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The Guess Worker

A free will interlude

Overview: 

  • There is no free will in unconscious or predictable behaviour.
  • Behaviour which seems unpredictable is a result of a choice between wants.
  • When choosing we always choose the strongest want.
  • Because we always choose the strongest want, free will can´t exist.

Human behaviour is confusing. No other animal has such a varied range of actions. We are capable of all extremes and all degrees in-between: from cruelty to kindness, from selfishness to self sacrifice, from conformity to individualism. On top of that we are always adopting new ways of behaving. And, as if this diversity weren't puzzling enough, many of our activities don't seem to have any biological purpose. Nor do they appear to be foreseeable. As economists know, no one can ever be absolutely sure what people are going to do.

How can this disorderliness be explained? Some put it down to free will. With free will, everyone has a choice in what they want to do. Human behaviour is messy because everyone is choosing to do and think different things.

Explaining confusing behaviour

Free will, though, doesn't really make sense. For the most part humans behave predictably. At most times our feelings and emotions direct us. When we are hungry, we seek food and when we fall in love we try to be with the person whom we love. If there is free will, it seems to be only partial, restricted to a minority of occasions and perhaps only to some people.

So free will, if it exists, is to be found only in unpredictable behaviour. Free will occurs when we are hungry but don't seek food or when we fall in love and decide not to be with the person we love. But before we attribute unpredictable behaviour to free will, we need to find out first whether such behaviour is actually unpredictable. If there is a pattern here too, then free will goes out of the window. If there is a pattern then even the most extraordinary behaviour can be explained.

Where could we start to look for such a pattern? We can safely ignore all types of unconcious behaviour. Free will can't be involved in actions which are out of our control. Free will can only affect conscious behaviour.

A life of crime and getting slim

Free will is also about choice. It's said to be down to my free will whether I choose a life of crime or not. Unless I am in some way forced, it appears that I can decide to do good or evil.

Therefore to find out if there really is free will (or alternatively a pattern which explains all human behaviour) we need to understand how consciousness works and we need to understand the psychology of decision making.

Even though neither consciousness nor decision making is fully understood, we can draw one conclusion straight away: conscious choices depend on wants. Let's say that sometimes I choose not to eat even though I am hungry. Why would I do that? Even though in some way I want to eat, in another way I don't want to. Perhaps I want to get slim. So my choice of whether to eat or not depends on two conflicting wants – a want to eat and a want to be slim.

How do I choose between these wants? Do I choose by free will? I doubt it. I believe that everyone in such situations invariably chooses the want that feels the strongest. So even though I might want to lose weight, when I see some chocolate the want to eat is suddenly much stronger than my weak resolve to lose weight. So I eat.

It could of course happen that the strength of my wants are reversed. Perhaps I'm not too hungry and the want to do something for my health is strong. So I resist eating.

We have to understand our wants

Consciousness is involved in decision making because it is through consciousness that we feel our wants. We make decisions consciously but, strange as it seems, we don't decide freely. Instead we decide according to our wants and, more specifically, according to how strong our wants are.

It could be argued that we can control our wants. By controlling our wants it is said we are exercising our free will. But if we control our wants, we have to ask ourselves - why would we? Surely we would only control our wants because we want to control our wants. In the end it seems all decisions must be based on wants. And because we don't create wants ourselves – they are given to us by our biology and modified by our culture – there can be no free will.

To understand our behaviour, then, we have to understand our wants. The remarkable diversity in human behaviour is probably caused by a small number of wants related to culture and status. Because human beings are social animals, they will do almost anything, it seems, to preserve their culture and improve their individual status. If we can understand the wants that govern culture and status then, I believe, we should be able to explain a whole swathe of human behaviour – from the violent and bizarre to the peaceful and conventional.

My ultimate aim is to understand all of human behaviour. It's a huge and perhaps unachievable ambition - but I'm going to try anyway. To be able to tackle this task I have to first understand how our wants work. So understanding our wants will be my immediate goal in the next posts.

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