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?