Strengthening Our Free Will

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Some people argue that there is no such thing as free will. I suppose they just can’t help but think that.

When taken to the fullest extent, the idea can be very difficult to grasp. It’s easier, instead, to consider free will as a light switch. We can turn it on and off. Sometimes deliberately. Often subconsciously. Because free will is something we often surrender.

Surrendering free will can sound like a terrible thing. But it is also a better way of understanding one another’s faults. It is also a major step towards a cohesive philosophy of how to live.

The Philosopher’s Stove

The notions against free will begin with the idea that we are a collection of nerves and neurons that respond to stimuli in ways that are outside our control. We can’t help but be influenced by the dangerous heat of an active stove; the radiant heat compels us to not touch it. So we don’t. Unless, of course, a countervailing force is powerful enough to overcome the initial hesitation.

What force could overwhelm our natural intuitions and make us touch a hot stove? YouTube. Or rather, peer pressure and the desire for attention. So in the context of the “no free will” camp, if someone does indeed touch a hot stove, it is due to other forces that are, again, outside their control. There was no choice. It was just emergent behavior.

This a great way to excuse oneself from bad behavior. On the flip side, it is also a great way to meekly dodge the notion of valor. When people commit heroic deeds, someone will ask them why they risked their life and the hero will say: “Anyone else would have done the same.”

It was just emergent behavior.

An argument for free will would suggest otherwise, of course. If free will exists, a person can only choose to overcome their innate tendencies. To return to the example of the hot stove, such a person must deliberately, willfully place their hand on the stove.

The example linked above, via Youtube, shows that there was no use of force in the making of the video. No one made the person accept the peer pressure. No one made the person do any of the things they did on-camera.

So if you want to self-mutilate your hand for attention, that’s totally your decision.

It might be astonishingly stupid, but it’s your free will.

Perhaps.

The argument against free will anticipates this idea and suggests that the person who touches the stove is still just a mere vessel responding to powerful stimuli out of their control. A person in a controlled environment would never touch the stove. This resistance is natural.

But a person who touches the stove in this specific environment is acting naturally too.

Because this specific person, in this specific circumstance, with the innate insecurities and emotional needs that they possess, is prone to that behavior. Couple this tendency with the goading from friends and the promise of future internet stardom, then mix in the dangerous cocktail of high testosterone and high dopamine receptivity, and what do you get? New scar tissue.

In other words, the “no free will” camp would say that this individual couldn’t help themselves given all the factors that put him there in the first place. So there is no free will, by this argument, because anyone who had all those variables working in the right fashion, dialed perfectly to the moment, would act the same way.

It’s not their fault. As the hero would say, “Anyone else would have done the same.”

The Free Will On/Off Switch

So does free will exist? I think so. But not always. We aren’t very suggestible. Until we are.

The degree of susceptibility is a by-product of willpower. This is the most precise use of that term. Free will is governed by willpower and thus free will is a show of strength born from the muscle that is willpower. There are ways to strengthen that muscle. There are ways to weaken it.

When strong, willpower can make you do wildly unnatural things. Like searing your hand on a stove. Or running a 100 mile race.

What weakens our free will? The very things that weaken our willpower. Fatigue, stress, hunger, thirst, confusion, social norms. Authority. Look no further than the famous Milgram experiment to see how we willfully take our cues from others in moments of low willpower. None of the participants were truly acting of their own free will. They were too tired.

But that doesn’t mean they lack free will. They were placed in a controlled environment carefully designed to completely erode their abilities. The whole point of the experiment was to show that anyone would do the same in those circumstances.

So free will has an on/off switch. And just like the lights in our homes, turning the switch on requires energy (i.e. willpower).

Fueling Our Free Will

I think it’s helpful to see discipline as an extension of free will. Disciplined people are best seen not as “gluttons of punishment” but as people who are truly free. So conjuring the idea of “free will” makes self-discipline all the more existential.

Rightfully so.

And since willpower is the muscle, we know that we must exercise it. And like all manner of exercise, we should do this deliberately. We should build plans, set goals, and adjust our challenges to bust through plateaus.

We should also indulge ourselves occasionally, let ourselves go, as a way of programming recovery periods. With all that we know about the mind and body and exercise, there is tremendous potential to build this willpower in fantastic ways. This is the ticket to more free will.

So where do we start?

At about 300 BC.

