wanted to ask the group: If something can be predicted with complete certainty, is it predetermined? This, to me, seemed to be the question to which we were building but did not have the time to address. We had discussed which part of us made decisions and considered the idea that we are only the sum of our experiences and current emotions. One idea that surfaced from that line of questioning was that a person would make the exact same decision every time they were put in the same situation, given that they had the same emotional state and set of past experiences. This was an idea proposed in favor of determinism. Even though I accept that someone would make the same decision in that case, it doesn’t disprove free will.
There is a necessary distinction to be made between the sum of your experiences and your current mental state; lumping the two together is detrimental to our understanding of ourselves. The former is dependent on time and on external influences. The latter, however, can change instantaneously and without any external stimuli. Yes, the same set of past experiences and the equivalent state of mind would result in the same decision every time. But if one’s mental state was different in the very next instant, they may never act on the previous moment’s decision.
Your past experiences and the state of the world around you present you with the opportunity to follow a course of action, but it is your mental state, moment-to-moment, that determines whether you will adhere to that path.
External factors and your past experiences present what you are able to perceive, but your mental state acts independently of that, constantly delivering either a zero or a one — a binary, fight-or-flight response to decision-making opportunities. Given the exact same set of past experiences, one may choose to forgo an opportunity instead of seizing it, depending on the status of their cognitive switch: is it a zero or one? It is your mental state, or your outlook, that determines your next experience.
If you have ever decided whether to seize or forgo an opportunity independent of external influences, then none of your actions or experiences are predetermined. Even if all that follows could be predicted with perfect certainty, you still have free will because you consciously diverted from one path and chose to go down the path that you’re on. What can be predetermined now was determined by you. If there is any experience in the past that you have dictated — if there is any time that your brain threw a one when the world screamed “zero” — then you retain and exercise free will.
On the subway ride home, I wrote a reflection on the group discussion, trying to distill my perspective on the issue of free will. It is quoted below, as I wrote it that night (save a few sentence-level edits that I made). Since writing this reflection, I have had more conversations on free will vs. determinism. The contrast between what I have explained above and the reflection below serves to illustrate the development of my stance on it.
On Free Will
I am inclined to vehemently refute the idea of determinism because I think it is the parent of nihilism—a wholly unproductive view which is entirely opposed to the function and power of human existence. Even when I try to eliminate that bias, I struggle to develop an argument for determinism. Humans have an incredible power to enact change in the present, based on past experiences and inclinations about the future.
One may argue that the influence of the past and current circumstances is an argument for determinism, but I would argue that the individual self is the entity that constructed the set of past experience through past decision-making processes. If you are the sum of all of your experiences, which is reasonable to assume, then you have made yourself because you have chosen what experiences to have in the past. In each present moment, one is presented with the same opportunity: to determine what they experience next.
It’s acceptable to conflate the individual self with the sum of past experiences and the components of one’s surroundings. However, the state of the world only presents the opportunity to make a specific decision; the individual must choose whether to make it. That choice determines what decision-making opportunities will come in the future, thus supporting the idea of free will. One’s preferences, beliefs, experiences, surroundings, and circumstance all influence their decisions. However, the individual self shapes all of those influencing factors through decisions. You influence yourself and award specific choices to yourself through the very processes of decision-making and enacting free will.
My initial response to the question of free will is not too far from my stance now. The main difference is that I no longer think there’s such a danger to embracing determinism.
Here is where I now differ from my subway reflection. There is no particular outlook, such as nihilism, that comes as a couplet with determinism. A belief in determinism doesn’t mean that one feels no agency or responsibility for one’s actions. But I worry that determinism could lead to complacency.
If you operate as if you have free will, then you will have a sense of an urgency to seize quality opportunities when they come along — to be optimistic, eager, and ambitious. If you have free will, then you can decide how you respond to stimuli rather than your decisions being an effect of some cause. You can train your mental state to deliver the right binary bits at the right times to provide the experiences that you want for yourself.
If you are not sold on the whole cognitive binary switch idea, consider this example. I have kept a dream journal for nearly five years now. Overtime, I have improved how often and how vividly I recall my dreams, but that development would not have happened without many early-morning decisions to record my dreams. That is where the cognitive binary switch phenomenon is most evident to me. On any given day, it is, for the most part, out of my control whether I will remember my dream when I wake up. That is dependent on external factors like my experiences in the previous day, what I have coming up the next day, or how much sleep I got overnight. When I do remember my dream, it is my decision whether or not I record it. It is a decision that I make purely based on my state of mind, and it can change in an instant: write it down (one) or don’t (zero). By being diligent with this practice and making a habit of it, I now record my dreams more often, but there are days when I don’t. And there is little to no explanation for it besides that I threw a zero instead of a one that morning.
I am sure that my stance on the free will question will morph over time, but I’m glad that I have some opinion of it now. That personal understanding and comfort would have been unattainable without joining the philosophy discussion group and having this conversation with others. There is a wonder inherent in personal interactions and relationships. Engaging with others leads to enjoyment and fulfillment in life, and you can strive to provide the same sort of enrichment for those who interact with you. Bring your story and your ideas to others and they’ll bring theirs out toward you.