Who Cares about Free Will?

If you’re talking about free will, you may be having the wrong conversation.

Human ego and drunk poets have ruined the powerful concept of soul and turned it into a flowery notion.

Your character (body-mind) can function on its own. Soul doesn’t do anything. It just witnesses what the character does. The character would go on as per its script even if your soul weren’t here to witness it.”
― Shunya

Image from Pixabay

I get bored when people talk about free will.

Arguing about the existence of free will seemed like a way to pass the time at dinner. Or a concept that’s thrown into a thriller movie to spice up an otherwise boring scene.

Most people misunderstood the concept. They’d say “What is the point of trying if there is no free will?” as if salmon didn’t struggle and experience pain and die every year as they swam upstream, compelled by instincts they couldn’t override.

Some people say free will is an illusion. We don’t actually have any real choices because we are products of things outside our control. Physics, biology, environment, genetics. Like the salmon, we’re compelled to swim upstream.

But what practical application does this have for life? If I feel the illusion that I can decide, then to me it’s the same as actually deciding. I don’t have to go about my same routine. I can wake up and decide to drive to Louisiana instead of writing this newsletter (I’m tempted, to be honest). Is this deviation predetermined? Well, who cares?

If free will is an “illusion,” it seems to be a necessary one. We still make decisions and take personal responsibility for our actions. We need to feel as if we are free, operating within space with a will and consciousness. Without that it doesn’t seem like our higher cognition works.

Fiction like “Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick and “The Stranger” by Albert Camus have attempted to understand and explore the concept of free will. But again, it’s all based on speculation and our own personal beliefs.

We seem to either:

A.) Believe free will exists, so that we have power over our own lives
B.) Believe free will doesn’t exist, to absolve ourselves of responsibility

Sure, we can also point towards physics to get an answer. Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. If we reversed the universe back to the onset of the Big Bang, and then forwarded it again, we’d end up in exactly the same place. Maybe. But we still don’t even fully understand the behavior of light. I’m skeptical we totally understand the physics of predetermination.

And on another note, what are we defining free will as, anyway? Robert Sapolsky (A leading ‘anti free-will proponent) and Sam Harris both seem to have similar definitions. In an interview Sapolksy wrote:

“Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.”

Is ‘free will’ something that acts completely independent of its environment and surroundings? That premise is already set up to fail. No part of me is ever not touching something. A bed. A chair. The ground. The limb of a tree. I’m bound by gravity and the planet. My decision to not drive to Louisiana today is partially because I decided to get dogs 6 years ago. I know they get sad every time I leave. Also, I’m lazy.

We don’t make decisions in a vacuum because vacuums don’t exist.

One argument against free will is that we don’t control our thoughts. They arise up through our brains like mist from our subconscious. But those ideas still come from ‘us.’ The subconscious is not an overlord whipping the conscious to move forward. It works in tandem with the conscious mind. As an artist, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out this relationship.

A work of art does not come from the rational “logical” part of the mind. (Using “rational” in layman’s terms.) I use my consciousness to “query” my subconscious, which then provides results.

For example, imagine a nurse. See what comes to your mind’s eye. Your conscious mind didn’t “choose” this image of the nurse. Your subconscious aggregated data to provide you with the image. Now imagine that the nurse has a bug’s head and claws for feet. Again, you’ll see another image. Everyone’s image will be different. That depends on their experience, intelligence, emotional state, and background. I can continue to “query” to change the image of the nurse. Make her old or young. Make her male. Give her red hair or Technicolor eyebrows. Then observe the image it produces.

I control the entirety of the creative process, but only part of it I control directly. What if I wanted to change the results my subconscious was giving me? I could scroll through a photo gallery of nurses. Or I could go to a hospital and watch as the nurses entered and exited for shift and saw what they looked like.

My brain absorbs this data without my direct control. Then it starts producing different results when I ‘query’ the subconscious.

Say I decide that I want a new novel idea. Or I want to figure out how to unsnarl a plot. I ask my mind the question. It may take a few seconds, hours, days, or even weeks. But as long as I keep directing my subconscious to work on the problem it’ll almost always provide me with results. Just not always on my schedule or demand. And not always in the way I expect them.

(The four step model of creativity is another useful way to understand this process.)

But that doesn’t prove free will exists. It only demonstrates that we have indirect control of our subconscious.

One day machines might be able to build simulation models to predict people’s behavior into the future. This is part of the premise of the show ‘Devs.’ Free will can be attained only if we can see the future, and then decide to take a different action.

