Opinion philosophy

The Freedom in no Free Will

Free Bird

You cannot accuse someone of being dogmatic, because to do so you must be dogmatic yourself. When you accuse someone of extremism in their beliefs, it must be relative to a lack of extremism in your beliefs. But you can be extreme in your lack of extremism. You may believe that those that have extreme beliefs that do not take into consideration the other side are dogmatic, while you, with your tolerance of all sides, your willingness to follow each argument to its conclusion, are free of this label. But this is untrue. You can be dogmatic in your level-headedness, you can be intolerantly tolerant.

When others do not subscribe to your philosophy, they are blamed as intolerant, but your behavior proves that you are doing the same. In other words, it is impossible to truly be tolerant when you presume you are right, since any belief system at all, even one that is based on tolerance, is subject to the label “intolerant” once it is faced with an opposing belief system.

To be open to ideas means to reject all dogmatic presuppositions. And dogma includes liberal ideas, including the belief in individualism and self-determination. In cultures that are less individualistic, there may be higher levels of security, less anxiety, and more social cohesion. There may be less violence and less existential angst. It is sometimes hard to see why living more individualistically is superior at all.


What freedom allows one to do is to introspect, to travel outside the cognitive bubble that has been outlined by their society, to explore what could be rather than what has been. This creates the potential for personal development, and consequently, social development.

To be able to think freely means that you can be aware of the extent to which you are not free. It means you are aware of your social and biological conditioning, and how even your simplest thoughts are products of forces that are outside your conscious control.

Hence the irony. By being free, one can appreciate how little freedom they truly have. And this can either lead to despair or to hope.

Despair because they come to understand how little sovereignty they have and how little sovereignty anyone else has. Such a realization can easily lead to nihilism. If ultimately, fate is not determined by human will but by the complex interaction of many forces outside of our conscious control – including our own subconscious, then what is the point in being invested in humanity?

Before I explain why I think hope is merited, it is useful to think about our definition of free. We have this idea about freedom, that free choice is the ability to choose an outcome independently. But what in nature has that ability and why do we assume that it exists for us?

Politically it is very useful to believe in freedom. Without this belief, democracy would not be possible. But like frictionless planes in physics, freedom is a fictional idea that helps us understand something more important (influence) and do something substantive for society (vote).

On the spectrum of most free to least free, we can consider human beings to be most free of all life forms, but this does not mean humans are completely free.

There is a higher amount of variety in human interaction. There is more complexity which increases the likelihood of self-determination. The less complex an organism is, the less likely it is that it possesses the capacity for making its own choices. Children are less free than adults because the avenue of possible behaviors is constrained, and children are less conscious of the behaviors that they are exhibiting. Or one could equally say that children have less environmental constraints (job, knowledge of socially acceptable behavior, pre-established routines) and thus they have more freedom. Which argument you choose to accept depends on what you consider is more correlated with freedom. Is freedom more highly correlated with complexity, or is it more highly correlated with lack of external influences?

In his book Free Will, Sam Harris argues why free-will is an illusion. In 21 lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harari does the same. In both cases, the central argument would be that the human brain itself is an external influence – that is, it is separate from mind or our conscious experience of reality. Thus, even if the child has less environmental influences than adults, they are still controlled by the physical structure of their brain. It is not just that our friends and family and the information we are exposed to control the content of our thoughts, but our physical brain is also a determinant of what we can or cannot do.

But if this is the case, then we can develop an entirely different way of processing reality, one that could stave off anxiety rather than induce, one that could propel us to positive action rather than deter it. Paradoxically, being aware of one’s own conditioning is freeing.

Imagine you weren’t aware of your lack of freedom, that you lived your life in a way where you truly believed that every choice you made was self-determined, that you were in control the whole time. In this reality, falling for ideological traps is much easier. If you are under the illusion of freedom, you will take your own actions more seriously. ‘I believe I am free, therefore, I believe I am free to choose to have this political belief or that.’

This estranges you from the other side. By not appreciating the limitations of your capacity to choose, you will find it difficult if not impossible to understand how you can be wrong. The goal should never be full freedom because such an ideal does not exist outside our own minds. The goal should be to be as free as possible. If you understood how little freedom you truly have, you will be mindful of what you allow yourself to be exposed to constantly, you will be more careful about your judgements of other people, and you will be more patient with yourself.

When you understand that you are influenced by millions of variables outside of your control, you will become highly suspicious of your own convictions, and you will pursue further understanding and clarity. By knowing you are unfree, you will become freer.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.