Free will is not a topic I discuss often, outside of a small circle of people. Not because I am ashamed of this view or unsure of my position, but simply because the topic does not arise too often. It is also not the most appealing subject to discuss with people. Granted it is very interesting since the verdict in the discussion plays a major role in how we view our actions, other people’s actions, how we view justice, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. But the reason that this topic isn’t appealing is because many are vehemently against the idea that we may not have free will. As an atheist (I must state here that I am not a fan of the word. I prefer to say that I am an advocate for evidence and reason. People too often apply too much meaning to the term atheist. For the sake of this post, it simply means what it should, that I don’t believe in the existence of a God.), I am consistently reminded of the reaction I will get from many theists when they here of my stance on God. A mixture of offense, and anger, with a glass of confusion. But as someone that believes we do not have free will, I find the same reaction expands out to many atheists as well. I am inclined to think that this stems from fear. Many people who have contemplated free will, and do not like the idea of not having it, typically show signs of fear, despair, and/or anger. What people seem to fear most is the loss of meaning to their lives. So in many ways, it is what atheists experience when talking to theists about God. Only for me, this subject applies when talking to fellow atheists as well. Diminishing my audience that much more.
For this post however, I am not here to debate whether or not we have free will. That may happen in another post depending on the reaction I get. What my intentions are with this post are to attempt to show that there is no reason to fear a life without free will. As a theist fears a life without God, many people of all belief systems, including atheism, fear a life without free will. What I plan to show my readers here is that everything, or at least the majority, that is meaningful in your life, you have not having free will to thank.
Within the small circle that I have discussed free will with, I have experienced a wide range of reactions. I have talked with some people that, at length, I came to the belief that they could not handle the idea of not having free will if they came to believe it were true. I have seen people completely out of their element; almost so unaware of the idea that not having free will was a possibility that they weren’t affected by the idea at all, but what I saw more of was it was not clicking throughout their being that it was worth even considering. I myself took upon the idea rather smoothly. I try not to hold on to beliefs because I want something to be true. I have a desire to know what is. Whatever the truth about reality happens to be, I try my best to be ready to accept that. When I was first confronted about the idea of not having free will by a close friend, I had not considered the possible ramifications of it’s truth, so I was not too affected by it, and certainly didn’t buy into it at the time. As time progressed and I researched the idea, I kind of baby stepped my way into it. By the time I was convinced that we don’t have free will, the shock was minimal.
Not to tangent too much from the discussion but there is something that I want to mention here. People when confronted by new information tend to push it away. This is okay if you are simply being a critical thinker, but if you are afraid to find out that you are wrong, that is when bad things can occur. The problem with the stance of wanting, or even needing, what you believe to be true is that we confuse ourselves of what the ramifications are if we are in fact incorrect. For instance, theists typically fear the idea of God not existing. They say things like, “I just couldn’t imagine a world without God.” What is wrong with this statement is that they seem to be implying that if you were to prove that God didn’t exist, that from that point on God doesn’t exist. Almost as though you daggered God in the heart. This is incorrect. What they don’t realize is that if they discover God doesn’t exist, then God hasn’t ever existed. The world that you thought you could never live in, you have in fact been living in your entire life. Now of course their is that feeling like God did leave the day you came to the realization. But it is in a small way the result of clinging to an idea that you want to be true, rather than simply discovering what is actually true.
I remember the conversation I had with my close friend the night that he realized free will was an illusion. I saw the fear arise. That moment that he didn’t feel in control. He was realizing the ramifications of this truth. And these thoughts, in their immediacy, were not very comforting. I later learned that this was the catalyst to a spiral downward into a very dark depression. He felt as though he had lost all meaning to life. It took quite some time before he finally recovered from the depression. For those of you wondering, he is better than ever, and still believes free will is an illusion. This is not an uncommon reaction however. Many people that are in the conversation about free will attest to this reaction. Sam Harris has even posted a couple of times on his blog on this point to try to help people coping with these emotions.
