How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
- Invictus by William Ernest Henley
The broad appeal of this famous poem illustrates the importance of free will and self-determination to most people. In our culture, we take an all-or-nothing attitude toward this subject. In our legal system, for example, a person is considered to be in full control of his faculties and to bear full responsibility for his actions, or else is considered to be psychologically broken ("insane") and completely without fault. It would seem that we look at things this way because we prefer to believe that we are in control of our own lives. The philosopher Robert Nozick illustrated the desire to look at things this way with a thought experiment called "The Experience Machine." In the future, advanced neuropsychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a our brains to induce any experiences we desire. We would not be able to tell that the experiences aren't real. We could plan out any type of life we wish to lead, and then jack in to the machine. If offered that choice, would we do it? When asked this, most people say no. A main reason that people would choose not to use the machine, according to Nozick, is that "we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them."
Yet it is also true that we have been significantly influenced by our backgrounds and environments. Parents instinctively understand this when they criticize the friends their teenage children have chosen to hang out with. I recently was reminded of this effect when I was shopping in the grocery store and they advertised pears over the PA system. A soothing female voice described pears with lunch, pears for a snack, crunchy sliced pears in a salad... and I had to go buy a pear. (It was delicious.) The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous example of how profoundly people can be influenced by their environment. This psychology experiment, conducted in the 1970s with about 20 college students, created a fake prison in the basement of an academic building, randomly assigning some students to be prison guards and the others to be prisoners. The experiment was designed to take place over a continuous two weeks, but the participants quickly adapted to their roles, and within just a few days there were surprising examples of brutality on the part of the guards, and the prisoners were becoming despondent or fomenting rebellion. The experiment had to be ended early due to ethical concerns. And these were normal, college-aged kids! So, how much of what we do actually originates from ourselves? What if there really isn't such a thing as free will, and we are only machines acting out our past influences?
In fact, if you ask a Buddhist, he or she may agree that there *is* no such thing as a self. This notion of an individual who is in control and has free will is merely a compelling illusion. According to such lines of thought, realizing this, and giving up the need to defend or justify this imaginary self, is an important component to finding peace. Susan Blackmore, a psychologist, was inspired by a philosopher's observation that "all theory is against free will, and all experience is for it," so she set about changing her experience. She wrote in 2005 that she had succeeded in removing her subjective feeling of free will, and that she continued to live a moral and happy life without it. So, maybe free will is just an appealing fiction after all.
But what if we imagine that both positions are right? What if free will is a spectrum from none to absolute, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle?
Here is one example of looking at things this way. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED talk about the "suffering artist" stereotype. She pointed out that, in part because the creative process can be so fickle, artists and writers have a tendency to be very stressed out and sometimes commit suicide. When an artist has a huge success, it is likely to go to her head, but also make her worried about whether she will ever be able to do anything else to measure up. When an artist hasn't had such a lucky break, then she worries about whether she will ever be successful. Gilbert points out that this stereotype only came about starting in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, when the supernatural was set aside, and the individual was placed at the center of the universe. In ancient Greece and Rome, and in many indigenous cultures, there was a notion that artists are merely channelers of a disembodied spirit: the Romans called it a "genius;" the Greeks called it a "daemon." So if your work didn't do well, everyone knew your genius sucked and it wasn't your fault. And if your work succeeded, then it was again thanks to your genius, so you didn't deserve all of the credit and the pressure that would come with it. The important factor becomes your willingness to work. If you are a writer, then your job is to show up and write, whether or not your genius is on task that day.
In a way, Gilbert has proposed a hybrid model of free will, where our results are partly determined by external influences, and partly controlled by our own decisions. And I think this is a great model. This model is consistent with findings about willpower, which show that each of us only has a limited amount of willpower to spend in a given day. For example, they have found in experiments that when a person is required to avoid eating a tempting snack, and then is given a difficult puzzle, that person gives up on the puzzle sooner, because he has "used up" his willpower on not eating the snack. Since this is an unavoidable constraint, the best way to respond when we are unable to overcome external influences is not to berate ourselves for being too weak! Instead, the best response is not to tackle too much at once. We can use the willpower we do have to make incremental changes in our environment, in order to make things easier in the future and get ourselves just a little closer to our goals.
To sum up: Free will is not necessarily the all-or-nothing proposition that many people seem to assume. Our behavior may be more influenced and determined by our past and by our environment than many of us like to believe. But if we can accept this, we can become a lot more compassionate toward ourselves as well as others. And we can learn how to work within the limits of our free will to maximize our opportunities for happiness and success.