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Free Will

The Will Is Not Free: You Have To Earn It

Basil Gala on what it takes to free ourselves from our formative factors.

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

The poet William Ernest Henley, one-legged, frequently sick with tuberculosis, wrote: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” It was a striking assertion of free will.

Habits and addictions seem to bind up us and people around us, inevitably controlling our acts, keeping us prisoners, unable to escape our innate character or environmental influences. Jim was a talented handyman who worked for my brother and me on our buildings a few years back. He could do original construction or repairs from the foundation to the roof, including plumbing and electrical. In his forties, he looked boyish and gentle as he bustled about, feverishly knocking things together. He earned a good income, but lived in a garage and drove an ancient pick-up truck, which he was constantly fixing. One day in his garage home he took his own life with a shotgun. We found out he had been on the drug speed (an amphetamine), using nearly all his earnings to feed his addiction. Jim apparently killed himself to escape the prison of his habit. Was that an act of a free will, or an inevitable result of his heredity and environment?

A dear family friend is 76, with a heart condition, but still working at a job that stresses his system, climbing ladders to roofs. He loves the casinos on the reservations. A successful family man, intelligent and hardworking, he sometimes declares: “I’ve quit gambling; I’m not going to the casinos anymore.” His long-suffering wife sighs and says nothing. She knows he means well, intends to quit his vice, but is unable to do it.

Brains, even genius, do not guarantee freedom from bad habits. Orson Welles was surely a bright man, but his addiction to food and wine turned his body into a mountain of fat as he aged. He was also a strong man, but he died prematurely at 71 years of age.

Such cases lead many people to believe we are not free to act in accordance with reason, that our behavior is instead the inevitable product of our heredity, our genes, and the environment in which we grew up. I agree that our will is not free: I think the freedom of the will must be earned – and reason alone will not lead us to this freedom.

Knowing what to do intellectually is not enough. True, animals possess small intellects and display little free will, and our will developed along with our intellect as we emerged from an animal condition. We learned to reason as to what is best to do for our own welfare and that of those we love, and how to do the right thing to achieve our thriving. If you need surgery to prolong your life, you’ll submit to it, though it may be painful. Similarly, you say no to a tempting pleasure, if you know it is harmful; or, you should say no, anyway. You might note though that most people don’t like to say no to their passions and habits. If you want a good bet, bet that people will not change their ways. For most of us, every day is Groundhog Day: we repeat our established activities, the motions and habits we have acquired as a result of our genetic tendencies and early learning without awareness or deliberation, in an unchanging cycle. In this we are but automata, inevitably executing the instructions and the loops coded into a multitude of internal programs.

Most people who are overweight remain so even after diets and advice from weight control clinics. Statistics show that 95% of those who lose weight at a diet center regain it all, and more, within two years. And growing up in a city slum, with poor parents, seems to lead inevitably to a dismal life of failure, prison, or early death for the children. Did I say ‘inevitably’? We all know of stories when a child raised in poverty and deprivation grew up to rise to big success. My dissertation advisor at the University of Southern California, Dr Richard Bellman, thought by many to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize, grew up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin, studying by the light of the fireplace. How did these people shake off the influence of their early environments, rising to prominence? And how about the one-in-twenty dieters in the statistics who got the weight off and kept it off?

Escaping Fate

Let’s not focus on the great majority of people, who go through their lives insensitive to opportunities, but on those who, like the Buddha, awaken to possibilities of action the majority cannot even see. Some, like Saul on the road to Damascus, see the light, are shaken to the core, and become different, and able to change the world around them.

So is it the grace of God that descends upon a tormented soul on very rare occasions, to provide a miracle of healing, a key out of the prison of vice, to a higher existence? In the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is to declare trust in a ‘higher power’ for psychological healing. Souls doomed to apparently unending suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, or depression, suddenly convert to health and happiness.

I am not, however, searching here for the rare grace of God. I am thinking about the processes of will that change a character, a life, and a destiny. And we know from many observations of human lives that some people will achieve extraordinary successes at whatever they undertake, sometimes in the face of tremendous odds against them. Reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791), you may get some ideas how Franklin acquired so much wealth and fame as a businessman, inventor, scientist, writer, statesman, and social lion, starting from very humble beginnings. Other people have told similarly amazing stories of escaping from poverty.

Such people were successful because they exercised their will to achieve what they thought was right for the own lives and the lives of others. Yes, the freedom of the will is philosophically debatable; but turning to a practical viewpoint, let me ask you this: are you more likely to be effective in your life when you believe you’re free to choose and act, or when you’re feeling powerless, bound by fate? Kurt, another handyman of my acquaintance, was smart and fast in his work. He could have become a licensed contractor with ease. But he was born to a blue-collar family and his father died poor at age 56. Whenever I tried to motivate Kurt to advance himself, he invariably said, “I’ll die like my father, early in life and poor.” Such fatalism does not help one succeed.

Ethical Truth in Light
Ethical Truth in Light by Abigail Vettese, 2023
Image © Abigail Vettese 2023 Instagram: @theshapeofsanctum Website: abigailvetteseart.com

Freedom & The Will

Philosophers have been arguing about human destiny and freedom for thousands of years. I can see why. Whatever you decide to be the truth about the will, the consequences for religion, morality, and legality are serious. If the will is not free, we should not ascribe sin or crime to actions, or punish the guilty person, since they are not ultimately responsible for their actions. If you are heavily addicted, and not free to choose – from alcoholism, other drugs, or some other obsessive-compulsive condition – you are sick: you’re not fully responsible for your acts. You should not be blamed or be expected to correct your behavior, but be given treatment in a clinic or hospital by expert psychotherapists. Similarly, if your will is not free, to be born into a poor family lacking education opportunities means that you cannot rise above your station and status. Society wastes time and money teaching you thrift, hard work, saving, and investment.

