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A Truth Best Ignored?

I’ve been without belief in free will for a while now. My conversion to the view that we’re not the authors of our actions took place a few years ago, and I’ve remained steadfast in that view ever since.

Even when I still believed that I was the originator of all of my opinions and actions, I had my occasional doubts.

As a little kid, I can remember bending my arm, extending and contracting it and watching it intently as I did, trying to pinpoint the moment when I “made” it move. I’d try to observe the point at which “I” commanded my arm to extend or bend, and to identify a definite link between a preceding will on my part and the resulting movement.

Try as I might, I was never really able to do it. The movement in my arm just seemed to happen. It’s true that my will coincided, more or less, with my desire for my arm to move, and that neither the will nor the movement ever occurred on their own. But I was never able to say with any certainty that my willing of my arm to move had preceded the movement, let alone that it had caused it.

Like I said, even before I’d been initiated to the view that free will was an illusion, I was never totally convinced that my body and mind were mine to control.

But after hearing some strong arguments against Free Will over the last few years, especially in a short book of that name by modern philosopher Sam Harris, I became convinced that it couldn’t be real. As it is now, I’ve more or less embraced determinism, and am hard pressed to take credit for any of my thoughts and actions.

That’s not to say, however, that I like determinism. I’ve actually gone through periods of wishing it weren’t so. More than once, I’ve gone looking for convincing arguments in favor of free will–for refutations of what I’m convinced must be true. I’ve sought out arguments by eminent philosophers in favor of my agency, and have consumed these with a strong desire for them to win me over.

But in every case, no matter how badly I wanted to be convinced, and no matter how vulnerable this desire made me to even the weakest lines of reasoning, I was never able to shake off the certainty that free will is an illusion.

One of the problems with arguments in favor of free will is that they often linger on the implications of determinism rather than actually trying to refute it. So rather than offering up cogent arguments for why we do, in fact, cause our every action and thought (or at least the important ones), most arguments in favor of free will just seem to ask what we would do without it.

If there’s no free will, how can we hold criminals accountable?

How can we take pride in our accomplishments?

Why do anything at all?

How can we hope to create change for the better?

Should we abandon all efforts at self improvement?

There are satisfactory answers to most of these questions for those willing to look for them, or to simply consider the questions at length.

For my part, at least, I don’t find any of them too troubling–with the exception of the last one.

Sometimes, when I’m in a slump, I’ll get to thinking that nothing in my life ever changes, and I’ll dwell on my bad habits and destructive tendencies.

I’ll ask myself how I can possibly change my behavior and habits for the better if my actions and personality are simply the result of activity in my brain. If my tendencies follow wherever my neural pathways lead, and if my next action is determined before I’m even aware of it, then how can I ever hope to become a better person? How can I ever hope to put the desire to be better into practice?

I know that this line of thinking is contradictory, because in spite of everything, people who want to change for the better very often do change for the better. I’ve certainly read about or witnessed first hand my share of about faces on the part of people who seemed quite hopeless. It’s obviously not the case that people can’t change. Proof to the contrary is all around us.

But I’ve been wondering recently if my unbelief in free will might be sabotaging me.

When facing down a day in which my bad habits have won out, or which I feel I’ve squandered, I’ll often become hopeless and convince myself that every day from then on will surely be the same. I’ll find myself foregoing effort and shirking good choices because of the nattering of that little deterministic voice in my head.

The belief that we do not have free will, for me at least, seems to foster fatalism, and this has me wondering whether the truth of determinism is something best left undiscovered, at least by some.

Could it be that it’s better to go on believing in free will, even if that belief doesn’t reflect reality, if to do so could help stave off apathy?

Could it be that belief in free will makes someone more inclined to put in the effort to be better and make a positive impact in the world, while the opposite belief can cause a person to clam up and lose hope? Or could it be that the latter kind of person is just more likely to be receptive to determinism?

At the very least, it’s obvious that the truth about free will can be troubling. Depressing even. It can leave one feeling deflated and aimless.

Ignorance, on the other hand, might not be bliss, but I can certainly see how it might be invigorating.


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