Free Will and the Meaning of Life

Free Will

There is no free will as it is widely understood. When we act at a time point t0 our illusion at a later time point t1 of “I could have done something different” is caused by our memory of intention at an earlier time point t-1. What caused the intention (at t-2, t-3…) might or might not be partly in our memory. But at some point in the past there is no memory of even part of the reasons for our intention or its causes.

All of this is necessarily true if everything in the universe follows physical laws which determine the future into eternity.

It is also necessarily true if everything in the universe follows physical laws which allow for truly random processes.

The perceived freedom of choice must be an illusion unless decision-making is independent of the physical realm which would then be incompatible with naturalism.

Naturalistic free will acknowledges the fundamental illusion but asserts that we feel freer the more aware we are of the causes for our intentions:

  • A non-human animal acts upon a stimulus and does not feel free in its choice.
  • A human might feel free if he can refuse to take a treat because he is aware of his instinct, but maybe unaware of his default contrarianism.
  • At a later point in life he might feel freer if he can refuse or agree to take a treat because he is aware of his instinct while simultaneously being aware of his default contrarianism. But maybe he is unaware of his proud ego looking down on all the awareness.
  • Etc.

The freer we feel based on ever more awareness the harder it is for other humans to manipulate us.

The freer we feel based on ever more awareness the calmer we are.

The potentiality that an outside observer, a god or alien programmer, could still easily manipulate us is irrelevant for our everyday life.

In our everyday life we act on uncertainty about the future in the present. We only ever live in the present. No matter whether we spend our time suffering because of certain memories or looking forward with a vision of a better world, it is determined by the laws of physics (and maybe chance).

What matters is not, what you, reader, thought or felt about this last sentence. What matters is that you have just read it and that it’s part of your awareness now. And maybe many nows from now on. None of those present moments can be different so why not embrace reality radically as it unfolds?

“If everything is determined, it doesn’t matter what I do.” is a belief you might have and if you do, it is so determined. Let’s call this belief “A”.

“If everything is determined, it means that neither I nor anybody else could have ever acted differently and therefore judging past behavior doesn’t make sense apart from understanding probabilities for the future. The future is determined, too, but I cannot predict it with certainty which is a blessing because that means there is hope that the best (or a very good) possible version of a future I can imagine could come into being.

I will never despair because I only live in the present which I radically embrace, continuously.

I will always hope and ask myself the question which is based in the beauty of uncertainty: What would I need to do to raise my subjective probability for that imagined best future to come into being?” is a belief you might have and if you do, it is so determined. Let’s call this belief “B”.1

Again, what is important is that you, reader, have just been exposed to the possibility of a belief like B.

If you had not read it and you would have come to A at a certain moment in your life you might have thought it was the only one or most straightforward one to have. You might have felt less free. With A and B you might feel freer.

But how is any of this relevant at all? What does “better world” even mean?

Meaning of Life

As with free will, there is no meaning of life either.

If we want to know something, we have found that the scientific method is the way to go. Not because it gives us absolute certainty. But because it gives us robust theories which we haven’t yet been able to falsify, even after many attempts. We trust some of those theories with our lives when we fly in airplanes, for example.

So even though we don’t have absolute certainty about what is, the scientific method informs us well enough about what is.

The question for the meaning of life, though, is not a question about what is but about what should be. What should I do? The unbridgeable gap between the questions “What is?” and “What should be?” has probably been discussed since the first humans roamed the land. If the gap is unbridgeable, then there is no meaning of life that we can deduce with logic. The end?

If there’s no logic answer to what I should do, that’s freeing, too. When I was younger, I left it there.

Today I would say I was not really that much into the question of what I should do. If I would have been more interested, I might have tried to understand the gap better. Is there something close to what I should do? Could I find something that makes the gap really small? How would the smallest gap look like? That is, what kind of statement could I make on the sides of “What is?” and “What should be?” such that even an ant could easily cross the gap.

Before continuing to read, try to come up with something yourself. Then see if it’s equivalent to the following:
(If you found something that’s not equivalent and from your view makes the gap even smaller, let me know @ZurNull.)

What is?

Every sentient being wants to live as long as possible if it is quality living.

What should be?

No reduction of quality life time.
(An earlier equivalently meant version that ran into more edge case problems was
What is? Nobody wants to suffer. What should be? Reduction of suffering.2)

Easy example

You ask an old lady who you know treats animals very well “What would make your life more miserable?” Answer: “If my puppy dies.” The puppy contributes to her quality of living and has possibly a good life itself -> Don’t kill the puppy.

