“I know of no evidence of a force or power that may be called a will.” -Harry Stack Sullivan

Back in the days that I had time for extracurricular thinking, I spent about a year reading, talking, and thinking about the arguments for and against free will. One of my tentative conclusion was (and remains) that the arguments for the existence of free will are very weak. Most flow, knowingly or not, from Christian dogma, “How can God righteously judge us if we do not really make choices?” or that other great religion of the western world, Individualism: “Why should anyone doubt that the all-mighty Individual makes choices that shape the world?” There is the moralistic “argument” that comes from our desire to exact righteous revenge: “How can we feel good about punishing criminals (or even just judging/disliking people) if they do not really make choices?” That comes with the corollary, “How can we feel proud about our accomplishments if we really had no choice in the matter?” There are the emotional arguments, along the lines of, “It would just be too depressing to imagine I didn’t have choice,” or, “The idea that I have free will is inspiring to me so I choose to believe it.” (That one a close parallel of Bender the robot’s defiant but casual, “I choose to believe what I was programmed to believe.”) There’s the classic argument from lack of imagination, “I just can’t believe that I don’t have free will.” There is the “argument” from self-evidence, “We have free will because we have free will.” (Who was it who defined “self-evident” as “evident without any evidence”?) There is the argument from randomness, which I find utterly baffling. It goes something like, “Quantum mechanics says that there is some randomness in the subatomic level of my brain, which undermines determinism. Therefore, I have free will.” While ridiculous, at least the argument from randomness is an attempt at an argument and not just dogma, like the rest.

Those who don’t believe in a distinct self, like mystics and post-modernists, say something like “Of course there’s no free will. There is no distinct entity (ego, self) to have free will. We’ve looked for it and it ain’t there.” And though I’m not a mystic or a real post-modernist, that’s my problem too. I can have vivid experiences of running, a collection of sensations that convince me that there is such a thing as running. I can have vivid experiences of loving, too, which many people consider very abstract for some reason. But nothing I’ve tried has given me any vivid experience of choosing. I can notice thinking about options, and I can notice feeling uncomfortable or excited about them or the prospect of choosing, I can notice my thinking, “Maybe it would be better do such-and-such,” and I can notice doing one of the options at some point, but I have failed to be able to notice choosing. When I look close, it just doesn’t seem to be there. And because I don’t have access to anyone else’s experience, I have to assume that people who do think they are experiencing choosing are either fooling themselves or not looking close enough.

Why do I keep thinking about this? I think it’s because I’m romantic and I feel like I’m coming to this very unromantic conclusion. (Is that true? Is being able to choose more romantic than not? It seems like it.) But now I have a blog and I can ask a bunch of people for help in one fell swoop: Please, tell me about your vivid experience of choosing. How can I have that experience? What am I missing? What should I do and what should I pay attention to while doing it?

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