Do we have free will?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA sometimes writes about cultural theory and when he does it’s always worth reflecting on. At the very end of 2009 he was looking at the idea of free will:

Faced with a social choice we can do what we want or feels right for us (individualistic impulse), do what the group expects/needs (egalitarian impulse), do what we have been told (hierarchical impulse) or ‘decide’ it’s not worth making a choice (fatalistic impulse). Is it credible and useful to think of the everyday experience of free will as the process of switching between these alternative responses?

The problem with free will is that we only have it until we walk out of the door in the morning and maybe not even that long. Every time we make a choice we are interacting with institutional forces and established practices which have a strong shaping power over our lives.

Let’s say I decide to go to the city by train this morning, but like Frank Sinatra I’m going to do it my way. Although the timetable says the trains leave on the hour, I’m going to catch the one that leaves at twenty past the hour: I’m a free person and can do what I like, no? Only trouble is that there is no train at twenty past the hour. I’m stuck on the platform twiddling my Individualist thumbs for forty minutes.

Or let’s say I’m actually a clever Individualist and already know that railways are the last bastion of bureaucratic ridiculousness, so I hop straight in the motor car. No fooling me, I’m zooming down the freeway at precisely, yes, twenty past the hour. No timetable’s going to hold me up! The trouble this time is the huge traffic jam that’s backed up all the way to the city. What terrible luck! If it hadn’t been for the fickle finger of motoring fate, I’d have made it to the city in no time. But as it is, I’m stuck watching the train overtake me at 50kmh. Argh! Funny how this happens every day at this time…

Here’s the point: perfect freedom is a solipsistic fantasy. Free will is a subtle interaction between our own impulses and the social environments in which they may be enacted (something like the habitus of sociologist Bourdieu, perhaps). Indeed, often our impulses are given to us by the environment we’re in, rather than coming from some mysterious place inside (the idea of ‘affect’ is relevant here).

Either the moment we feel most free is when our desires match exactly the expectations of the social environment. If I can be [Hierarchically] happy to be constrained by the timetable then I’m happy indeed; if I can [Fatalistically] sit out the traffic jam with equanimity then I am at peace with the world.

Or, the moment we feel most free is when we buck the trend, go against the grain, stand out from the crowd and up for what we believe, do our own thing, struggle against the odds, etc etc, in brief, contest social expectations.

Almost everything we do presents us with this choice of sorts: to go along with the cultural bias of the situation, or, somehow to defect. Both directions, in their very different ways, make for a kind of freedom.

“You’re all Individuals. You’re all different”

“We’re all different!”

“I’m not.”

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