Diving Into the Question of Free Will

The subject of free will has cropped up in my life again. I think about it every so often, and there are some things that always come to mind when I do. So:

If you define free will as “the ability to flout or ignore physical laws,” the discussion ends almost before it starts. You can’t defy natural laws. The weird thing is, MOST of the people commenting or writing on the subject speak exclusively in this vein, concluding rightly there is no such thing as free will. Either there’s some sort of goddy magic that allows it to happen – which we already know is not the case – or you don’t have free will. You’re a meat machine that obeys meat machine laws.

But that’s a stupid definition. For the question to have any meaning at all, the REAL discussion has to take place on a level that gives full recognition to the underlying physics, but also understands that amazing things become possible when physical laws are expressed in biological systems.

Yes, yes, yes, all of what we are and what we do flows out of our childhood experiences, what we ate that morning, how much sleep we got, whether or not we suffer brain damage from an accident earlier in life, what someone said to us that morning, the fact that we are humans rather than sitatungas … but even taking those factors into account, the complexity of the brain sometimes manages to produce amazing, unpredictable results.

Additionally, there’s an element of farce to any discussion that concludes free will is impossible, in that the person arguing against free will is basically saying he has no choice but to be saying exactly what he’s saying. Which sort of negates anything he says, right? Why even bother listening to a machine?

The fact is, you might say “Oh, this is all due to physics and earlier events,” and be right. But it’s also a fact that we humans can’t even begin to tease out the full array of those factors. No matter how much we know, there is no way to reliably predict future actions or thoughts. We can’t even look back after a thought or action has been expressed and reliably identify the factors that caused it. (Note that every mass murder-suicide is followed by society-wide bafflement.)

We can create art, make decisions, take actions, express love, change our minds … so much more. Not despite the wiring of our human brains, but DUE TO. Yes, in most ways we are “wired” for things, but one of the things we are wired for is uniquely creative behavior. At some level, this is free will.

Another thing: It seems to me that the less experience and knowledge you have, the more you unknowingly act based on immediate social influences. But the more experience and knowledge, the greater the possibility that you’ll be able to produce more complex, less predictable, more original thoughts and behaviors.

For instance, I grew up with smokers. Every adult I knew smoked cigarettes. I also grew up with rodeo cowboys, every single one of which drove a pickup truck. You’d think I’d be a pickup-truck-driving smoker. But I never smoked, and my first vehicle was a VW Beetle. After a lot of thought, and knowing nobody else who owned one, I CHOSE the Beetle. I knew the choice would make me unpopular, but I also knew it was dependable, durable and cheap to operate. I exhibited a creatively novel approach to the question of what sort of vehicle I was going to get. To me, that was an expression of the only sort of “free will” that makes any sense to discuss.

In every examination of the subject of free will, here’s a thing I believe: Free will is possible, but it’s VERY  hard work, and so most of us DON’T have much of it. We really are blind mechanical expressions of the social forces around us.

We get the same stupid neck tattoos and buy the same stupid brand of cigarettes as the people around us. To make ourselves feel we’re not complete robots, maybe we crow about the UNIQUE, INDIVIDUAL nature of our stupid neck tattoos, and the fully conscious individual choice we made to take up smoking.

But in reality most of us think few to zero new thoughts, we break away from the home crowd reluctantly or not at all, we enjoy the same entertainments and endeavors and employments as those around us. Few of us create art, or found totally novel businesses, or hare off to parts unknown to see the never-before seen. For most of us, the older we get, the worse it gets. We become products rather than individuals.

Finally, humans in groups display statistically-significant cattle-like behaviors. Those behaviors can be predicted and profited from, and that is exactly what governments and  industries do. They deliberately exert powerful social forces – advertising, manipulative lies, engineered fads, active social engineering, laws, even articles by prominent thinkers telling you you have no free will – to keep us within the bounds of predictability and profitability. So not only do we face our own laziness or lack of ambition, we face energetic, real discouragement against believing we as individuals have some sort of outside-the-lines creative or productive potential.

Conclusion: Free will exists. It’s desirable, but also uncomfortable because it’s damned hard work. It has active enemies. Most people don’t have much of it. The way to have more of it is to constantly listen, read, learn and think.

Beta Culture: Rebooting Civilization

As a superhero movie fan, I love reboots. Even though I know pretty much every version of the origin stories of Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, etc., I never get tired of the retelling.

