Free will exists. It has no choice but to exist. Our entire legal system is predicated on its existence. However free will has its limitations.
Imagine a game of chess. A player is of course free to choose any move he desires. Move a pawn, a knight, a rook, try a philidor defence or a queen’s gambit – the options are limitless. Except they’re not limitless. A player cannot move a bishop in a vertical line. Nor can the king jump over pieces or move more than one square.
So the player is limited by the rules of the game, and yet, he operates freely within those rules. And those rules are so deceptively simple that a player has a near-infinite variety of moves to choose from.
The analogy holds some similarities with life. Life also has rules. Be they biological, cosmological, cultural, legal, social, etc. We are free to choose our actions. But we are also limited by the rules of the game. For instance, I would love to be a great singer. Music is a great passion of mine, I think it’s the most powerful art-form man has ever concocted alongside architecture. Yet I am limited by the fact that my voice sounds terrible. There is nothing to stop me from singing. That is my own free choice. But there is plenty stopping me from becoming a well-known singer. The biology of my vocal chords. Society’s preference for a particular type of singing that I can’t measure up to. And so on.
There is also limits to what a man living in the Kibera slum of Kenya can do. Sure, there is nothing in the laws of physics to stop him becoming a millionaire. But the rules of society make his movement along the chess-board of life remarkably limited. That man in Kibera is like a pawn that can only make a solitary move forward. And we all have such limitations.
Some of these limitations can be benign and just. It is good there are rules to forbid murder – even though any man or woman is biologically free to commit murder. There are other limitations which are oppressive. A man dying of cancer is legally allowed to travel the world. But biologically he is hopelessly incapable.
Science, philosophy and even history give us the means to understanding the rules and limitations that govern our lives. Science can reveal the strings of life’s cruelty-show. It can tell us, listen, you’re a man, you are biologically inclined to want to sleep around, bear that in mind if you’re getting married. Philosophy can unearth moral restrictions and say to us: happiness is life’s purpose, so be careful, or you might get carried away with it. History is a great, albeit gloomy teacher: be wary, nations are inclined to make war, take action to prevent that.
Of course science, philosophy, history, literature, sociology and so on cannot and do not tell us what is right or wrong. That used to be the department of religion. Now it is down to moral philosopher and ethicists. Not to mention our own innate sense of justice. But what they do instead is let you know the rules of the game so you can better make your choice.
And what if you make a ‘wrong’ choice? I won’t go into what makes a wrong choice wrong. For greater insight into that read Peter Singer or Steven Pinker. But let’s say a free man has freely chosen to kill his wife. Not an uncommon occurrence. What’s also not uncommon is the legal defence made for the murderer, a defence of insanity or bad childhoods, etc. And this can often border on the non-sensical. An irrational justification of a terrible action by means of explanation. But explanation doesn’t mean justification. To explain why someone committed a crime doesn’t justify the crime itself.
As an example of this non-sensical psychobabble, look at how Hillary Clinton defended her husband’s actions in an interview with Talk:
He was so young, barely 4, when he was scarred by abuse that he can’t even take it out and look at it. There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother. A psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of a conflict between two women is the worst possible situation. There is always the desire to please each one.
A lot of people go through difficult upbringing and live challenging lives. Most of them struggle and seek out a kindly, purposeful existence. A handful act out and go off the rail. Compare it with the defence made of Islam: just because a handful of Muslims are terrorists does not mean that being a Muslim means being a terrorist. By the same logic: having a difficult upbringing, or even an abusive one, does not mean you have to grow up into a criminal. Thus, it holds no justification in court. Raping children because you were raped as a child provides explanation but nothing near justification.
This is like a satirical piece that once appeared in a New Yorker cartoon: “True, my husband beat me because of his childhood; but I murdered him because of mine.”
There is great nobility in realizing the constraints of life and trying to overcome them. The man from the slum of Kibera can actually break free of the bonds of poverty and become somebody. It has happened before. And he would be rightly lauded as heroic. But this has a dark flip-side to it as well.
If I want to become rich by, say, kidnapping people and holding them for ransom, then the nobility is surely lost. Take the vast amount of Somali pirates that take over ships and hold the crew for ransom. These are men who have lost their entire livelihoods as fishermen due to polluted and over-shipped waters, and are now trying to break free from their shackles by means of piracy. Are they to be lauded for revolting against injustice? No, because any action that brings pleasure to an individual at the cost of unhappiness to others who are undeserving of that unhappiness, cannot be celebrated or even tolerated.
One of the great tragedies of man is that desire and oppression are two sides of the same coin. Desire can bring pleasure and misery in equal measure. It is an often over-rated value. To want something is fine, it is noble, it is human. But wanting is also a sort of shackling. You are bound to your desire as you are bound to your bad singing voice. And great good as well as great ill has been done in the name of desire. It is one of the rules life imposes on us. Life dictates: you shall have desire.
And I think we cannot try the impossible and do away with desire, as some religions or spiritualists might have you do. It is better instead to try to enslave desire. Impose a master-slave relationship in which you are the master and you do not let the slave revolt. Don’t let desire be overriding, domineering, addictive. It requires discipline and discipline, I think, is a great tool in free will.
Because, like desire, free will too can get out of hand. As I said before, there is nothing to physically stopping me from murdering someone. And if I’m not scared of, say, a life spent in prison, then I have no constraints. But discipline, the ability to control your desire, to reason out your wants, to think empathetically – is a crucial, and perhaps the only, means I have of stopping myself. Discipline is imposing on yourself your own set of rules and limitations.
And don’t worry, limitations aren’t as bad as they sound. Chess is limited, isn’t it, and yet it offers a multitude of possibilities. Life is the same. It is limited (notice I say limited not determined) by many factors. Just set yourself the well-measured, well-thought out set of limitations of your own choosing and let the snowballing pleasures of life roll over you.