The Problem of “Free Will” In Our Modern World

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s best known novel is, despite its deceptively shambling style, a book that asks many big questions about our lives and our existence However, the question that is most often asked throughout in various forms is one that has bedeviled humanity for as long as we have enjoyed a basic self-awareness: Do we have free will?

The question of whether free will really exists is far too complex to answer in a short essay, but I can perhaps address two particular questions concerning free will that I have been recently pondering: Can free will exist in the absence of complete and reliable information about our world, and what are the consequences regarding our exercise of free will in such a situation?

Although the magic of search engines such as Google or GoDuckGo perhaps gives us the impression that the world of knowledge is—quite literally—right at our fingertips, I believe that nothing could be further from the actual reality. What we know has always struck me as being little more than a grain of sand on an endless beach. This lack of information is, of course, a great impediment to our ability to make thoughtful life decisions, and certainly history provides innumerable examples of disasters foretold that were not avoided because someone lacked a crucial piece of information that could have easily saved the day.

Moreover, in addition to the problem of not having enough information, what we “know” is constantly being manipulated by groups and individuals seeking to maintain political or economic power by suppressing information, massaging information, or selectively releasing information. This is a significant problem in a world as complex and interconnected as our own that magnifies the difficulty of exercising our “free will”. This may also help to explain why so many popular books, movies, and television shows of the past half century have featured incredibly paranoid plots concerning secretive cabals and government agencies pulling strings behind the scenes to control us—these seem so oddly familiar to a general audience.

Of course, given how many times in our history we have later learned we were lied to by those in power, just a little self-protective paranoia may be entirely justified. Add to this the existence of global public relations and advertising industries whose purpose is to make us feel better or worse about our most inconsequential life decisions—while also working 24/7 to influence our broader beliefs and actions—and a legitimate case can be made that what we believe to be free will is actually a set carefully conditioned responses to stimuli provided by elites to control all that we think and do on a daily basis.

Thankfully, I believe there may be hope for us still.

Perhaps the only saving grace concerning all this constant manipulation of our minds and moods is that we are increasingly wise to it, so we now automatically doubt the veracity of all the messages we are receiving. In addition, the advertisers and image merchants of the world have discovered there is an unexpected drawback to bombarding us with a constant stream of corporate and political propaganda: You can stimulate a nerve ending only so many times before it goes numb. In fact, if any word can be said to best describe our early 21st century daily lives, it is perhaps this very one: numb. We see, we hear, and we even react on occasion—but we rarely (if ever) now fully believe what we are told. Witness the growing numbers of Americans who have grown so estranged from the political process that they cannot be bothered to even cast a vote and the millions now binge-watching television instead of volunteering in their communities if you have any doubts about just how weary and disengaged we have become.

Our lack of faith in what we are told to believe—and our increasing desire to exercise whatever free will is still left to us after we are subjected to the manipulations of the 1%—is, not surprisingly, a matter of great concern to those who count on our credulity and compliance. If we are now prone to doubt the official explanation and the approved solution regarding a problem because we strongly suspect that pertinent information is being concealed, we may not be quite so easily led as some might hope. Our recalcitrance may, unfortunately, result in disaster because we could fail to heed a sensible warning or follow a perfectly reasonable course of action, but this is the quite understandable consequence of burying us in lies and deceptions. We are simply less and less willing to be part of a herd, and we more and more prefer to do what we wish—regardless of the consequences for ourselves or others.

It may, for example, turn out that the oceans will indeed rise due to global warming, fascism will take hold in our country if we are not careful, the stock market has never been a better investment than it is today, and that new toothpaste really would have whitened our teeth had we used it. However, whether or not some piece of advice or information is worthy of our attention, chances are that we will dismiss it all as yet more misinformation designed to control us for someone else’s benefit. Perhaps free will as it is practiced today by a people less trusting and more hostile than ever is inherently self-defeating, but we will likely at least be living with consequences that are more of our own choosing. I hope that our self-aware suspicions of those now in power will usher in a golden age of democracy and decisions made for the benefit of the 99% rather than those perched at the top, but one must also reckon with the possibility that our judgments will be so clouded by our grim distrust that we will do great harm to ourselves and our world by refusing to listen to even the most practical advice. Our independence and refusal to listen to anyone could, when all is said and done, be a curse rather than a blessing.

A century from now our descendants might ask why we made the choices we did today, and I can offer only this explanation of the times we live in now: More of us believe in less, and a people lacking faith in their leaders and institutions sometimes make grave mistakes. I apologize in advance for any catastrophes we might cause as a result of our inability to continue to believe the official lies that serve to keep us in line, but I hope that future generations will understand we could do no better—we have been beaten down by leaders who have habitually betrayed our yearning for something or someone whom we can trust.

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