On Free Will

Do humans have free will? Well, when I finish a good book I feel as though I’ve lived it, even just a sentence or two. I come to the end of a meal with friends and feel the need to say “I love you guys.” I watch Captain Fantastic a hundred times thinking I can feel the same way I did when Vigo Mortensen first flushed his wife’s ashes down the toilet in JFK. So yes, I am free. 

Perhaps you already know this or disagree. To the former I say: Congratulations! To the latter I say this: You’re unbridled, but somehow bridled thought is commendable, and paradoxical to a degree that leaves me unconvinced. Have you not noticed that lingering feeling of optimism post morning coffee that is both chemical and unfounded because you are failing all your classes and only unofficially broke? Or do you dislike taking responsibility for your actions so much that you take the determinist shtick one step too far. Take that as you may. 

The vast majority of our knowledge, or the closest thing to it, consists of premonitions, of feelings so untouchable that we can only see their fullness by acting upon them, in a kind of call and response. Writer E.E. Cummings, who celebrates his 128th birthday this Friday, knew this when he wrote “Whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.” Science doesn’t dare dispute this understanding of life because it too is pulled forward by a headlong but futile desire to experience the nebulous, and to give it texture. 

If you are unconvinced that humans lack free will, imagine you are on stage. The audience represents everyone you’ve ever interacted with. The stage is how you present yourself to said audience, and yet you process your thoughts in a liminal space, one between the darkness of the audience and the light projected from the stage. It is a penumbra of sorts—the edge of the shadow cast from the audience. Barring an invasion of the stage by the audience your penumbra is wholly yours, regardless of how little you utilize it. In this space, your thoughts flow unimpeded and the audience and their opinions grow quiet. While trying at best to find, the penumbra found on stage holds our individual collective identity, which we create and act upon, regardless of whether or not those characteristics are fated. But it’s also much less vague than the stage metaphor. For however illusory it may seem, free will turns the question of life back on you, and forces you to grapple with your specific circumstance. 

Coming to this self-realization is important because it demands that we reserve our criticism and praise until we have engaged with a person in every possible setting. And yes, that is difficult, but it is far more rewarding than it is difficult. Yes yes, this is classical liberal thought, where the individual experience is acknowledged as one truth amidst a mass. Yes yes, we get that, but what that line of thinking misses is that merely existing alongside one another, both on the stage and in the audience, is a hectic and often violent affair. Wars of religion might be the stuff of yester-year, but ideological factions, and ethinc violence need no introduction. 

And yet we are free. Surely, that will not be enough, but it is a start.