But again, that’s all hypothetical.

There is science both for and against free will. And my attitude on free will changes depending on the time of day. I wake up an existentialist and go to sleep a determinist.

But there is something I’ve learned in the last few years in regards to free will.

If free will exists at all, it’s got a narrow pathway to walk.

I spend the last few days in misery. Nothing terrible happened, but I had a mild case of COVID that lasted three weeks. For three weeks I couldn’t go anywhere. I holed up at home. At the tail end of those three weeks, a huge snowstorm blew through the southern United States. The roads were difficult to drive on and spending more than a few minutes outside was miserable. On top of that my grandpa got sick.

Before that, I’d been happier than I ever had been in my entire life. I’ve been working on two books, planning a family, getting prepared to search for a home to buy. I was at the top of my game when it came to exercise, diet, emotional resilience, and productivity. I’d seen huge improvements in the last six months when it came to my mental health.

I felt like a young god. But all it took for me to come crashing to hell was four bad weeks.

Not a god. A slave. A slave of sickness and cold weather and bad luck.

Since I was so fatigued, focusing on my writing was difficult. But then I got bored and turned to Twitter for stimulation. That left me feeling even more disconnected and pissed off. And this created a vicious feedback loop. The worse I felt the less I wanted to do, and the less I did the worse I felt.

So I finally decided on a hard reset. Last night I disconnected from everything. Shut off my computer and phone. I made dinner and read on my Kindle for hours until I went to bed. Then I got up, wrote for 90 minutes, went to my grandparent’s farm for a few hours, and came back to write this newsletter. I immediately felt 80% better, although it was a hard climb out of the sludge of my sadness. ( And I still haven’t checked any of my social media. )

A lot of my problems feel abstract but have simple concrete solutions. I need food, sleep, sunlight, health, purpose, novelty, and fun. If one of the pillars collapses my whole mood tends to go. Existential despair seems to arise for the silliest reasons.

I start crying when I think of all the dead animals launched into space by Soviet Russia. Then I realize I’m upset because I’ve forgotten to eat lunch.

Could I make myself into someone who didn’t get upset when they weren’t productive? Maybe. I’ve done enough work with my subconscious to change huge portions of myself and my perspective on the world. It’s possible. But every change in the brain has huge rippling consequences. Every part of you is connected to everything else.

And I can’t change myself into someone who doesn’t need water. Or sleep. No matter how much I try to exercise my ‘free will.’ And I can’t make decisions in a vacuum. I can’t go against my basic instincts without consequences.

And it doesn’t matter how perfect my plan is. Sometimes outside forces destroy it. Like having COVID or a freak snowstorm. An asteroid hurtling toward earth doesn’t give a damn about my writing career.

So the next time you’re at some stuffy dinner party where someone is talking about Thomas Harris and the free will exercise with Paris and London and blah blah de frickin’ blah, maybe think of this:

- If free will doesn’t exist, you’re still going to experience the pain of making decisions.
- Consent isn’t a requirement for existence. You didn’t sign up to be human, but there are several requirements including food, sleep, the need for social cohesion, desire for love, etc., that you cannot escape. If you don’t obey these requirements you will suffer.
- Oh, and you’ll definitely die sooner or later. Everything in existence is terrified of death. So that’s fun.
- To move successfully through the world, we have to understand how the world works. Fire is not built with prayers. It is made with a spark and tinder. And the more you know about the world the better you can make informed decisions.
- To be the best version of ourselves we have to understand ourselves. Both our weaknesses and our strengths. We’re all hiding some amount of information from ourselves. Emotional blind spots. Find what you can and destroy it with sunlight. You’ll emerge a better person.
- Most things that are worthwhile to have are difficult to get. Why would they be easy to get? Everyone wants them, so spots are limited.
-We can’t change the rules of reality. But we can change our perception of reality. We’re more complex versions of Pavlov’s dogs. Or maybe Watson’s baby. We can teach ourselves to salivate at the thought of sunsets and coffee. Or to be afraid of teddy bears or rats.
- Recognize that you didn’t get to choose your base appearance, IQ, or your background. That no matter what you decide to do with your life these will always shape you as a person.
- Tragedy strikes every person in existence, and you will have no real plan for how to deal with it.
-We don’t have control over these tragedies. But we can change how we react to them.
- That creeping feeling of existential dread? That tickle in the back of your throat that feels like a vacuum of misery? Maybe you just need to eat some carbs.

I write about writing, existential horrors, love, and what it means to be human. teachrobotslove.com/newsletter

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