Over the years I've had many deep, as well as shallow, discussions with friends and acquaintances about free will. It's a fascinating subject, in no small part because substance and process are intimately related.
Meaning, if someone disagrees with me and argues, "I'm free to do what I want," I can always respond with "That's just what I expected you to say."
Reading about all the philosophical hair-splitting in the area of free will can overheat the cerebral cortex quickly. That's why I like to focus on Albert Einstein's simple viewpoint (in part 1 of his credo):
I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.
Here's another similar Einstein quote:
Honestly I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom?
What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said, "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills."…When you mention people who speak of such a thing as free will in nature it is difficult for me to find a suitable reply. The idea is of course preposterous.
Indeed, it is. Yet the fact remains that we feel like we have free will.
For example, at this very moment it seems like I can write whatever I want after I finish this sentence. Yet as someone who has been an avid writer since my pre-teen years (I'm now 61), I frequently have had the feeling that what I'm composing already has been written somewhere within my psyche, and I'm just transcribing it.
I'm not implying that some sort of supernatural, mystical, or fateful power is at work here -- destiny, karma, God's plan, or whatever. Just that whatever I decide to do seems to flow from a source deeper than my conscious volitional awareness.
How all this relates to religiosity and churchlessness is too big a subject to address in any detail right now. Here's my brief take on that question:
Becoming free from "ties that bind" is an important aspect of most religious, spiritual, and mystical teachings, whether they be of the Eastern or Western variety. The soul and/or mind often is considered to be imprisoned by this physical domain of existence. Theologies speak of the necessity to become free of earthly ties/attachments, whether through one's own efforts or with the aid of a savior, master, guru, spiritual guide, or whoever.
Nice idea. Undeniably appealing. A notion that I liked a lot for the thirty-five years or so when I seriously pursued a meditational practice aimed at what often was called the "liberation of the soul."
But now the idea of breaking free from earthly bounds seems both extremely unlikely and distinctly unappealing to me. In his credo, Einstein also said:
Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the why and the wherefore. In our daily lives we feel only that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own.
Interconnectedness. Interdependence. Involvement.
This indeed seems to be what life is all about. Yet the notion of free will implies that we can be lone wolves, unaffected by the "pack" of society, culture, other people, and the natural world.
Yuck! Who would want that? And who could possibly attain that?
According to a persuasive essay by Galen Strawson in the online New York Times, "Your Move: The Maze of Free Will," nobody. Here's the basic argument that Strawson, a philosophy professor, uses to demonstrate that we can't be ultimately morally responsible for what we do.
(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.
(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.
(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.
The key move is (3). Why can’t you be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all? In answer, consider an expanded version of the argument.
(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.
(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).
(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.
(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.
(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience.
Read the entire essay (just three and a half well-written pages) to better understand what Strawson is saying. Which seems pretty darn unarguable to me.
The message I get from this solid bit of philosophizing is... relax. Chill out. We need to stop carrying the weight of the cosmos on our anxiety-ridden, guilt-prone shoulders. Each of us is the result of everyone and everything that has come before us, and is still with us now.
We aren't steering our own separate ship across the ocean of life.
We're being carried by currents far below the surface of our consciousness, influences that transcend our puny awareness of here and now (for example, the atoms we're made of can be traced back many billions of years to the big bang).
Stawson ends his essay with this response to the seemingly solid fact that we are not the causes of ourselves:
Is there any reply? I can’t do better than the novelist Ian McEwan, who wrote to me:
“I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions.
And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.”