The Human Feeling of Being Free

From The Wall Street Journal:

While the power of the physical sciences to explain the operations of the world mechanistically is an irresistible force, the human feeling of being free remains an immovable object. It seems that only one can prevail, but neither looks as if it is about to yield.

More than a few scientists have blithely sauntered across this metaphysical minefield as though it were safe terrain. They claim that science has proved that free will is an illusion and say that’s all there is to it. Psychologist Kennon M. Sheldon is a different kind of trespasser on philosophers’ turf, arguing that free will is real after all. Yet his metaphysical claim, which occupies the early chapters of “Freely Determined,” is treated perfunctorily and is in any case irrelevant to what the rest of this fascinating book has to say.

Mr. Sheldon’s interest in free will is rooted in his work in Self-Determination Theory, which he calls “the world’s most comprehensive and best-supported theory of human motivation.” A core tenet of SDT is that “people need to experience themselves as the causal source and origin of their own behavior rather than feeling controlled and determined by external forces.” When people feel autonomous, they are more content and successful. When they feel they have no control, they become morally cynical. After all, if we’re not in control of what we do, how can we be blamed for wrongdoing?

Most of Mr. Sheldon’s 10 chapters constitute a compelling and clear introduction to what SDT teaches us about nurturing a sense of autonomy. The theory gives us a rich and powerful understanding of motivation—how to harness it and avoid undermining it. Most notably, the theory points to the importance of intrinsic motivation: the desire to do something for its own reward, not for any instrumental benefit.

There are always some things we just have to do, like washing the dishes or filling out a tax form. But our lives tend to go better if, seeing ourselves as autonomous, we shape our actions around whatever appears to us to have intrinsic value. “The correlation between autonomous work motivation and subjective well-being,” Mr. Sheldon notes, “is much stronger than the correlation between income and subjective well-being.”

Intrinsic motivation, however, is under constant threat. Mr. Sheldon gives the hypothetical example of a law student initially motivated to fight for justice. But at law school she learns that people expect her to give priority to working for a prestigious firm and earning a high salary. She might well internalize this “status motivation,” incorporating it into her sense of self. Or she might simply feel that she ought to be motivated by the same things that motivate her peers. In either case, the fight for justice, which she intrinsically values, has lost its force.

Mr. Sheldon’s research into Self-Determination Theory helps him make a strong case for the importance of seeing our actions as the freely chosen result of our deepest motivations. Still, he should have resisted the tired self-help trope of over-egging the promise, saying “we can steer our ship of self into uncharted new waters, where joy and fulfillment await.”

When it comes to the metaphysical realm, Mr. Sheldon’s mistake is to think that SDT and the philosophical denial of ultimate free will are incompatible. That is only true of the most popular, if simplistic, threat to his model of human freedom: the extreme reductionism claiming that reality can be completely described in the language of physics; that consciousness is just the humming of the neural machine; and that everything is strictly predetermined.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG was sorely tempted to comment, but resisted (not a first, but unusual nonetheless).

2 thoughts on “The Human Feeling of Being Free”

  1. “PG was sorely tempted to comment, but resisted”

    So is this your example of free will or was your response predetermined? 🙂

  2. Most of the discussions around free will can be defined by a lack of definition of the meaning of the words fee and will. The common sense meaning of free will not standing up to any in-depth understanding of the science of cause and effect.

    The problem can be summarized as to where the boundary between actions and the constraints against freedom choice. Arguably, no one has freedom beyond what is constrained by physics. Even chaotic randomness is not free will.

    However, just because everything that came before constrains everything will happen after, doesn’t mean that one can calculate what will happen next, or at least calculate it faster than the universe progresses through time.

    So, if the words free will are to mean anything sensible, they must be constrained by what can be calculated (calculated being used here to mean thought through). Therefore, free will is the ability to reason through cause and effect to choose an option that has a higher chance of achieving the desired outcome.

    Arguably that means there’s no such thing as total freedom of choice, or ability to effect the outcomes of cause. So, live in the moment, think before before you leap, and enjoy your illusion of unconstrained free will.

    I await with baited breath for the pushback.

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