I have a confession to make. I don’t have free will. The problem has been boggling my mind for ten years now. I’ve read numerous books, from classics to modernity, from David Hume to Daniel Dennett. I thought about it long and hard. My mind twisted itself like a DNA strand, in on itself, over and over again. Not only could I not figure out where I stand on the issue. I couldn’t figure out what the issue was.
Free will is supposed to be our most intimate experience. Noam Chomsky says we can’t abandon believing in it since it is our most immediate phenomenologically obvious impression. Yet I don’t have this impression. David Chalmers once asked us to imagine a philosophical zombie that acts and speaks exactly like a human would, with one important difference — it would have no consciousness at all. In many ways I feel like that zombie, in my case the deficit being not that of consciousness but that of freedom.
If you ask me to raise my arm whenever I want, I do not decide when it goes up. Instead I *find* myself with a decision being made for me. This must be hard for you, a being with free will, to understand. If I were to ask you to name a city, any city at all, you would name a city out your own free will. And if I were to ask you why you named that particular city, you would give an obvious reason. You might say “Rome!”, and were I to ask you as to why you named Rome, you might say “Oh, because I’ve been thinking about going there just yesterday!” You are free indeed.
But not me. If you were to ask me to name a city, a city name would simply appear in my mind. And were you to put a gun at my head and demand an explanation as to why that particular city name came up, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I might say “I was thinking of traveling to that city” or “It is the city I was born in” but in reality these would be rationalizations, each one being as good as the next. I just wouldn’t know why that particular city name appeared in my mind.
Complex situations are no better. When I have a heated argument, emotions often take hold of me. I say or do something under their duress. Emotions are mechanisms that evolved in mammalian brains to guide our behavior in complex social situations. And I often do as I am told. You, free people, can stand at the bar and, if you like someone, you are free to go talk to him or her. I, on the other hand, I feel compulsed. Biological need arises in me and it is met with fear of being denied. And I stand there paralyzed, victimized by these forces for tens of seconds, observing their battle, waiting to be commanded by the winner “Yep, go talk to her!” or “Nope, just don’t feel like it today”.
I know that people like you, dear reader, people that have free will, say that they are the thinkers of their thoughts. You know what you are going to think next. You are in control of your thoughts. Descartes proclaimed “I think therefore I am!” But not me. Thoughts *appear* in my mind. I know what I am going to think next as well as I know what you are going to say next. I cannot stop them, although after several years of meditation I did manage to get some brief moments of silence. If I were to speak for Descartes I could only mumble “Thoughts happen!” (Coincidentally, that might have spared our civilization the blunder of dualism which ensured for the next several centuries.)
When I am not shoved around by my genes or my upbringing, I rely on my rationality. It is a great privilege to be able to say that two and two makes four, if only occasionally. I wouldn’t call this freedom. It is a bag of tools, a valuable collection acquired over a lifetime, that allows me to both be less constrained by genetic and cultural imperatives but that constrains me in turn. My thinking abilities are limited by the thinking tools that I have. Someone with a greater collection will be wiser and more gentle. Acquiring these tools in the first place is a matter of luck. I was born and raised in a Christian family and said prayers to my guardian angel till my mid teens. If not for a lucky encounter with the books of Dawkins and Hofstadter, my thinking tools would still be stuck somewhere in the Dark Ages, my rationality would be much weaker, and my behavior and life very different. Luck may not swallow everything, as Galen Strawson said, but it swallows a whole lot.
The pieces that are left over after luck has had its feast are then quickly picked by the hyenas of biology and culture. And only the floating eagle above, my clear and aware mind, fed and strengthened with thinking tools along entire lifetime, can give those beasts a fight. But this eagle is but a shadow of what you people call free will, that you share equally among you, that you are endowed with right from your birth, that frees you from cultural and genetic imperatives, that allows you to will what you want. You lucky bastards!