Free will

There is a lot of discussion going on at the moment about free will; so I feel compelled (geddit?) to post on the subject myself. Some interesting reading, if you haven’t seen this stuff before:

http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8453850 http://www.newscientist.com/channel/fundamentals/mg19025504.000

I can’t offer much in the way of philosphical or experimental arguments for or against free will, so I’d like to approach it in a different way.

When I was a teenager I was, it’s fair to say, a very different person. I was, as teenagers invariably are, the product of a combination of influences: family, school, friends, church. From these influences I had built up a certain world view. I happened upon some essays and stores that I wrote at school, reproduced here for your amusement (the fact that I now cringe when reading this stuff perfectly illustrates the point I’m about to make):

"In the book of Genesis, inspired by God, and written by Moses, we find the beginnings of man"
"In 1984, a stamp was issued in Britain that commemorated the 2nd Election of the European Parliament. This shows a woman riding on a beast which is on seven waves, or mounds. This symbolism bears a striking similarity to the passage in Revelation 17, which states: 'I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns ... Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits...'" [I like this one; in my opinion, Christians rule the roost at conspiracy theories]
"[Jesus] has given us clear instructions about how to be a servant. These have priority over our own desires for success ... Let us strive to humble ourselves to Him. Only by doing that will we find true fulfillment and satisfaction."
"State schools ... are feeding children evolution, atheism, and every other ‘ism’ that is opposed to God." [I think was actually right on this point, but my stance on it now may be somewhat different]

Ouch. I feel quite uncomfortable even reading those quotes myself, let alone sharing them. But I want to make a point: I’m different from who I was then. I’m very different. But why?

As I see it, there are three possible ways in which I might have changed:

  • I realised that my views were "wrong", and pro-actively decided to change my views to fit better with what I perceived to be more right. For me, there was certainly an element of dissatisfaction with how my world view, but I didn't plan to throw out the baby and the bathwater.
  • I made no conscious choice to change, but instead a complicated sequence of events and people in my life led to where I am now. The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me. Some people have been quite influential in my life, and without them I may well have followed a different path. In turn, the lives of those people have been shaped by others, in infinitely complex and different ways.
  • Some combination of the above

The part that is not straightforward about the 2nd option is that, on the face of it, there’s an implication that nobody is responsible for the person they in fact are. I disagree: I view myself as a standalone entity, and am responsible for both my opinions and my actions. Maybe this is the where the “veto” mechanism mentioned in one of the articles I linked to above comes in, such that each time my brain was about to allow a change to its view of the world, my conscious mind had the opportunity to veto it, and my not vetoing a change is the only way I can express free will and “uniqueness”.

Since this whole subject is damn near unprovable, I look at it as an interesting diversion, with no real purpose. That said, like most pointless discussions, I find it fascinating. What do you think - do we choose to develop our personalities and characters, or are those traits merely effects of complex causes?


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