Free will and negative emotions

May 20, 2017 · 3 min read

Goal: Effectively describe how losing my faith in free will has improved the quality of my lived experience.

Stretch goal: Convince you that internalizing the implications of there being no free will can relieve certain kinds of suffering.

Caveat: This only discusses negative emotions. I hope to write about related effects on positive emotions in a separate post.

Internalizing the illusory nature of free will has led me to a series of conclusions that have reshaped the final form my negative emotions take. Here’s Sam Harris writing about how one of those emotions, hate, struggles to persist in the mind of someone who doesn’t believe in free will:

I haven’t been noticeably harmed, and I believe I have benefited, from knowing that the next thought that unfurls in my mind will arise and become effective (or not) due to conditions that I cannot know and did not bring into being. The negative effects that people worry about — a lack of motivation, a plunge into nihilism — are simply not evident in my life. And the positive effects have been obvious. Seeing through the illusion of free will has lessened my feelings of hatred for bad people. I’m still capable of feeling hatred, of course, but when I think about the actual causes of a person’s behavior, the feeling falls away. It is a relief to put down this burden, and I think nothing would be lost if we all put it down together.

While I agree with every word in the quote, I believe leaving it there undersells some of the psychological benefits: There’s more to gain than losing hate.

No doubt the reason why Sam’s feeling of hatred falls away after thinking of the actual causes of a person’s behavior is because he — along with all who view reality this way — acknowledge that it is impossible to be responsible for one’s behavior. And so whatever behavior the person exhibited that led to you to hate them must not be directed towards them. A person’s behavior is a slave to genetic and environmental causes, and genetic and environmental causes are slaves to the initial conditions of the universe and its physical laws. When someone like Sam tries to hate a person, they soon realize their only beef is with what we may call for the sake of simplicity, nature.

Importantly, that last paragraph may just as well be applied to any negative emotion; not just hate. Take inadequacy as one example. Feelings of inadequacy may arise for many reasons. Consider the feeling one gets after coming out on the wrong side of a comparison: That person is better looking than me; that person has more prestige than me; that person is happier than me. In any of these examples, what ultimately decides whether one wins or loses the mental comparison are certain facts of one’s life. And the facts of one’s life — just like the facts of any other’s — are subject to the same forces already described. Only nature can claim responsibility.

Whether it’s hatred, inadequacy, anxiety, frustration, or any other negative emotion, we must acknowledge that all of the facts which cause any one emotion to rise are wholly caused by vast and nebulous forces, i.e., the initial conditions of the universe, the physical laws that govern the universe, and the unending changes that matter has undergone since the universe’s formation. (Quantum mechanics is showing that some of this unending change may truly be “random.” But whether or not that turns out to be the case has no bearing on human free will.)

It is impossible for me to be anything other than exactly what I am as I type this sentence. I can, of course, notice myself feeling indignant about one or more aspect of my life, but the only available target for my indignation is nature.

Just as Sam cannot hate after thinking through the actual causes of a person’s behavior, we should find it equally impossible to sit with any negative emotion after internalizing their ultimate cause.

Philosophy as therapy

To choose what you think would require that you think it…

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