Free Will vs. Constrained Will
By Daniel Rigney
I just had a frightening thought. What if the world were a complex place?
We human beings have a penchant for simplyfing the world in our heads by thinking in simple either/or terms. It’s either this or it’s that. It’s either black or it’s white. This kind of reasoning has been called by various names, including binary thinking, dichotomous thinking, absolutist or categorical thinking, and light-switch thinking.
Too much complexity overwhelms us. Simplification is a survival strategy in a world that vastly exceeds our capacity to understand it fully.
As an example of either/or thinking, consider a recent article in the “Science Times” section of The New York Times by house libertarian John Tierney, entitled “Do You Have Free Will?: It’s the Only Choice.”
Tierney presumes that either we have “free” will (whatever that may mean) or that each twitch of our being is strictly determined by forces entirely beyond our control. Tierney may be unaware that philosophers have proposed a plethora of intermediate and hybrid positions between these extremes. Does he really not know this?
The existence of “free will” is among the most deeply imbedded clichés in American culture. It is learned early and repeated often and unreflectively. We are taught that you must believe either in free will or in absolute determinism, and that there is nothing in between – and that we all have free will, often described as "God-given."
Not much is said about physical, biological and environmental (including ec0nomic, political and cultural) constraints on the choices we make. It's as though we were to talk about the choices a mouse makes in a maze without talking about the shape and structure of the maze itself, or about what part of the maze the mouse was dropped into. Not that we're anything like mice, you understand.
I was determined to comment on Tierney’s article, so I chose to write a letter to The New York Times last spring, which appeared as follows:
To the Editor:
In “Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice” (Findings, March 22), John Tierney presents us with a stark choice: Do we have free will or are we utterly determined? I would offer a third alternative. Our wills are not entirely free, but are constrained, both by nature’s laws and by the choices that we and others have made in the past. If it weren’t for constrained will, I’d be starting a second career at first base for the Houston Astros, and I would flap my arms and fly to intercept would-be home runs.
Are you determined to oppose this view? If so, please choose to comment, from within whatever constraints (personal, cultural, etc.) you may be living and writing.
Thanks for thinking you chose to read this.