Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Building a New Framework for Empathy
The basis of this article stems from the belief that free will does not exist. At the core of this argument, we ask the following questions: How is it possible for someone to take action on something if it did not occur to them to do it?
And Why did it occur to them to take one action over another?
If we can dig into this, we may be able to answer these questions through the lens of free will -- or rather, our lack thereof. The beauty of this philosophy is that, while it may be scary, it can open the door to a more empathetic view of humanity. And once we understand the answers to these questions, we can then formulate better strategies for handling instances of injustice in the world. When thinking through this idea, try to relate it to as many aspects of society as possible. For example: criminal reform, education, the workplace, or simple inconveniences.
So, what do I mean when I say that free will does not exist?
Breaking the Illusion
Let’s contextualize the idea in a broader sense before dialing in on the implications. At base level, there are a few things I’m sure we can all agree on: 1. You did not choose your body or brain
2. You did not choose who your parents are
3. You did not choose which part of the world (or which time period) you were born into
This means that, at a young age, you had no control over any of the incoming stimuli. The toolkit of thoughts (and consequently, what you bring to the table in conversation) available to you in this very moment is the direct result of prior events. How could it be any other way? Furthermore, you are entirely constrained to the physics of the world and can only adhere to the possibilities available therein. Where is the free will in any of that?
While still remaining vague, let’s look at an example of a basic conversation between two people: Someone says something to you that makes sense. This means that (against your free will) your brain reasoned through the language and understood what was being said. You had zero control over this process of understanding taking place. If this were to lead to you taking action, you may feel like it was a decision that you made of your own accord. But then why did you not take this particular action before the conversation took place -- or, why did the thought not appear in your consciousness earlier? The same can be said conversely. When you receive information you don’t understand, are you choosing to not make sense of it, or is your brain just unable to appropriately process it?
Here’s a doozy: try to control the next thought that appears in your head. You will find it’s not possible. What will appear in your consciousness next is a total mystery until its occurrence.
Now, let’s stop and do a quick thought experiment.
My words thus far either make some sense to you, or you feel this is complete nonsense. Now consider this: do you have control over the feeling of this making sense or the feeling that it does not? In either case, you have no control over how you are internalizing the idea. Think also: would you be thinking about free will if I decided not to write and publish this? What does it mean to make a choice, then? In theory, it means you reasoned through some options then decided to act on one. But what controlled your reasoning? If you are inclined to make a bad choice, where does that inclination stem from? Like any other choice, it arose in your consciousness and was acted out. But you have no control over your inclinations or preferences on a deeper level. The fact that you arrived at one choice and not another was completely out of your control. If one morning you wake up and want cereal instead of eggs, where did this preference come from? If, at the last moment, you change your mind and want eggs -- where did THAT change of heart come from? Let’s look at two extreme examples to further cement the point: A murderer’s inclination to kill: When we think of murder, we think “that person made a CHOICE to kill someone.” Sure. But why were they inclined to do so? They did not choose to have that inclination. It may have been environmental, a mental handicap, or a myriad of other things (i.e. a tumor on the brain causing poor impulse control). In any case, a murderous impulse arose, leading to an objectively poor decision. If you were to trade places with this person, atom for atom, it’s not speculative to say that you too would have been a murderer. There is no traditional you that would have chosen otherwise, because you would have had the same molecular makeup as the murderer. Think also: why do we treat (and feel differently about) a 12 year old murderer compared to an adult? I’d imagine it’s an instinctual understanding that something went terribly wrong in the child's life to lead to this. Now, this does not mean that there is not a moral justification (or societal need) for locking criminals up. There are easy arguments to be made for this. Put simply, if it benefits society at large and reduces further suffering, it has societal value. The two conversations are entirely separate.
Finally, think of how we view mental disorders collectively. When someone is depressed, or schizophrenic, we don’t think to ourselves “that person is choosing to be perpetually sad” or “choosing to be paranoid” or “choosing to be suicidal.” That would be a severely inaccurate way of viewing these disorders. We seem to unconsciously understand that these disorders are not their choice. That’s because they are disorders that occur through happenstance genetics or environmental factors beyond the person's control. My point is this: If we are willing to admit that a person is unlucky to be inclined to harm another (or themselves), we can start to formulate a more empathetic view of humanity. And whether you believe in an eternal “soul” does not change the argument. We would still say that a person was unlucky to be ‘given’ that soul.
Now, this is typically the point in which the argument falls off the rails. “What about my successes, David? I choose to be disciplined!” I’m sure you are disciplined and work hard. Alas, these are also frameworks that are (or were) instilled outside of one’s control. You may be disciplined, but you didn’t choose to have a mind that would allow for that framework of thinking to be possible. Nor did you control the environmental accessibilities available to you in order to achieve or strive for your goals.
Getting Away from the Extremes
In 1932, Albert Einstein lamented:
“I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer's words: 'Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,' accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”
Once you apply this philosophy to your everyday life, it seems silly to get angry at someone for small acts of injustice. Realizing that you have no control over your own inclinations allows you to realize the same for others.
Let’s say a colleague doesn’t do a task you expected them to do: How could it have occurred to them to complete a task if their reasoning did not justify the need for it? They do not control the outcome of their reasoning. And this is supposing the task did occur to them. What if it simply did not occur to them to do it? Well, now you are truly angry at someone for something objectively outside of their control. To say, “I’m angry at your brain for not having my task appear in consciousness, reasoning through the need to complete it, then acting on that” is not a worthwhile cause. Instead, you could provide feedback and align the dominos in their brain by providing a reason to complete the task.
Believing that outcomes are circumstantial will allow you to have more empathy in all walks of life. How we behave (actions), how thoughts arise (thinking), how we frame our world view (language), and what we decide to do (choices), all stem from our history -- from our upbringing, education, culture, surrounding, genetics, and everything in between. In essence, we are not free when we can only do what the world enables us to do.
Take some time to reflect on this. Think about how much of your life is on autopilot. Think of a task where your hands simply know what to do -- what is controlling the actions? In low impact scenarios where a decision is made (where to eat), think to yourself: why did I decide that, and where did the decision come from? Why did I not choose something else?
If you are intrigued by this philosophy and want to witness the illusion in real time, I’d suggest taking up a meditative practice. Sitting and watching thoughts arise from the wilderness of consciousness is an introspective task. You will quickly realize how little control you have over the thoughts that appear. Now, what will you do with this information?
Well, you have no control over that, and neither do I. So, why did I take the time to write this? Clearly, I had no choice.
For a brilliant in depth description of this concept, check out the video below.