The Other I

February 10, 2013

The conundrum of freedom

In a recent post from the Writer’s Treehut, the author explores the question of free will.  He looks at how our ideas of free will have changed over time.  We no longer seriously accept “the devil made me do it,” as an explanation for behavior, for instance, and see “God told me to do it” as either unacceptable or insane.  Recent brain research, on the other hand, is suggesting that close to 90% of the activity of the brain does not reach consciousness.  Even more surprising is the discovery that most of the decisions which we think of as “conscious and deliberate” are accomplished in the brain before we are aware of it.

Much of modern thought on free will stands simultaneously on two opposing sides of the teeter totter.  With democracy, we defend the concepts of freedom and individual responsibility.  At the same time, we are faced with increasing evidence that we are not as in control of our own choices as we often think.

Almost everyone will agree that free will is not without its limits.  I cannot voluntarily kill myself by holding my breath.  I cannot jump out a fifth-floor window and fly safely to the ground.  I cannot survive without minimum amounts of food and drink.

But what about that huge grey area over which some people sometimes seem to be able to make choices and others cannot?  How long can I choose to stay awake?  What about the endless diets that are broken within days?  what about addictions to alcohol, caffeine, drugs?  What about breaking into a cold sweat in response to perceived danger?  Can we suppress that adrenalin rush supporting a flash of anger or sexual arousal?  Can I hide an embarrassing blush on my cheek?  or suppress an involuntary startle?

What about those responses which are learned from our culture?  What clothes I can remove in public without embarrassment is largely learned.  My sense of injustice is greatly influenced by religious and cultural values which I have been taught.  Food that I can eat without positively gagging is often determined by custom.  My beliefs about when I might legitimately kill another person, my response to rape, my evaluation even of the expression on a person’s face are learned.

And yet they all seem to become involuntary, beyond my conscious control and free will.

Since we are all different both in terms of our genetic inheritance, and our physical and social environmental histories, it seems to me it is simply impossible for us to judge just how responsible someone else is for their own behavior.  I don’t even know for sure just how free my own choices are in any particular circumstance.

Having said all that, I am not willing to make the jump made by so many liberal thinkers that we are all responsible for what happens to others.

It is not that I don’t think I could often live your life quite well enough.

But there is no way I want someone else to take responsibility for my choices.

Yes, I am grateful for advice.  Yes, I am hugely indebted to those in my lifetime who have given to me great gifts that I in no way deserved.  Yes, without the good fortune that has been granted me, I could be a far more vicious  self-serving, insensitive human being than in my worst moments I have perhaps sometimes been.

But you are not responsible for me.  And in the same sense, I am not responsible for you.

That does leave us a problem, though.  Societies cannot survive, human beings cannot live, without rather large swathes of behavior control.  Society must control the expression of some behaviors or cease to exist.

So do we hold those violators – mass murderers, for instance? – responsible?  Do we try to inhibit that kind of behavior through use of punishment?  Do we simply lock people up for their own and our safety, even if they are not “guilty” in the sense that they are not responsible for what they have, or might, do?

Personally, I think we each experience ourselves as making choices.  I think that experience is part of our survival mechanism.  But perhaps our free will is an illusion, in the same way our experience of  Earth as flat is an illusion.

Just how free we actually are is a fascinating question to which we haven’t a clear answer.  Maybe we don’t even have a clue.



  1. You mention mass murderers, and that reminds me I actually had the Connecticut shootings of those first-graders in mind when I was thinking about who is ultimately responsible for our actions. I think I wimped out at that point. Could I really suggest the same people who are most affected by their deaths are also in some sense responsible for the killer’s actions?

    But I do think society, which is all of us plus what we have inherited in the way of do’s and don’t’s — those learned tastes and repulsions you mention — creates the context out of which we make our not-so-free decisions, such as the one Mr. Lanza made to kill those young children. He grew up in the context of violence that pervades our entertainment, for one thing — video games that are much too gruesome for you and I to even watch, films of the same ilk, even radio newscasts that go out of their way to report, gratuitously, an especially brutal or sadistic crime.

    Most of us exposed to this can compartmentalize the fantasy from reality. But many of us cannot, and not just because we are crazy. I overhear young men talking about women and sex in a way that is clearly conditioned by the worst cultural influences around them. They literally seem to have no idea of an alternative way of thinking about the opposite sex. Can they possibly _not_ act on those attitudes even if their action doesn’t always amount to a crime? I don’t see how. Add to this toxic mix a brain that is already disturbed, even delusional, and he acts out the violence he has been exposed to for so long and so pervasively.


    Comment by pianomusicman — February 10, 2013 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

    • Yes. It was less than ten minutes after I’d published this post when I had similar thoughts, and I’m grateful for your balancing addition. We are all in this together. I may not be responsible for you in the same way I am responsible for myself. But my actions influence others just as acts of kindness or cruelty, just as education of whatever ilk, just as love and struggles of others has helped make me what I am.

      Perhaps the attitudes of the parents of the murdered children in Connecticut do not reflect the gun-toting violence of so much in American culture. But it is those American values held by so many and expressed so widely that killed them. Was Lanza guilty in the sense that he was individually responsible? We can never know. But the form his actions took were not solely and uniquely his. He learned them from America.

      Thank you for taking the time to say so.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — February 10, 2013 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

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