In The Myth of Free Will, Ed. Cris Evatt, Cafe Essays, Princeville, HI

Does everyone wonder about free will? Certainly the world’s great thinkers have struggled with the problem, as have the scientists, philosophers and psychologists gathered together in this delightful collection. Indeed free will is said to be the most discussed philosophical problem ever. But it’s not a problem we should leave to philosophers, for it concerns us all, tangling as it does with issues of morality, wisdom and the meaning of life.

In fact I suspect that at some level everyone who thinks at all must have asked themselves questions such as Who am I? Why do I end up doing things I didn’t want to do? Is everything inevitable, and if so why should I bother doing anything at all?

To my surprise I recently discovered that even my Dad does.

My father is not an educated man. He left school at fifteen, fought in the Second World War, came home to take over his father’s printing business and, as far as I know, never read a book the rest of his life. He did not share my mother’s strong Christian faith, which provoked endless arguments between her and me, nor did he enjoy discussing life, the universe and everything. Looking back I see him as a straightforward, honest and kindly man, a father I could admire, but not one I could share my ideas with – not someone I thought would have anything to say about free will. But I was wrong, as I learned one evening, having a drink by the fire with him before I set off to give an evening lecture.

“Where did you say you were going dear?” he asked for the third or fourth time.

“To Sharpham House. It’s a Buddhist centre near Totnes”.

“Why are you going there?”

“I’m giving a lecture on free will.”

“Free will? What is there to say about that?”

How do you explain the problem of free will to a man of ninety who has advanced dementia, just about knows who you are, and whose world consists of not much more than a bed, a fireside chair, and the daily paper he can no longer understand?

I did my best. I said that it seemed to me that my body and brain are clever machines that can function perfectly well without there being any inner me, or spirit or soul, to direct them. So there’s a problem – I seem to be in control but I cannot really be. This is, I said, what I was going to be talking about.

To my complete surprise this set him alight. He was quite sure that he had, or was, such an inner spirit; it stood to reason, he had to be. I asked him where this spirit came from, and he said from God. I protested that there was no God, and that spirits controlling a body would have to be magic, and he came back with a comment I have never forgotten.

“If there is no spirit, then why do we want to be good?”

He didn’t ask why we are good, or argue about good and evil, he simply asked “Why do we want to be good”.

This struck me so hard because I, too, have come to this point in my own, very different, struggles. I have long assumed that free will is an illusion and have worked hard to live without it, but doing this provokes a simple fear – what if I behave terribly badly? What if I give up all moral values and do terrible things? What indeed are moral values and how can I make moral decisions if there’s no one inside who is responsible? I’m sure I don’t need to go on. I suspect that this natural fear is the main reason why so few people sincerely try to live without free will. Like my Dad, they want to be good, and fear that if they stop believing in a self who chooses to do the right thing then they will run amok and all hell will break loose.

Is the fear justified? I suspect not. Evolutionary psychology provides reasons why we want to be good, such as nurturing instincts shaped by kin selection, and the desire to earn brownie points in the game of reciprocal altruism; memetics provides other reasons, showing how altruistic memes can spread so successfully; and most of us have been trained since early childhood to behave at least reasonably decently. So it may just come naturally to us to want to be good, even though we so often fail. If this is true, this common fear is no excuse to carry on living in delusion.

Arguably some of our most cruel and selfish behaviour is caused, or at least exacerbated, by clinging to a false sense of an inner self who has consciousness and free will, in which case we might even behave better, rather than worse, if we could throw off the illusion. So it is by no means obvious that giving up believing in free will must be morally dangerous.

Another deep seated fear is that we will fail to do anything at all, and lose all motivation. I have frequently had students who thought this way, “Why would I ever get up in the morning?” they ask. I suggest they try the exercise and see what happens. What happens is that they lie there and get bored. Then they need to go to the loo, and once in the bathroom it seems nicer to have a shower and clean their teeth than go back to bed. Then they get hungry. And so the day goes on and things get done. In fact, if you keep practicing this way it becomes increasingly obvious that the physical body you once thought you inhabited does not need a driver or a ghostly supervisor. Distributed through its multiple parallel systems are the instincts, memories, control systems and skills of a lifetime that will ensure its coordinated actions and appropriate responses. It really is OK to trust in the universe and in one’s own spontaneous actions. Then the feeling of free will simply loses its power.

My Dad stopped at his question about goodness. Many people cannot accept his answer and want to go further. But in my experience – and I’ve asked many scientists and philosophers, as well as my own students – most intellectually reject the reality of free will while carrying on their lives “as if” it exists. Indeed, I have often been told that it’s impossible to live one’s life without the illusion, and that everyone who lives happily and sanely must live ‘as if’ they are free.

Whether you agree with them or not, you will find this little book packed with exciting and challenging thoughts on free will, from some of the greatest minds of our time. Read it right through, or dip into it when you feel the illusion of free will creeping over you, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

‘Living Happily and Morally’ (49-51), my contribution in the book, is a reprint of my answer to the 2005 annual Edge question on free will.