“Aha!” you say, “but some people are born with genes or combinations of genes which drive them to greater effort” – or perhaps it was a special teacher, friend, or relative who inspired those poor souls to excel, shaking off their unpromising heredity and environment. That’s still cause and effect, you insist, and free will had nothing to do with their success.

I may concede to you this point now. To proceed, however, let me begin where perhaps I should have started, with an analysis of terms: What is freedom? What is the will?

First let’s talk about freedom. Some objects have only one degree of freedom, like a train on a track, which can move either back or forth, constrained by the rails. Other objects, like four-wheel drive cars on the open road, have two degrees of freedom, moving around in any direction on a surface. An aircraft, on the other hand, can fly in all three dimensions, and so has maximum freedom of movement.

You say, but we’re not discussing mechanical freedoms. True, but mechanics is a good starting point. After all, Newton’s laws of motion gave a strong impetus to the idea of determinism, the inevitability of cause and effect in Nature. Now, however, the indeterminism of quantum mechanics, and especially Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, modify Newton’s laws, making determinism in any absolute sense an obsolete notion.

But if you prefer, let’s talk about people. Who is freer, a prisoner, or the (wo)man in the street? You will agree that the person outside the prison walls has more freedom, although perhaps a true philosopher can be free in spirit while imprisoned. Another case then: who is freer, the master or the slave? You’ll have to say the master. And between the employer and the employee, who has more liberty? You must agree that in general the employer, because he or she gives the orders, which the employee must follow or lose their job. Who are freer, those living in a dictatorship or those in a democracy? Citizens of a democracy can usually travel freely, even outside their own country, with some restrictions speak as they wish, and write and publish what they want, and are generally speaking not afraid of being put in jail for their views. But are any of these people completely free? Surely not. For instance, in a democracy we are not allowed to violate the rights of others or do harm to other people. So, freedom is never absolute, but always a relative quantity. Nevertheless, some freedom is better than none.

Secondly, what can we say about the will, free or not? I define the will as that function of the mind which allows humans to act contrary to their desires – which they may do if their reasoning indicates that to do so is necessary for their own good or the good of those they love. Thus, by an act of will you submit to painful surgery when your doctor explains that the procedure is necessary for your health. An animal is not likely to do this, even if you could communicate this truth well to it. You may also rationally, wilfully abstain from a pleasure, such as sex or some food greatly desired, to avoid hurting yourself.

But do you? Do you abstain from pleasures because they are harmful? Perhaps, if you’re not addicted to them from past engagements. But even if you are addicted, you may act deliberately to forego the pleasurable activity. But even if your will is strong and you can avoid harmful pleasures, are you going to do that every time you are tempted? Surely not. Sometimes you will succumb to your desires because you’re not concentrating on your resistance: you are tired, distracted, or too relaxed or intoxicated.

Nevertheless, you have sometimes fought temptation successfully. You will recognise this feeling rising inside you, leading you to fight for what is right. I experience it as assertiveness, aggressiveness, or even cold anger. As the Greeks would, let us call this feeling thymos: a quiet intellectual anger guiding you to behave sanely, for the safety of your body or spirit. Like all faculties, thymos gets stronger if it is exercised regularly, with gradually increasing intensity, and for a sufficiently long time.

There is a free will then – sometimes – whenever there is an intellect telling us the consequences of our actions, and we are roused to guide those actions to virtuous behavior.

When we follow the right course, maybe it’s only because we have a desire for health, order, or justice, or something else which produces in us a desire stronger than our lower instincts. This is not free will, but rather, a push by a different desire to determine our behavior. I’m not merely suggesting that we replace one desire that leads to harm with one that prompts what is good. Doing so is a simple technique, which works well in many situations to improve behavior. Instead, I’m proposing that in order to act on our free will, we act on abstract or intellectual grounds, putting away desire completely during our period of deliberation.

Can I give clear examples of such abstract grounds for acting freely without the motivation of desire? I am not sure I can. Even if you act purely for justice (to take one abstract principle), it must be because you desire justice. Or suppose you decide to do a good deed because it will decrease disorder in the world and promote life. Can such a goal be said to be free of desire? It cannot. But suppose now that you put aside the satisfaction of a present desire to achieve some future benefit you visualize as probable. Even though such a benefit may be tied to a desire for future benefit, a desire so defined is worthwhile, and free, because from two or more choices you pick the one which will enrich your life in the future, which is the tougher decision.

So I offer you such freedom of the will as exists for some people, some of the time, occasionally leading them to succeed when others fail; maybe moving them to a higher level of consciousness, above their animal ways, to truly human behavior. It’s not a total kind of freedom, as René Descartes describes in Passions of the Soul (1649), where he writes: “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained.” By contrast, I define a type of free will for our modern world of quantum physics, where events may be probable but are never certain.

This relative (not absolute) will is enough. It is enough to give, over time, enormous power to those who possess it, to alter their own characters, and to influence people and events, thus creating destiny for themselves and the world around them. This relatively free will is a combination of intellectual reasoning and the emotion of thymos. And willful people are like shepherds, leading the less willful on the path of good or evil. And so the world takes shape, beautiful or ugly.

© Dr Basil E. Gala 2023

Basil Gala is a writer and speaker with a PhD from the University of Southern California.

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