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On Free Will: A Meditation
Today what I'd like to do, briefly, is examine the question of free will. Do we have it? Do we not have it? Or, is the very question a nonsense?
What is free will?
Well, I would say that "free" means: no cost or obligation for possession of something.
What is "will"? That's a slightly harder one. What do we mean when we purport to exercise "will"-power? Dieters often find that "willpower" alone fails them.
Perhaps it is correct to say that "will" is the "power" of self-direction.
Let us say that "will" is the "power" of either negative or positive self-direction. That is to say, that "will" is the power to make oneself not do something or do something.
But the idea of "power" comes up. What is power?
I'm going to skip one or two steps and tell you that the kind of power we're talking about, in this context is: the ability to accomplish something in spite of resistance.
Question: What "resistance" might we encounter in the matter of the self-directed will?
Answer: The inherently daunting nature of the task.
Question: What task?
Answer: In this case, we're talking about the total task of living.
Question: How so?
We can begin to sort things out this way: What is free will?
We can define the "will" part of (free) will like this: It is the self-directed power to make one not do things she ought not do and do things she ought to do.
What about the "free" part of free will? Once again, I shall skip one or two steps, to save time, and say that, in this context, what we mean is: There is nothing restraining you from not doing what you ought not do; and there is nothing restraining you from doing what you ought to do.
What is free will?
What we can begin to say is: Free will is the absence of external restraint to your not doing what you ought not do; and in your doing what you ought to do.
Let us remember that you do face resistance: the inherent (or 'internal') difficulty of the task. But since your will is "free," there is no external burden increasing the odds of your failure to either not do what you ought not do, or do what you ought to do.
Does that make sense?
Now, having said that, let us ask ourselves if the question of free will is even meaningful.
Is the matter of "free will" even meaningful?
Let's make an informal test. Let us apply "free will" to cigarette smoking.
Let us say that one ought not smoke. But if one does, he ought to quit.
For our purpose, then, let us take a smoker who ought to quit. Does he have free will to quit smoking cigarettes?
If we say yes, then what we're saying is that there is no external restraint which tilts the odds in favor of his failing to achieve that objective. We are saying that he is perfectly "free" to apply his self-directed will to the task of getting that monkey off his back. Is that clear? This absence of external restraint should make it easier (but not to say "easy") for him to quit smoking.
If we say no, then what we're saying is that there is some kind of external restraint which will tilt the odds in favor of his failing to achieve the objective of quitting smoking. What we're saying is that, in addition to the inherent (or 'internal') difficulty of the task, he is further challenged by a force outside himself, which exerts pressure on him to fail. That is to say, the application of his self-directed will cannot go about its work without external pressure. Of course, this is not to say that he cannot quit smoking because it happens every day.
Does one have "free will" to stop smoking cigarettes?
I would say no.
Nicotine, the active ingredient in cigarettes, is known to be chemically and physically addictive. Your body simply has to have it. Smoking cigarettes is not like eating chocolate, which is very, very, very sweet and very, very, very good.
One can develop a compulsion to overindulge in chocolate. But as far as I know, chocolate is not actually chemically and physically addictive. One may say, "I am addicted to chocolate," but the word "addicted," in this instance, is hyperbole.
It will take discipline for you to break yourself of the compulsion to eat too much chocolate. But in the absence of actual chemically and physically addictive properties in chocolate, we have to admit that there is no external restraint which might tilt the odds in favor of you failing to reign in your sweet tooth.
Nicotine, being chemically and physically addictive, takes control of your body away from you, in a way that chocolate (which is merely a compulsion) can never do.
Therefore one does have "free will" in cutting back the chocolate intake.
But one does not have "free will" to stop smoking.
Let's try another one. Let's do one of the Christian ten commandments.
Let us say that a heterosexual, married man ought not even lust in his heart for another woman. You shall not even lust in your heart for another woman.
Is free will operative here?
Well, uh... DON'T THINK ABOUT A PINK ELEPHANT!
Do you have the "free will" to not think about a pink elephant?
I doubt it. You have to think about it in order to know what you are to keep out of your mind. The exercise is like one of those hopeless Chinese finger traps. The injunction itself is the external restraint tilting the odds in favor of your failing to achieve your objective.
In fact, we're looking at a conceptual---though not grammatical---double negative. The inherent (or 'internal') difficulty of the task is spelled out in the prohibition. And it is that very prohibition, which impedes your ability to actually observe the prohibition. Maddeningly, the very act of "observing" the prohibition means that you fail.
Okay, enough of that. Let's get back on track.
Is free will operative in the commandment not to lust in the heart?
No because it is a hopelessly contradictory command not to think.
Is lusting a form of thinking?
Then what is thinking?
I would define "thinking" as the active or passive internal process of either calculating problems; or savoring good feelings about something or someone, or suffering (or wallowing) negative feelings about someone or something, or about oneself or a situation she is in.
Thinking is a kind of internal navigational process.
How does "lust" fit into all of this?
When we "lust" for something, we wish to hold in our grasp that which we behold with our eyes. The "thinking" involved takes the form of "yearning" (wallowing in desire). It may go to a more practical planning stage, in which one thinks about how he might possess the thing he yearns for.
If specific possession is out of the question, beyond possibility, then he will latch on to the very closest approximation he can lay his hands on.
To lust is to plan adultery?
It can lead to that.
Can a man avoid lust rising up within him?
Because a person can never know what he wants before he sees it. But I like to "think" that most people who lust outside of committed relationships, only yearn in passing. Today this looks good, tomorrow its that which strikes your fancy.
Does the idea that God disapproves act as an external restraint on lusting in the heart?
If it did, the self-directed will not to do it would not be "free." But to the extent that a depersonalized "guilt" is attendant, then yes, the idea that God disapproves does act as an external restraint. But another name for "God" might be "custom" or "tradition" or the "super conscious."
Are all external restraints to the self-directed will always bad?
Given the synonyms I have just listed for "God," then to make such a sweeping generalization would be akin to saying that culture and tradition are invariably and uniformly bad. How can anyone say that about culture and tradition?
If you want to achieve the impossible goal of total free will, you would have to cut yourself off from all culture and tradition, as well as the "little voice in your head," which was put there by your upbringing in your family of origin. That kind of "freedom" is probably impossible. It is certainly not desirable.
Thank you for reading!