Not so easy example

A man has a medical condition and doctors give him 6 more months to live. He is in constant pain. He loves smoking. You have no-smoking rules inside the hospital and in the garden. You know that he knows about the rule but you see him smoking in the garden. -> You let him smoke? Probably, right?

Maybe you would disagree. For this second example we might want a bit more information: How many other people are usually in the garden and how big is it? Is there a possible treatment of his condition such that he could actually live much longer? If so, would it still be better to let him smoke?“ Etc.

“Don’t reduce quality life time” is a simple guideline. However, it implies both the calculation of an expected value of this quality life time and possibly a change of one’s own behavior which is not easy. In fact, it’s usually hard.

In order to follow the guideline, one would need to gather knowledge about oneself, situations and other people. It might be tempting to focus on others first rather than ourselves. This has two main reasons:

1. Although we are born with natural curiosity, toxic environments like most schools kill this curiosity by punishing mistakes and prescribing what is to be learned. Now we are supposed to learn again? About ourselves?

2. Only a few of us were lucky enough to be guided with love when we experienced negative emotions in our childhood. We might be adults on paper but we have not learned how our negative emotions can actually even be allies. Instead we have developed maladaptive mechanisms to cope with or silence them. We fear to learn about them and we don’t want to admit it. We fight against our inner child being exposed.

It is important to remember that there is no free will and nothing that you did or happened to you could have gone another way. It is also important to remember the B-mindset: There is always hope because of uncertainty. No human can predict the future with 100% certainty. If at this moment you don’t think you can help yourself or be helped by somebody, try to at least not reduce quality life time of others. Sometimes, looking for help is easier when one realizes that other people you love are affected if you don’t. Again, this is not about blaming. It can’t be since there is no free will.

People who don’t stop reducing quality life time of others because they either just don’t find a way to stop at this moment or take the stance of “nothing matters anyway because there is no absolute meaning of life” will need to be helped, fined or even locked away for some time not because they could have acted differently but because society needs to be guarded from them.

Even though it is harder to focus on yourself first, it comes with two advantages:

1. It involves fewer variables, so it’s simpler, even though not easier.

2. If you focus on yourself first, not only you will benefit from it.  

There is a beautiful coincidence here: In the section of free will we were only describing how people with more knowledge about themselves will feel freer and calmer. In this section we conclude that in order to follow the guideline we will need to learn about ourselves. The search for the meaning of life brings us on a path to feel free!

Can I do more? After all, “don’t reduce quality life time” is often rather passive. How do I act after I have learned how to not do harm? The next logical step is to try to increase quality life time. Easy now, right? NO! History is full of examples of people who meant good and ended up producing more misery than they started with. If you are really inclined to do more, again, start with yourself. Experiment, expose yourself to new challenges, continue to learn about yourself, understand which environments help you grow. Which things are you passionate about?

Even more? We are social beings. We usually increase our own quality life time and the one of others in strong one-on-one relationships (with a partner, best friends, maybe even parents or other family members). Learning about oneself can be much less intimidating if done together. Build environments for both of you to grow.

Even more? If you find yourself continuously learning passionately together with a partner and you want to further increase quality life time, this might be the best preconditions to become parents IF you know enough about yourself and expect this would not actually reduce your or your partners quality life time. (Think of trade-offs and second order consequences for the kids.)

Even more? Still learning about yourself? Passionate about guiding groups and helping them learn? Maybe you are a born entrepreneur, trainer or teacher!

Even more? (If any of these questions are answered with “yes” by greed instead of passion, please think again!) If you have become a very knowledgeable person about the world and yourself, that is, if you are wise AND feel passionate about doing even more, you might want to expand your work on healthy learning environments to the communal level. You might be a born local politician!

If your passion is not to be a parent, teacher or politician but to be anything else and you follow that (=your) path, chances are that by increasing your own quality life time you increase the one of others around you.

But how can you increase or reduce something at all? Isn’t everything already determined?

Remember mindset B. Uncertainty coupled with our imagination lets us envision different versions of the future in the present. We know which versions we like more than others. And the more we expand our horizon the more we can imagine. The idea to increase or reduce quality life time is rooted here and now, in our imagination of the futures we compare.

My will is not free.
My life has no meaning.
My future is uncertain.

Against intuition, those three sentences are actually very empowering.

1 You could obviously have any other belief “C”, “D”, …
2 More precise: Reduction of the expected value of suffering.
Spanish version / German version

Special thanks for helping me shape these ideas to Lisa Renger, Matthias Renger and Verónica Rodríguez Ballesteros.