I myself being aware of this, did begin to think about whether or not meaning was lost when free will was stripped away. I didn’t search for half truths so that I could sleep at night, but I just took the time to ponder the real consequences of this reality. Like I will say many more times in my life, it’s about what is, not what I want. I am happy to say however that I am in fact very happy with what I have come to believe.
There are typically three positions that people hold on the subject of free will. There is the first stance which believes that absolutely everything about you, such as your actions and thoughts, is of your own choosing. You are the author of your thoughts and nothing that has your fingerprint on it was not of your choosing. If you hold this position, the points I will soon bring to the forefront will challenge this belief to the fullest. The second position is in the middle. You believe that we have moments such as Freudian slips which aren’t really of our control, we also have many thoughts that aren’t really of our penmanship, and some emotions can go out of control, but when it comes down to the real choices in our life, that is where our free will is most observable. If you hold this stance, I believe that what I am soon to talk about will fit into your system of belief, and I hope that it will actually bring you even more happiness. Lastly, we have the third position. This is the position that I in fact hold. The belief that one has absolutely no free will. We are merely the result of causes which influence a chain of causes, nothing of which we can claim true ownership of to the level which free will suggests. If you have this belief system, I hope that from where you emotionally are today, you will leave with more happiness, true peace of mind, and a feeling that life couldn’t have more meaning any other way. So let me finally get to my point.
I remember one day looking at my wife. I can’t remember exactly what she was doing, perhaps she was folding some laundry, but that’s not relevant. What is relevant however is the rush of emotions that I felt. Love, happiness, excitement, peace, and so on. In that moment I took the time to appreciate these feelings. I was so overwhelmed with how strong these feelings were. These feelings were so true, so real. If anyone questioned whether I had meaning in my life, the answer was not clearer than in that moment. Then a thought came to me.
Believing in the illusoriness of free will, but not closed off to the idea that I might be wrong, I considered the question; What would this mean if I had free will? It was then that I slowly began to realize how sad this moment would become. Assuming I had free will, suddenly that beautiful moment that I will always cherish began to feel so… fake. If these feelings of love and joy were just a choice, how important could they possibly be? To really bring this point home, I would ask; How important, or how real, is love when you could simply choose to stop loving that person in a moment. If your first thought is, “that’s impossible.” Then you are beginning to see why free will in fact takes away meaning in life.
This is worth repeating many times and in different ways, in my opinion. How important is someones love for you; how strong is that drive for someone to love you, if that love can be taken away in an instant? Just one simple choice, and it’s gone. This may seem far fetched, but it isn’t. Just think about it. If you actually have free will, then think about the one thing that you care about most in the world. If you have true free will, you can choose to not care about that thing immediately. If your initial response, which we know would be true in this experiment, would be to not quit caring for that thing, your are seeing something which you are not in control of. If you truly have control of everything, then your emotions can be controlled as well. You could then quit caring for the most important thing in your life, and most importantly, not care that you quit caring! This brings me to my next point.
If you are in the second and third positions that I stated above, you are hopefully coming to realize that everything in your life that gives you meaning owes a thank you to the fact that you do not have control (or free will) over it. These emotions that would fight you, possibly to the death, are emotions so real in you, that you cannot deny them no matter how hard you try. So when you feel love. When you feel joy, happiness, peace. When you feel that driving force that pushes you to be better. When you feel these things that give your life meaning, they only have meaning in a reality without free will. They only have that truth, that truth that packs a real punch, because you cannot simply choose to not feel that way. Emotions are the most real, most important things to us. And those are the things which are most clearly not in our control (and at the very least not in our complete control).
So if you believe that you don’t have free will to some degree, or to every degree, look at all of your emotions. Look at the people or the things that make you happy. Look at the ones you love. really allow yourself to feel these emotions, because thanks to no free will, it is the most real and most meaningful thing in your life.