Free Will

If one wishes to run faster and longer, one has to build up their muscle and endurance, one has to train. If one wishes to take rational and moral actions one has to do…what? Will it? The Western conception of a free will imparts on the members of its society a responsibility over all their actions. It suggests that their actions are directed by a will that resides above or outside the material chemistry of their brain, that every choice presents an open selection before a free “soul”, and should this soul will so it can choose and act on any of the options available to it. According to the concept of free will, one has to merely direct their will towards a rational and moral action in order to go through with it.

Nietzsche put forward a more reasonable thesis: there is no “free” will, but there are strong and weak wills. Which option does one pick? One that will give benefit over the long term, or one that gives only short term pleasure? What governs our ability to carry on exercising longer, or to deny a delicious but unhealthy snack? Our rational mind knows which option is better for us in the long run within the framework of our values, but our chemistry tries to push us towards the instant reward. Our capacity for reason gives us options, our will chooses. If we consider the will as not something outside or above the chemistry of the brain and body, but as an inseparable part of it, or even as the whole of it, then “will” becomes something akin to a muscle – a thing that must be exercised in order to perform. If we wish to run faster, we must train. If we wish to choose well, then once again, we must train, we must build habits, we must seek inspiration and we must facilitate the right environment to help us make those decisions.

Note that such a conception of free will does not deny rational choice. Free will, or at the very least the idea of rational choice, can still be decoupled from the material limitations of our bodies through means of ideas. Ideas reside outside of us just as they do inside our minds. Ideas are recorded in various physical and digital media, transmitted and communicated in a myriad ways, taught, learned, discussed and debated. Ideas in recorded form are dead, in our mind they live, but this exterior capacity for recording and communication enhances our own rational capacity beyond anything one mind could achieve on its own. The combination of human knowledge is in effect the rational mind of mankind. The ability of individuals to make use of it in their lives, however, is restricted by the strength of their will.

Let us do away with the idea of unrestricted “free will” that gives everyone the opportunity to act right if they choose it, and instead see the world around us as a world of strong and weak wills, a world of people making irrational judgements because they either lack the knowledge to know better or because their will lacks the capacity to go through with the rational option, being pulled away from reason by animalistic impulses. In such a world one may still cast blame, but blame itself cannot make things right, cannot teach the mind and strengthen the will. Instead, we must seek to educate ourselves and promote access to knowledge and information, we must look for ways to exercise our will in order to ward it away from impulse and guide it towards reason, look for ways to give the will strength through inspiration, through the sort of art that stirs and ignites it to action, and we must build an environment that helps make the rational choices easier, though the environment should be of inspirational quality rather than a paternal one, that is: it must make one’s will stronger in the long run rather than make the choice for it. Society degenerates when it throttles knowledge and enfeebles the will of its people, thrives when it teaches and empowers people to use what they have learned.

Si c’est la raison qui fait l’homme, c’est le sentiment qui le conduit1

Rousseau


  1. If it is reason that makes man, it is feeling that leads.

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

Sign up to my email newsletter to receive regular recommendations to exceptional books on a wide range of topics including design, art, history and philosophy. A summary of latest site updates will also be included. Sign up below: