The Meaning of Your Life Depends On This

“My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” -William James

The meaning of life, specifically your life, is a difficult thing to determine. Its a question we all have to wrestle with at sometime. Of course, before you choose the meaning of your life, it would probably be a good idea to ask whether you have a free and independent will with which to do so. 

Free Will versus Determinism has been a heated topic since the days of Aristotle.

Determinists claim all behavior has a cause, everything we do is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control. Free will is simply an illusion. What some may call a simple decision is actually bouncing atoms doing their random thing. Determinism takes the more scientific approach to life. For example, if we were to hit the rewind button on life and then replay, the exact same situations and things would happen the second time around. Sort of like if we were to mix two chemicals under the same conditions, they would always react with each other in the same way. There’s no questions asked. Crime committed is viewed as inevitable. The person who committed the crime was propelled by environmental circumstances and personal history. 

Free will is the idea that you and I have decisions and choices to make on how we act, every single day. Each individual is responsible for the actions he or she takes.

Obviously, the stance you take in this debate changes the entire way you view life and affects anyone about to set out on the task of willfully creating the meaning of his life. 

I’m drawn to the nonsensical approach of William James. 

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

His underlying point is the fact that there is no objective way to prove the existence of a free will. You can’t see one, accepting its existence is akin to an act of faith; its something we can choose to believe in. 

Choosing to believe in anything is an act of will; without a will, no choices exist. In fact how could you even “choose” not to believe in free will, without a free will? There is something wonderfully circular about James’ free will philosophy. He literally accepts the idea of a free will by the very act of making a choice; in this instance, the choice to believe in free will. 

Believing in a free will is intuitive, its fundamental to feeling human, to be an individual with choices, and consequences following those choices. That is, right up until we find it useful or rather comforting to cower back into “the devil made me do it” territory. “Or the Twinkie made me do it”, defense.

How would a person’s behavior change if he thought his every choice was determined? How exactly would we go about letting everything happen determinably? Would we just sit around and allow things to happen? Never putting our input into the way the world was treating you and I? Honestly, this does not seem to be a gratifying or practical way to get through a day, much less a lifetime.

This argument is enough to put the debate in perspective for me and gives me a clear path to the side I stand on. But William James was not some dewy-eyed philosopher content to rely only on his practical argument for acting as though free will existed. Reading through different articles on this debate I came upon something he used, called the thought experiment, to explore the free will question in a rather heady and wonderfully imaginative way.

He begins by asking, “What is meant by saying that my choice of which way to walk home after the lecture is ambiguous and matter of chance? It means that both Divinity Avenue and Oxford Street are called to mind as alternative but only one, and that one either one, shall be chosen.”

With this example, James was the first philosopher to clearly enunciate a two-stage decision process. The first with chance in a present time of random alternatives, leading to a choice which grants consent to one possibility and transforms an ambiguous future into an unalterable and simple past.

Imagine that I first walk through Divinity Avenue, and then imagine that the powers governing the universe annihilate ten minutes of time with all that it contained, and set me back at the door of this hall just as I was before the choice was made. Imagine then that, everything else being the same, I now make a different choice and traverse Oxford Street. You, as passive spectators, look on and see the two alternative universes, — one of them with me walking through Divinity Avenue in it, the other with the same me walking through Oxford Street. Now, if you are determinists you believe one of these universes to have been from eternity impossible: you believe it to have been impossible because of the intrinsic irrationality or accidentality somewhere involved in it. But looking outwardly at these universes, can you say which is the impossible and accidental one, and which the rational and necessary one? I doubt if the most ironclad determinist among you could have the slightest glimmer of light on this point.”

I think James completely solved the debate. 


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