I’ve been having a back and forth recently with somebody on the subject of free will. It’s a tricky and extremely deep topic, and nothing I say here is likely to make a fundamental contribution to that topic, free will or not.
Yet I am intrigued by the peripheral questions that pop up around this discussion. For example, even if you posit that we each possess individual free will, and then you look closely at the various decisions we make over the course of a day, a year, a lifetime, it’s pretty clear most of the choices we make in our lives are not really examples of free will.
Rather, those “choices” are usually determined by the forcing functions of culture, psychology, biology and circumstance. If there is true free will, it’s going to be found in the small interstices between those forcing functions.
This pattern reminds me a bit of discussions around DNA. Genetically, we are all 99.9% the same. The entire difference between your DNA and mine comes down to only about one tenth of one percent of our total respective genetic coding, no matter who we are.
So to be “human” is to be extremely similar to all other humans. It’s just that we, as the humans in question, are exquisitely attuned to those tiny differences. We forget that we are all nearly identical in the scheme of things, and therefore we focus on the subtle ways that we are different.
In fact, the stuff of our darkest fears often comes down to the spectre of genetic variation outside the norm, like the tragically mutating hero of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly”, or the horrifying creature in John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Both are vividly gruesome nightmares, right out of Freud’s theory of the uncanny.
Maybe there is something similar at work with free will. Yes, 99.9% of what we say and do is culturally, psychologically or biologically determined. Yet within the tiny bit of remaining wiggle room is where we might find the creation of art, novels, poetry, wondrous new technologies.
But to step too far out of that small range of variation is to begin to drift away from the social contract that connects us. If you wander too far from the tribal campfire, you might enter a place of madness and wild violence, a place where you begin to lose your essential humanity.
So maybe “free will” is a misnomer. Nothing is really free. What we call free will is necessarily limited by our own conscience, by our fundamental need to remain connected to our fellow humans. And maybe that’s a very good thing.