The first documented appearance of the subject on the blog is in 2011, and I seem to have posted on the subject every alternate year, the last being in 2015. But it’s sheer coincidence and not really pattern following that led me to think, and write, about free will now.
Across my life, I have moved from having a faith and believing in predestination (will of God), to being agnostic and believing in karma, to being an atheist and believing in the influence of luck (random chance) in all the plans I make. In the last version, the view is that my free will is dominant – I make my own choices which dictate my future and nothing is predetermined. The luck explains the good and bad out-of-ordinary things that change my future, but it is random. Karma stories are a forced narrative based on hindsight.
But I have had to change my mind on free will recently. To pedal back, there are at least 5 books that have sharpened my thinking on the subject. Sapiens gave me the first glimpse of the real power of evolutionary mechanisms, Scarcity enlightened me on some of the real motivations behind my choices, The Moral Animal (a phenomenal book) really opened up the nature of the self from an evolutionary perspective, The Monk & the Philosopher added to all of this a “meaning of life” angle and Thinking, Fast and Slow laid bare, through experiments, the systemic and largely biased way in which we make our daily choices.
So, what’s the change in thinking on free will? Simply the understanding that the choices I make are mostly not based on my consciousness’ free will but based on genes that have traveled across millennia and the environment and experiences in my life. Biological determinism is the term for it. Our ‘self’ really has no idea of all the motivating factors behind a certain choice, though we really (and I mean really!) believe we do. That belief, which is a “delusion of free will” is also an evolutionary mechanism. The self is more an instrument of impression management than decision making. We could of course, go back and analyse decisions and find the factors, but even that search might not be really objective.
The understanding has been a humbling experience. I realise that it’s next to impossible to think through every action/reaction on a daily basis. Our mind is not really built for it, which is why we base most of our decisions on simple heuristics and judgment calls that do not tax our brain.
But here’s the fun part. Biological determinism has essentially two parts – genetic and environmental. (nature and nurture, roughly) We’re now well on our path to influence the genetic part, and advancing tech will ensure we can really have the means to control the second part. Essentially, we can potentially control biological determinism. The question I haven’t been able to answer is whether that end result will mean everything is predetermined or that everything will be based on free will!