Creating Free Will

Posted: 6/11/2009 5:31:58 PM
Once I discovered that we do have free will, my quest became discovering how to create more free will.
In the top 10 of my all time favorite movies is Richard Linklater's Waking Life. It is a series of philosophical conversations and one of them is about whether or not we have Free Will. It's a complicated question -- religiously, philosophically, and mathematically.
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As I thought more about Free Will and observed the world around me, I noticed that some people appear to have more free will than others. I noticed in my own life, and in the lives of my loved ones, the amount of free will we have within our life changes over time as well. I drew some charts on the white board for this post, click the image for high res:

Free Will Changes, therefore Free Will Exists


As you can see in the illustration above, the amount of free will we have in our lives changes over time. When we are babies, we have almost no free will. We are completely dependent on others to care for us. As we age, we learn more about the world, get stronger and we gain free will. We gain the ability to choose and act on those choices. As we get even older, our bodies decline in strength, we get frail, perhaps our mind begins to go, and once again, we become dependent on others to care for us -- our free will declines. In later life, we may still be able to make choices, but our ability to act on that choice dimishes, so the question of free will becomes moot.

So if we accept the idea that free will changes throughout life, then the question changes from one of whether or not free will exists, to how much free will do we have? What are some of the limits on our free will? Do we want free will? How can we create more free will? Before we can answer those questions, we have to figure out what free will is...

What is free will?


Merriam-Webster defines free will as:
1 : voluntary choice or decision I do this of my own free will
2 : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

It is important to note that having a lot of choices is not the same thing as having a lot of free will. Free will is choosing. Free will is making a decision and acting on it.

Do we want more free will?


Barry Schwartz wrote a book called "The Paradox of Choice" where he talks about how choice is overrated -- choice paralyzes us. He also gave a TED talk and a longer Google Tech Talk about his book.
show TED talk

As an example to illustrate his point, I went to the store the other day, because I needed some dental floss. There were so many choices that I couldn't decide which to buy. I thought, "There must be 30 different kinds of dental floss here! Do we really need that many?" I actually counted 38 different kinds of dental floss. I felt a need to limit my options. I didn't have time to read the packaging and marketing materials about each type of floss, so I said, "I'm going to buy the cheapest one." It turned out to be the store brand. Eighty cents. Some were as much as three dollars for the same quantity.

I had to limit my choices to obtain free will, that is, the ability to choose. Free will is the execution of the choices we make, not merely having a lot of options. It does seem paradoxical, but limiting our options, creates free will.

Create free will by limiting options


So, method #1 for creating more free will is to pick a filter for our options. It doesn't really matter what that filter is, it just needs to help us weed out options so we can actually choose and then act on it. In the example of the dental floss, I told myself to pick the cheapest one. That filtered 38 options down to exactly one option and I acted. Free will requires action.

Social limits on free will


Filters exist all around us. Society institutes these filters to protect us. They protect others from harm we could cause them. They protect us from harm others could cause us. Educational institutions create many filters: high school, college, medical school. There are various certification programs for law, engineering, driving trucks, and computer programming among others. These social filters are designed to help us choose only qualified options for our products and services.

These social filters also limit our personal free will. We can't just be a doctor for example. We have to go to school, learn from other doctors and go through residency. To get through these social limitations on our free will we need lots of the following: Experience, Education, Courage, Money, Influence, Enlightenment, and Perception.

Create Free Will by climbing the social ladder


So method #2 to gaining more free will would be learning about social limits on our free will and working our way through them. Climbing this social ladder is a huge investment in time and money. Many students graduate college with massive amounts of student loan debt, so in a way, while we open some doors, we also close others. College graduates often don't have the choice not to work because they need to pay off their loans. You'll have to decide for yourself where the proper balance is for you.

How much free will do you want?


Gaining free will is a process. Our minds appreciate working hard, gaining experience, learning how to use tools, and gaining free will over time.

Think about how you play video games. In lots of video games, players start out with limited options. As the game is played and accomplishments are made, the game opens up new levels, magic spells, or weapons we can use through the rest of the game. Just as we are born with limited free will, limited options in games keep the game interesting. They give us something to work for and we feel empowered.

Life is like this too. As you get older, doors will open for you. Often times, we make the mistake of wanting to retire early or move right into the big fancy house. This overzealousness can actually limit our free will later on.

Create Free will by saving time


You can also create free will by building tools, products, and knowledge for yourself and for others that will save you time in the long run. When you save time, you create more opportunities to act. The less time you spend acting on decisions, the more time you have to act on other decisions.

So think about your actions before you act. Free will compounds on free will. Every action that leads to multiple time savings later on will make your life more open later.

Think of your actions as investments into your future. Imagine, if you spend 15 minutes every day doing some particular thing, but it will take 45 minutes to automate that action, then by the fourth day, you have 15 extra minutes every day. This 15 minutes could be spent learning a skill or improving your product.

Keep making small incremental improvements like this and your free will will grow exponentially throughout your life.