The nature of free will has always provoked rich debate in religion and philosophy. “Experimental philosophy” is a young sub-discipline, less than ten years old, that uses experimental methods developed for psychological and social research to explore philosophical problems, such as the age-old debate about determinism vs. free will.
John Tierney recently reported in the New York Times about research being done by Shaun Nichols, professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, and other scholars. Nichols’s experiments have confirmed that we have an instinctive belief in free will and it kicks in at an early age. When children age three to five watch a ball roll into a box, they say that the ball couldn’t have done anything else. But when they see an experimenter put her hand in the box, the kids insist that she could have done something else if she wanted to.
Nichol’s research also suggests that a belief in free will, regardless of whether it really exists, has vital pragmatic value. A loss of faith in free will weakens our sense of self as agent, which tends to cause a decline in moral behavior. I wonder if this contributes to a correlation between authoritarian societies and corruption.
I’ve always found the determinism/free will debate deeply fascinating. I suspect its resolution lies in the same inscrutable territory as infinity, meaning it’s stimulating to explore but impossible to solve.
Inscrutability aside, I do have my own very pragmatic interest in the determinism/free will debate, and that involves narrative. As a writer of stories, I think a lot about narrative. Implicit in narrative is both free will and causation: a character chooses to act and his action causes X which causes Y etc.
My view is that each of us subconsciously composes our own narrative, casting ourselves in the role of hero, and we constantly revise it in response to external developments and events. Narrative is a fundamental way we make the world make sense. This process even continues in our sleep, I think, with the difference that dreams are more symbolic and less rationally coherent. Obviously, there’s a lot that happens to us due to forces beyond our control (ask anyone in Japan about that right now), but to a greater or lesser degree, our default position is that we possess free will, and deterministic universes, if they exist, are way off in some other corner of the galaxy.
This narrative impulse also operates at the level of family and society. Manifest destiny, anyone? Our pre-wired receptivity to narrative does not always serve us well. Ad agencies and politicians are expert at exploiting it.
Narrative being a basic neurological organizing strategy explains our receptivity to, even vital need for, external stories generated by artists in whatever medium. This helps explain why most of us find a story with a weak or absent narrative unsatisfying. It also explains why, for those of us who write stories, a passive protagonist is usually fatal to our tales. Just as we need to see ourselves as our personal story’s hero – one who has free will and exercises it, takes action and causes things to happen – the external stories we find most satisfying are those that similarly have a protagonist who exercises free will, takes action and causes things to happen.
What do you choose to think about free will?