Free Will, Destiny, and You

In my experience, philosophy is mostly useless.

I don’t just mean that it has no practical application. I mean it’s mostly useless even at its main job, answering philosophical questions. If you have a question like “What is the nature of reality?” or “How should I live my life?” and you read ten different philosophers, you’ll get ten different answers and still not have it resolved.

I get it. These questions are hard, and I’m not knocking philosophy as a pursuit just because of that. Of course we’re going to ponder the Big Ideas. We’re humans, it’s what we do. All I’m saying is that generally, if you ask a Big Question, you’re not going to get a Definitive Answer.

Today, we’re changing that. In this very post, I, Brian D. Buckley, will resolve the Free Will vs. Destiny question once and for all. (Pause for giggling.)

This used to bother me a lot. Picture sixteen-year-old Brian sitting on a bench, mulling it over. Here’s the fundamental question: Do we make our own decisions, or are they predetermined?

On the Free Will side, you have the visceral feeling, the absolute conviction, that we can make our own choices. I’m doing it right now! I choose to type, and I type. Look at that – I wiggled my thumb, just because. Take that, Fate!

On the Destiny side…well, Destiny is the wrong word, I guess. “Destiny” makes it sound like I’m talking about soulmates, or finding the universe’s purpose for your life. But I’m talking about something else. Science has shown that our thoughts are determined by the firing of neurons in our brain. Our neurons, in turn, are (like everything else) governed entirely by the laws of physics. Their paths are just as set as a boulder rolling downhill, albeit far more complicated. Cold, hard equations control everything we do.

The typical reaction to that last sentence is: “Ha! I’m more than a bunch of equations! People do wild, unpredictable things that make no sense. The equations can be wrong.” I find that reaction deeply unsatisfying because it deeply misunderstands the argument. Nobody’s saying humans are predictable by other humans, only that they are predictable in a more abstract sense: our thoughts are controlled by the immutable laws of physics, and humans have no control over physics.

So what’s the answer?

It’s simple. They’re both right.

Yes, we have control of our own decisions. Yes, we can think about problems, make real choices, do things that are seemingly random or spontaneous. But all those decisions, all those thoughts we feel so much ownership for, are determined and ordained by physics just as much as that downhill-rolling boulder.

I’m not saying free will is an illusion. We really can do what we want. But that feeling of “doing what I want” is the judgment of a process about itself, and the process is ultimately a mechanical one.

To put it yet another way: like a computer, we are following a program from which we cannot deviate, an unfathomably complex program that includes even the acts we feel are “random.” But that program in execution is our will in action. The laws of the universe and the laws of the mind are one and the same.

A couple notes about all this:

1. I didn’t come up with this on my own. A lot of reading guided me in this direction. By far my biggest influence was Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, which I highly recommend for anyone who wants their mind blown. I agree with some of his ideas and disagree strongly with others, but it’s all extremely thought-provoking.

2. I’ve shied away from using the term “determinism.” Back in Newton’s time, people talked about a “clockwork universe,” a world where – theoretically – you could predict everything to the most precise detail, based on the laws of physics, if you only had precise enough information about your starting conditions. A deterministic world, in other words. Well, quantum physics has thrown a wrinkle in that. We now know the universe is not deterministic but probabilistic, and that “precise information about your starting conditions” is inherently impossible. Nevertheless, I don’t buy the argument that free will is somehow “hiding” in quantum mechanics. The universe may be fuzzy, but its laws are not. And anyway, neurons operate on a decidedly macroscopic scale.

So – what do you think? Do you buy my explanation? Did it even make sense?

Alternatively – are there any Big Questions you feel you’ve solved once and for all?

12 responses to “Free Will, Destiny, and You

  1. Interesting post. I don’t necessarily agree with your take on Fate, but I don’t violently disagree, either. I also think that the world works on a mix of free will and destiny, just in a slightly different way. And without the physics. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I do, however, have to disagree with your starting comment that philosophy is mostly useless. And here’s why (in an analogy, no less!):

    Let’s say there’s a huge mountain in the middle of an explored country. A young explorer decides to climb and map the mountain.

    Before the Young Explorer sets off, he does some research. He travels around the base of the mountain and talks to the people who have lived in its shadow for their whole lives. He asks them to describe the mountain.

    He talks to ten different people. And gets ten different answers. One person says the mountain is cold and rocky, and all who venture on to it die of exposure. Another says that the lower reaches are verdant and damp, full of plant and animal life. A third talks about the way the mountain affects the weather patterns, and the terrible thunder storms that sweep across it.

    In the end, the Young Explorer is confused and bewildered. What’s the point of all this research if he can’t get a single, definitive answer about the mountain? How can he begin to understand the mountain when everyone tells him something different?

    Finally, the Young Explorer comes across a wise woman. “The closer you stand to the mountain, the smaller your view. Individually, we are too small to see the mountain in its entirety. But if you take each of these accounts and weave them togeher, you will have a starting point to explore the mountain on your own. And your experiences will be different again. Perhaps in time, when we have enough viewpoints, we can begin to understand the true nature of the mountain.”

  2. I think about all this all the time, but maybe not so much of a scientific sense.

    I came up to my own conclusions about a lot of it. But they’re very wishy-washy-woo-hoo spiritual stuff that’s barely if any practical application other than at least you can feel better about it all lol.

    That said, I agree with your explanation. It makes sense.

    Then again, you’re talking with the person who believes all/most opinions are correct about these things, so I’ll just sit here and smile. lol

  3. Interesting post! When I really think about it, it makes sense to me. Our brain is what determines what we want to do, and that’s determined by physics, genetics, etc. and we can then choose to ignore it, or follow it, or do whatever it is we want to do. That is what you were getting at, right?

    • Partly. I’m with you up to here:
      “Our brain is what determines what we want to do, and thatโ€™s determined by physics, genetics, etc.”
      Here’s where we diverge:
      “…and we can then choose to ignore it, or follow it, or do whatever it is we want to do.”
      What I’m saying is that even those choices to ignore our instincts, or follow them, or whatever, are themselves determined by neural activity – and therefore, by chemistry, and ultimately by physics.

      In other words, it’s not half physics and half free will. It’s all physics – but the neurons firing as directed by physics are your free will in action.

  4. I think that you’re right, but with the big qualification that it doesn’t actually matter.

    “a program from which we cannot deviate, an unfathomably complex program that includes even the acts we feel are ‘random.'” That’s the key. If someone knew everything, everything about everything (which nobody does) and could process that much data (which nobody can), then that person could probably predict everything.

    But, for the rest of us, who know only a fraction of everything and have trouble processing even that, I don’t think it matters that much. Better to concentrate on the things we _can_ learn about, understand, and change.

    By the way, I have a character in my writing who is omniscient (and omnipotent) and she agrees with me. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Oh, and I agree that “Destiny” is a different question. That’s soulmates and chosen ones. Like the scene in Contact where her father dies and someone says, “There’s a reason,” and she says that the reason was that his medicine wasn’t where it should have been when he needed it.

  5. It was indeed. I had a movie review site back then, and here’s what I wrote about it:

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