Some Thoughts on Free Will Part 1

When I’m creating a story, I start with the basic concept. We’ll use ‘girl gets a dog’ for the purposes of this article. Then I start working on the characters in the story. What sort of girl is she? Why does she want a dog? Why is she getting the dog now? What sort of dogs has she had in the past? I answer these questions and dozens of others and come up with an idea of this girl that I’ve created in my head. The more I figure out about her, the more real she becomes to my imagination. Eventually, if I do my job well enough, I can imagine this girl in any situation and how she might react. And this lets me tell my story through the character.

It would be somewhat silly for me to ask you if this girl has any sort of free will. She doesn’t really exist outside of my head and this article. And yet, when I was reading Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, I couldn’t help but think about how I and other writers create characters. Often you’ll hear novelists and screenwriters talk about how the characters take on a life of their own. They do things we don’t expect them to do but are entirely true to who they are. And yet, of course, these figments of our imaginations have no true free will to speak of. The girl was always going to get the dog.

Sam Harris’ book argues that you and I are not so different from this girl. We are the sum of our genetics and experiences, most of which we have absolutely no control over. These things inform our decisions to the point where the decisions can’t really be said to come from us at all. We could never have chosen to do otherwise because that’s just not who we are.

It’s unnerving to think that we aren’t the masters of our own fate. Instinctively, we want to deny it. And yet, if the more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes. How often do we hear people in the gay community say that they never chose to be gay? How many people have claimed that they did not choose their profession? Or on the flip side of that coin, how many times have you heard someone in love say they chose to fall in love with someone? When I really think about it, I can’t see any way around the fact that we don’t really have any real free will.

I won’t try to convince you that free will is an illusion. Harris does a fine job of that and if you’re interested, you can read his book. Instead, what I’d like to talk about next is what it means if it’s true. It’s a revolutionary concept. It effectively changes the way you look at everything.\

More tomorrow…

– Jack Cameron


4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Free Will Part 1

  1. You article got me thinking (I haven’t read the book).
    If I’m understanding correctly the argument is that the girl was always going to get the dog, because you were always going to come up with the idea of the girl getting the dog, since you yourself don’t have any free will. This kind of begs an ‘infinite mirror’ question. Suppose the girl a writer and she had written a story about a girl getting a dog. Her character was always going to get the dog as well… and so ad infinitum. That’s going one direction into the ‘imaginary world’. Now what about going in the other direction: we don’t have free will because we’re governed by genetics and experiences out of our control. But genetics and experiences are governed by the laws of biology, physics, mathematics which eventually come down to symmetries and patterns. Symmetries and patterns are ‘fixed’ and I’m inclined to say that they don’t have a free will either. So where do they come from? Another person imagining us?

    Anyway, thanks for writing about this topic. Very interesting! 🙂

    • You’ve basically got it right. The idea (at least as I understand it) is that you can’t think about a past event and say, “I could have chosen to do something else.” because ultimately you made that choice due to outside circumstances and experiences you had no control over and those things would have to be different for you to make a different choice. You were always going to do what you did. To do otherwise would require a different set of circumstances or for you to be a different person. Tomorrow’s post will get into what that means for things like regret and vengeance.

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