Do We Have Free Will? Sometimes

By Adam J. Pearson

Facebook, the leading arena of social interaction has also become the latest hot spot for online philosophical debate.  Since the days of Socrates, conversation has been the primary medium of philosophical inquiry.  However, then as now, philosophical discussions did not produce final, definitive answers to the questions they addressed. Commenting on this situation, my friend Dave K. remarked that he didn’t expect any centuries old philosophical questions to ever be resolved on Facebook. As a joke, I posted the following in response:

Behold, dear friends, I will now officially resolve a centuries old philosophical question on Facebook.

Q: Do we have free will?

*drumroll*

A: Sometimes. 

***

While this comment was intended as a joke, it did inspire some interesting and amusing discussion, which wonderfully disproved its claim to have definitively settled the question. As a side note, the claim was a parodic jab at the German philosopher Hegel, who referred to his philosophical system as THE “System” of final answers to the questions of philosophy.  Here is a record of some of the highlights of the conversation that resulted:

Jane S. Q.: Wow. I’m really impressed you added the drumroll

Adam: What I mean: we can live our lives on autopilot, allowing our cultural and behavioural conditioning to dictate what we do and say. Or, we may, through a singular act of will and clear-mindedness,choose to set all of that apart and make a genuinely free decision that may either go against everything we have been taught to say and do, or may be totally in line with it.

Most of the time, we tend to live on the autopilot setting. Our free will is possible; we have it in potential, but it is not always actualized.

 Yazz: Free will is an illusion.
And so are pants.

Stephanie D.: Even if you are acting from a model designed by environmental conditions and past experiences, think of it like a huge house you operate within, you are still using free will to decide how you work within the “house.” It’s really sketchy trying to pin point what is and isn’t a result of conditioning, but I think just the simple act of questioning expands the “house” from which your free will operates within, and if you do identify conditioning and address it, it’s like tearing down a wall.

Jane: I’m not sure about free will Adam. Seems like so many of my choices are made through my conditioning. Our “decisions” seem like they are made through past experiences, chemistry etc. Just not sure.

Adam: I have experienced both ‘automatic decisions’ and truly ‘deliberate decisions.’ This is a distinction that I feel is worth making. These two experiences are very different.

Jane: Interesting Adam. I know I think I make choices, just not sure.

Adam: I believe that I’ve made very few genuinely free choices in my life. I suspect that may be the case for many other people as well.

Jane: Adam, how can you tell the difference?

Adam: We can tell the difference because a conditioned ‘decision’ has the force of a certain ‘push’ behind it. You can feel your conditioning, what you ‘know,’ what you have ‘done before,’ or what your culture or family ‘does in situations like this’ pushing you to choose a certain option over another.

In contrast, in a genuine decision, you still feel that push, but there’s an important difference: you choose not to be carried away by it. A free choice is a choice made independently of the push of conditioning, which attempts to propel you in a certain direction or predispose you towards a certain action.

Jane: Adam, sometimes I feel a push which I think is just like my inner voice. I only know after I have followed it and things work out nicely that that is what it was. I guess I can’t tell when it is my conditioning kicking in or an “inner voice”. Of course I still don’t feel like it is actually my decision but I can sometimes tell after the fact which voice (conditioned or inner) I’ve listened to by the results.

Brianna D.: Why does it always follow that a decision based on values that come from society or from your family or etc. should not reflect what you want to do? I think you can have an independent decision process where you weigh all the pros and cons and conclude that the best decision for you in that situation is the same as your parents might have made (or whomever else you want to target!).

Adam: Brianna, you asked: ‎”Why does it always follow that a decision based on values that come from society or from your family or etc. should not reflect what you want to do? ”

I didn’t make that claim. I proposed that a free choice is a choice made independently of the push of conditioning. What you actually choose may dovetail with what your society, family, culture, etc. predispose you to choose, or it may be something totally different.

The sufficient condition that is required to make the decision a genuinely free choice is that it is made independently of the ‘push’ of conditioning. Whether the choice ultimately aligns with that ‘push’ or not is immaterial to its being a ‘free’ choice.  All that matters is that the making of the choice does not depend on the push, force, or thrust of the conditioning, which is a collective predisposition towards a given action.

Brianna: Thanks for clarifying – these arguments usually sound to me like we need to reject any kind of push or conditioning or what society and other people think, that the decision must be different, otherwise it is simply copying what other people do and it’s not truly your own decision. This makes more sense to me, the way you explain it.

Adam: The urge to rebel can itself be a form of conditioning, rather than freedom. That’s a subtle trap. I learned that lesson by being active in the punk rock community growing up in which nonconformity itself became a code of conformity. The nonconformist ‘punk’ way of dressing (e.g. wearing doc marten boots, plaid pants, leather jackets, etc.) itself became an aesthetic to which the punks would conform. This is the irony of ‘nonconformist’ conformity, and is quite different from what I mean by this view of free choices.

What I mean here is something different than just “rebellion is freedom” since rebellion and conformity can themselves both become simply automatic action according to different patterns of conditioning.

Freedom rests in making choices independent of the push of conditioning rather than swept up in it. Those choices may ultimately be rebellious or consistent with the actions of a particular group or culture.

Neither conformity nor rebellion is intrinsically ‘free’; the freedom depends on the ‘quality’ of the choice itself, that is, its being chosen independently of the actions to which our conditioning predisposes us. Some hold that such choices are impossible, but I believe they are possible, albeit statistically rare.

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2 thoughts on “Do We Have Free Will? Sometimes

  1. I was particularly enlightened by the idea that non-conformity is not necessarily independant decision-making. I believe I\ve fallen into that trap many times.

  2. Yes we do have 100% free will BUT when it comes to drug addiction and addiction to whatever else (gambling, shopping, food, someones company) the temptation and desire can make us feel as though we have no free will…

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