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Society of Mind

30.6 freedom of will

We each believe that we possess an Ego, Self, or Final Center of Control, from which we choose what we shall do at every fork in the road of time. To be sure, we sometimes have the sense of being dragged along despite ourselves, by internal processes which, though they come from within our minds, nevertheless seem to work against our wishes. But on the whole we still feel that we can choose what we shall do. Whence comes this sense of being in control? According to the modern scientific view, there is simply no room at all for freedom of the human will. Everything that happens in our universe is either completely determined by what's already happened in the past or else depends, in part, on random chance. Everything, including that which happens in our brains, depends on these and only on these:

A set of fixed, deterministic laws. A purely random set of accidents.

There is no room on either side for any third alternative. Whatever actions we may choose, they cannot make the slightest change in what might otherwise have been — because those rigid, natural laws already caused the states of mind that caused us to decide that way. And if that choice was in part made by chance — it still leaves nothing for us to decide.

Every action we perform stems from a host of processes inside our minds. We sometimes understand a few of them, but most lie far beyond our ken. But none of us enjoys the thought that what we do depends on processes we do not know; we prefer to attribute our choices to volition, will, or self-control. We like to give names to what we do not know, and instead of wondering how we work, we simply talk of being free. Perhaps it would be more honest to say, My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand. But no one likes to feel controlled by something else.

Why don't we like to feel compelled? Because we're largely made of systems designed to learn to achieve their goals. But in order to achieve any long-range goals, effective difference-engines must also learn to resist whatever other processes attempt to make them change those goals. In childhood, everyone learns to recognize, dislike, and resist various forms of aggression and compulsion. Naturally we're horrified to hear about agents that hide in our minds and influence what we decide.

In any case, both alternatives are unacceptable to self-respecting minds. No one wants to submit to laws that come to us like the whims of tyrants who are too remote for any possible appeal. And it's equally tormenting to feel that we're a toy to mindless chance, caprice, or probability — for though these leave our fate unfixed, we'd still not play the slightest part in choosing what shall come to be. So, though it's futile to resist, we continue to regard both Cause and Chance as intrusions on our freedom of choice. There remains only one thing to do: we add another region to our model of our mind. We imagine a third alternative, one easier to tolerate; we imagine a thing called freedom of will, which lies beyond both kinds of constraint.