If I Had Free Will, I’d …

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2020

After watching the TV show Devs, I’ve been thinking about free will and determinism.

If I had free will, I’d:

  • Do what I decide to do
  • Keep my house clean and orderly
  • Eat only healthy food
  • Exercise just the right amount
  • Weigh sixty pounds less
  • Own only what sparked joy
  • Finish every writing idea
  • Complete my To-Do list daily
  • Open my mail and not let it pile up
  • Master a few hobbies
  • Remember all the important details
  • Be kind, generous, charitable, and helpful
  • Not waste time on useless fantasies
  • Be more active

I have to assume because I can’t achieve any of these goals that I lack free will. But is free will only about self-control? Did I choose to write this essay or did I write out of determinism? I think of having free will as being disciplined, but does that mean that people who are discipline have free will? What if being lazy and undiscipline is what I chose with my free will?

Other people think that free will as being able to choose between right and wrong. It seems much easier to not kill someone than it does to vacuum the house. It takes no effort not to lie, but a lot of effort to be creative. Maybe there are levels of free will, and I’ve got enough free will to not steal, but not enough to lose weight.

I once read that success in life was getting to be sixty-five without becoming a drunkard or living in a mental institution. I think James Mitchner said that. Maybe free will isn’t more than not giving up?


My wife Susan says I just don’t have any will power.


12 thoughts on “If I Had Free Will, I’d …”

  1. Start and finish a report due – Tuesday. Have my lessons planned and posted- but alas…I have not done a thing today. I enjoyed a movie and ate junk. Tomorrow I will work….. Maybe not till after noon.

  2. If I had free will I’d……Start and finish a report due – Tuesday. Have my lessons planned and posted- but alas…I have not done a thing today. I enjoyed a movie and ate junk. Tomorrow I will work….. Maybe not till after noon.

  3. My 10th grade English teacher is screaming at me: “Tell him to define his terms.”
    So James, define “free will”.
    I mean, birds fly south, for example, because it is their “will,” their very nature. Bears hibernate because it is their “will”. So “will” suggests an animal’s innate predisposition to do this while refraining from doing that.
    So “free…will” sounds like the grandest oxymoron ever. On one hand, the human animal has a “will” that drives him, compels him. He is driven by the physical–hunger, for example–as well as the nonphysical–greed, lust, power, etc.
    It’s as if I am to imagine the weather getting cold and Mr. Bear is sitting there, having this inner debate: “Do I want to hibernate? No, I think I want to stay awake? Hibernate? Stay awake?” And finally poor ol’ Mr. Bear freezes to death because he (1) could not “choose” what to do or is it perhaps only that (2) he is “free” to act in opposition…to what is his very “nature”?
    So sure, I have the “power”…the physical ability…to murder my next-door neighbor because he throws a loud party. And sure, I have the “choice” whether or not to do so. But “free will” is not the same as “free to choose”…is it?
    So what is meant by “free will”? (This question is more serious than you can possibly imagine because I have asking it since the late ’70s.)
    James, stay safe and be well.

    1. Actually, Randy, let’s hear your definition. You have been thinking about it more than me. As my short blog post suggests, I don’t really know of a definition. Is free will the ability to decide?

      1. James, I may have been “thinking about it” more than you but that now makes two of us. I.E., I am right there with you: “I don’t really know of a definition”. I simply have been hearing “free will” thrown about since the late ’70s, what would become the context in which I first was introduced to “free will”. And that is to go back to when I was “saved,” “born again,” i.e., when I was introduced to the Protestant Bible and the Christian “God”. And within that limited context, all reduces, in the simplest of terms–and you already know all this stuff–to the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism.
        But now, put all of that strictly Religious context in which it deserves to be, and indeed, the question still remains: What is it, exactly, that people mean when they drag “free will” into the other contexts of everyday life?
        So I remain that guy trying to understand how a “will”–the innate predispostion of a thing–can be “free” from acting in accord…with its very nature.
        You also wrote this:
        “I once read that success in life was getting to be sixty-five without becoming a drunkard or living in a mental institution. I think James Mitchner said that. Maybe free will isn’t more than not giving up?”
        Me? I had two “dreams” when I wore a younger man’s clothes: First, never get tangled up with the law, lawyers, and judges, and second, never, ever be at the mercy of the doctors. Both dreams have long since been shattered.
        So if Mr. Mitchner was correct (and that was new to me and it is an excellent way to state thing), well, I “gave up” a long time ago.
        And James, for the record:
        Since having these little debates and discussions, again, since the mid-’70s, you are the first person to ask me to “define my terms”. If this was anyone else, including people I have known personally, in “real” life, as well as what may be little more than a name on a computer screen, I’d say you were simply being evasive. Or stated this way: Ann Thomason would have kicked my ass had I ever tried that. But I have read enough of your posts and no, that simply is not who you are.
        James, as always, stay safe and be well.