This is roughly the time at which Stoic philosophy was born, initially heralded by Zeno of Citium. Over time, this philosophy built a rich tradition with many practitioners developing some of humanity’s most timeless wisdom. The author William Irvine helps us understand this wisdom through the book A Guide To The Good Life. A couple lines shared below give us our first real start towards exercising willpower and performing free will.

It begins with the recognition of what we control:

What do we have complete control over? For one, we have complete control over the goals we set for ourselves.

This is where free will truly resides. From here, the term “goals” can be synonymous with “priorities”. And when we talk about goals and priorities, remember the words of another author, Greg McKeown, who wrote:

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

This lack of personal priorities is the first threat to free will. So if you lack goals or priorities of your own, you’ll simply adopt the ones people give you. Is that bad? It depends. Because along with goals and priorities, we have values. Our free will and willpower extends to this domain, too. As Irvine writes:

We have complete control over our values. Over whether we value fame and fortune, pleasure, or tranquility.

So long as the values are pure, which philosophy helps to ascertain, the imported goals and priorities are actually okay. The ultimate expression of free will, however, is to make the deliberate choice of what you see as your personal goals, priorities, and values. Some may be borrowed from others. Some might be wholly your own.

It leads me to think of metaskills.

Free Will: The Ultimate Metaskill

Here is a great article on the three metaskills one needs for the 21st century. These include self-awareness, creativity, and resilience. I agree with all of it.

Meanwhile, here is another great article explaining how “learning to learn” is the Most Important Metaskill of All. I agree with that, too.

If you combine all those metaskills, you get a wonderful picture of a well-rounded person. Which is certainly what I try to be.

But what if you don’t want to be a well-rounded person in any conventional sense?

What if you don’t want to spend all your time learning metaskills or, really, any other skills beyond what you already have?

What if you just want to be a good mother of three who works at the Postal Service?

Or an honest accountant who enjoys network TV and fishing on the weekends?

For any and all people, regardless of interest, Irvine’s study of the Stoic philosophy shows that the core necessity of a well-lived life is the deliberate establishment of your own goals and values. This is how one retains their free will. This is how we exercise our willpower. This is how we can pursue our “grand goal of living”. Consider what Irvine writes below:

When doing things to cause myself physical and mental discomfort, I view myself as battling an opponent in a game. This opponent is on evolutionary autopilot; he wants nothing more than to be comfortable and to take advantage of whatever opportunities for pleasure present themselves. My other self lacks self-discipline; left to its own devices, he always take the path of least resistance and seeks little more than simple-minded pleasure.

The lack of self-discipline is, I think, the lack of willpower and thus the lack of free will. The “other self” Irvine refer to is just left to “the path of least resistance” and “simple-minded pleasure” as offered by our environment.

Think about it: people lose themselves all the time. Why? Because they lose track of what they value. Because they lose sight of a grand goal. Things drift sideways soon after. When we drift away from our values, we get the feel of misliving.

The way people lose themselves is by going with the flow of whatever their surroundings offer. Not willfully. It happens through gradual erosion of willpower. The environment just takes over. This why we see localized epidemics in everything from drug use to crime to obesity and more.

Are these epidemics the product of free will? Of course not. We all recognize that such phenomena are the triumph of the environment over the individual. Some times for good. Sometimes for ill.

The Seed of Redemption

Frankly, I find this on/off view of free will much more comfortable. The notion that everything is a product of deliberate free will can make you very concerned for humanity. It might also make you deeply stressed by the evening news. Hear enough about the bad deeds in the world and you’ll think everyone is just out for themselves. Travel enough down the Youtube rabbit hole and you’ll conclude that free will just translates into catastrophic stupidity.

But when we see our misdeeds and mistakes as a loss of agency, a lapse in free will, we can better understand why people do the things they do. This is the stuff of information diets and influence. Those information diets aren’t just the product of social media. The environment we surround ourselves in every day feeds us information, too. All the time.

Combating a bad environment of bad information taxes our willpower. Which erodes our free will. And without specific goals and values, and the subsequent mindset that it imbues, how can anyone really withstand it?

We should remember that when we see others flailing about, acting badly. Their bad actions are occasionally deliberate, born of flawed goals and values. But not always.

The Stoics have several principle rules that are as wise as they are timeless. One such rule is that we must all maintain a distinction between things we can control and things we cannot control. If there is a universal metaskill that everyone needs, it’s probably orbits this idea.

Because it is the seed of free will. To know what you can control, and to establish the goals and values by which you’ll control those things and comport yourself, is to build a level of strength and identity that everyone needs.

This is how we can become truly independent. This is how we can understand others who aren’t.