Do you believe in free will? Are you truly the author of your thoughts and actions, and therefore the author of your life?
Do you get to decide which thoughts you have and which thoughts you don’t have? Do you get to decide, as well as create the contents of those thoughts from the moment they arise in consciousness until the moment they disappear? Or do they simply arise, seemingly out of nowhere without a scintilla as to their origins?
“Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have… Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not. And there is no way I can influence my desires—for what tools of influence would I use? Other desires? To say that I would have done otherwise had I wanted to is simply to say that I would have lived in a different universe had I been in a different universe.”
Although I can understand why the idea of there being no free will may make most people’s skin crawl, free will simply makes no sense, especially when we factor in the reality that no one gets to choose their genetics, no one gets to choose their brain chemistry, no one gets to choose their parents, and no one gets to choose their childhood environment, all factors which incontrovertibly influence the way someone will think and behave.
Nevertheless, my goal here is not to try and convince you that we have no free will, even though it’s quite obvious that we have none. There are many books that have been written on this topic if you’d like to learn more.
Instead, I’d like to talk about the many benefits that such a mindset can give you. Of course, these benefits should in no way entice you to accept the premise that free will is an illusion as it should be the facts and the logic that persuade you, not the advantageous consequences.
A few virtuous consequences of realizing that free will is just an illusory concept is that it will make you a much more compassionate, empathetic, and forgiving person. So much of why we hold grudges towards others—condemning people who wronged us in the past or in the present—is due to our belief that they had the freedom to choose to think and behave differently than they did. That they are the thinker of their thoughts and the author of their lives.
This is an illusion.
Although the aforementioned belief may sound veridical, it is indeed a paradox. The person who wronged you in the past is no more culpable for the way they thought and behaved than you are culpable for the way you are thinking and feeling emotionally as you read this blog post at this very moment.
If you’re reading this and you’re getting angry or incredulous, I ask did you choose to feel this way, or did it just happen automatically without your consent? If you didn’t choose to be angry and it just happened automatically, then where is the free will in that? Even though the answer to that question is obvious, people will still appeal to their emotions with wicked vitriol.
Thinking deeply about the illusion of free will has made me much more forgiving of people, especially of people who have wronged me in the past. Such a way of thinking dissipates much of the hatred I may have otherwise had toward those people simply by virtue of the fact that it would be completely superfluous and irrational to maintain such a conviction.
Sure, I can’t robotically heal every psychological wound that has been inflicted upon me by another person just by thinking pragmatically about it, but the more I dwell on these facts—that is, the more I realize how unreasonable it is to hold someone culpable for thinking and behaving in ways that were completely out of their control—the less sense it begins to make of why I should feel indignation towards them.
Consequently, this makes me feel better about myself and allows me to be much more forgiving of other people.
The reality is that people who have wronged me in the past simply had no other choice but to do so. Whether or not that makes me feel good or bad, it is reality. Like Sam Harris said in Free Will, to say that someone would have done otherwise had they wanted to is simply to say that they would have lived in a different universe had they been in a different universe.
Carrying the psychological baggage of hatred, vengeance, indignation, and grudges can be extremely debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Such states of mind are often very miserable for the person feeling them in spite of whatever justification they put forth.
For example, it doesn’t make sense to hold someone accountable for not thinking in a way which did not, nor could not have ever occurred to them. Their thoughts, as well as their ability to be influenced by something or someone is due to not only years of environmental factors, but also it is due to generations and generations of relatives who have passed down their genetic code to them.
The factor of genetics is an inexorable one which cannot be ignored. Genetics shape the way we think, how healthy our mind is, as well as our overall temperament, among many other things.
I understand that most people are simply unwilling to let others off the hook in this way, especially for the most severe and grotesque of crimes. Nevertheless, it should be understood that a disbelief in free will does not also mean that wicked acts are impervious to criticism or that the people who do commit those acts should be undeserving of comeuppance.
Dangerous criminals obviously should be punished in some way. A civil society simply cannot function without such a basic rule being in place.
Realizing that free will is an illusion allows you to not only feel more compassion and empathy towards others, but it also allows you to be much more forgiving of others as well for it allows you to realize that people are not the true author of their lives for their thoughts and their behaviors are but the net result of numerous factors, all of which are completely out of their conscious control.
Such a mentality will not only help to strengthen your own interpersonal relationships, but it will also help to make you more forgiving of yourself as well.
I’m often a perfectionist and can be quite hard on myself at times, especially when I experience a short-term failure. Realizing that free will doesn’t exist makes me realize that it doesn’t make sense to be so hard on myself when things don’t go as planned as there was literally no way in which I could have thought or behaved differently than I did.
The only options I had available to me at the time were the ones that made their way into my consciousness. Therefore, I’m more forgiving of myself as a result.
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post. However, you should realize that whatever your reaction is to it, you did not have the freedom to choose how you would react. You simply read the words on the screen and then proceeded to experience an influx of thoughts, emotions, and opinions shortly after.
So, whether you loved this article, were apathetic toward it, or you hated it, you didn’t make a conscious decision to feel that way. You just felt it.
And where is the freedom in that?
Thomas is the founder and CEO of PsychTimes.com. He deeply enjoys writing about psychology and ethics. Besides writing, he’s also deeply interested in the many different aspects of search engine optimization.