  4. The idea of “free will” is over simplified and needs to be unpacked, deconstructed. The term is often used to postulate that it is an intrinsic trait which of course it isn’t. Does an infant and toddler have “free will?” Does a demented or psychotic person? Does a person with a personality disorder, cognitive deficiency or under the influence of chemicals such as alcohol or drugs.

    It might help if you get clearer about the term you are trying to describe.

    A couple of other factors that might be considered are “motivation,” “awareness,” and external incentives and punishments.

    My experience as a psychotherapist is that most people have little awareness of what makes them tick let alone what they really want for themselves and their lives.

    1. David, I feel like life is full of options and choices. Free will suggests to me an ability to weigh all the options and pick the one we like best. But that assumes the conscious awareness that I think of as me is capable of choosing without being swayed by unconscious impulses and motivations.

      1. Exactly. So how is one to recognize, acknowledge, and manage those unconscious motivations and impulses?

        My smart ass answer to your piece is that if you didn’t do the stuff you told yourself you wanted to do you either (a) don’t know yourself very well or (b) didn’t really want to do them to begin with or (c) got offered a better deal and/or were distracted and changed your mind.

        The old saying is that “actions speak louder than words.” If you want to know what people really want watch what they do not what they say.

        When people have clear self awareness understanding their intentions, motivations, and abilities they almost always do what they want to do and experience all kinds of free will in choosing.

        I often ask my clients after they tell me they want to do something, how confident are they that they will be successful? If they have low confidence, there can be many explanations. Identifying the barriers and obstacles to what they want to have happen is the gold of therapy because now they are more aware of what they are dealing with.

        1. I feel I don’t do what I think I want to do because I’m lazy, getting old, undisciplined, and easily distracted. The older I get the harder it is to work up the momentum to get started. But I’ve always been lazy. I prefer to consume stuff rather than create. For example, it’s easier to read than it is to write. If I had true free will I think I could see all my faults and work around them. Instead, I let my natural tendencies bulldoze over my ambition.

          I suppose free will could be considered the ability to overcome cultural brainwashing. Free will should be more than free-thinking, it should also be free acting.

          Actually, I’m not sure I believe in free will or will power. We are what we are. Let’s take an extreme example. Let’s say a person is a drug addict. And they tell themselves I don’t want to be a drug addict anymore. If they can quit their addiction does that mean they have free will? Or does it merely mean they have the ability to quit an addition?

          1. Jim:

            This is probably more than you wanted to know. Psychologist Julian Rotter way back in the 50s came up with what he called the “locus of control” scale. To what extent to people believe that they have the ability to influence the external factors and course of their life or what extent do they feel like a victim and the mercy of forces they don’t understand and can’t control.

            This locus of control idea has morphed into the idea of “self efficacy” and also the idea of empowerment.

            The other term that gets thrown around is “agency” or the confidence that one has the ability to do things successfully to achieve one’s goals. For more go here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locus_of_control

            I don’t beieve in the idea of “lazy”. It is a gloss over what is really going on. Take a deeper look and you will find, probably, that what you are calling “lazy” is just a cover for some deeper barrier and obstacle.

            “Lazy” is a pejorative term that comes from the “shoulds” and “ought tos” and “musts.” These are the tapes of external expectations and requirements and little to do with individual preferences, hopes, and desires.

  5. I looked but cannot find an article I found really interesting that talked about difference between saying things like “I want to learn how to play the guitar”, or “I want to exercise more” and actually doing them. How perpetuating the idea that we really “want” those things is simply lying to ourselves because if they were true desires, we would do them. It’s emphasis was on making a decision, that moment when you truly decide to do, or not do, something and you act from there. Anyway, I’m not doing a good job describing it, but if I do come across it I will send it your way.

    I know when I was healthy for several years (I’ve now gained my weight back due to two very surprising reasons: not exercising and poor eating/drinking choices), I set up my routine to exercise first thing when I got up. No snooze alarm, no excuses, just 30 minutes of exercise. And that commitment strongly influenced my food intake choices throughout the day as I would find myself automatically saying “do I really want to undo the pain in the butt work I did this morning by eating that?”.

    But the ‘path of least resistance’ is real because although I maintained that for three or four years, the ease of getting out of those habits and being in a place where I say I “want” to make those good decision is just that…all in my mind. When it comes to walking that out in practicality, it is so much more pleasurable AT THE MOMENT to have that fatty, sugary food, or play video games rather than doing a 3o minute run, etc. I have to believe that the dump of dopamine from those personally addicting habits hits the system faster than the good chemicals from exercise, plus it is easier, and so I go for the quick fix, instead of the best one.

    Lazy is a good description for me, LOL

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