It’s all about the JOURNEY, you see. I get to come along while someone spends millions of dollars telling this story, and though it’s familiar territory, it’s still a glorious ride.

The concept of the reboot got me to thinking, though. What if you could reboot your life? Start over and make the story of your life a different story? Take different paths, explore different talents, undertake different endeavors. Would you do it?

Honestly, I don’t know whether I would or not. There was some sure-enough shitty stuff happened to me when I was younger, but it was what led me to leave Houston and go off adventuring elsewhere. In some of those elsewheres, I met my Cowboy Dad. I met my best friend. I met a number of other wonderful people. And I got to have adventures that, in the occasional telling, sometimes wow even me.

Some people would say “Oh, you would have met other people who would have been just as good,” but that’s Fate-meme bullshit.

There are a lot of people on Earth who DIDN’T meet my Cowboy Dad, who never knew just what a wonderful man he was. Their loss, I say. And the idea that I might have been one of them, if my life had taken a slightly different turn … well. Knowing the effect HE had on me, the trouble he went to, out of all the other people I met over the years, I can’t imagine anyone else, anywhere in the world, doing as good a job at … transforming me. Taking me out of the ugliness of my former life and helping me be whole and happy. My life would have been different, but the huge probability is that it  still would have sucked.

But what if you could perform a reboot that saved all the good stuff, but added in more good stuff? What if I could keep my memories of my Cowboy Dad, the wonderful souvenirs of my life in the mountains, and yet somehow fade out the bad stuff of my past and replace it with newfound … oh, say, wealth. Or fame. New adventures of love. The learning of other languages, the development of different talents and skills.

Would I do it? Oh, yeah. Hell, why not? I could always turn back around later, after all, refusing the new stuff. Or rebooting again and taking a different path. But meanwhile, I’d get to explore wealth, or fame, or love, or radical new adventures, as this pretty good ME I already am.

Speaking of rebooting, and thinking about Beta Culture, I realized that’s pretty much what Beta is all about – a reboot. What if you could reboot civilization itself? What if you could keep all the good stuff, and winnow out the bad? Pretty tall order, right? Totally impossible, in fact. Except …

Dying Grannies

You know that silly question that every atheist sooner or later gets asked?

“If your very religious grandmother was on her deathbed, would you tell her there’s no God? That Heaven is a lie, and that she was never going to see Grandpa again, or the son she lost in Vietnam?”

Whew. Tough one, right? Except it’s not all that tough if you expand the conceptual frame of the question and think bigger than the confines presented to you.

If you could travel back in time 50 or so years, long before your grandmother was on her deathbed, would you tell her the truth about religion THEN? Would you set her on a path that would give her 50 years free of it, living her life with gusto all the while and never entertaining sterile fantasies of some sort of silly “afterlife”?

In my own case, knowing my grandmother stayed with an abusive man for decades because she thought that was the way you were supposed to do it – because God – I’d leap at the chance to tell her. “Granny, screw Jesus! Dump that a-hole husband of yours and let’s go dancing! Let’s find you a boyfriend who’ll see what a wonderful person you are, and will love and cherish you and keep you in luxury for all your life!”

Damn right, I’d tell her. Like me, she might choose not to walk this other path. But at least she’d have the choice. She could reboot her life in freethought, rather than travel the path she DID, of spousal abuse and obligatory religious enthrallment.


So what does this have to do with rebooting civilization? Just this:

For the world of 50 years from now, TODAY is 50 years ago. This is The Past where we can make a difference. We don’t even have to time-travel back to it. We’re already there.

A lot can change in 50 years. Or, you know, nothing can. We can just go on as we’ve been going, playing out the probably-grim future currently being jammed down our throats. Or we can start doing something different, right now, today.



What if we could do away with sexism, racism, the manipulations of people like the Koch brothers, the propaganda and lies of Fox News, falsity as an accepted part of business, government sponsored gambling, for-profit prisons, Wall Street bailouts, our silly drug laws, so much more?

Would you adopt the metric system and have your 50-years-hence kids and grandkids using it, rather than this inches-gallons-pounds thing we all still stupidly struggle with? (Yes, yes, Europeans, we know.)

Would you create a culture of justice and humanity and security that would see you and yours safely through the storms we already know are coming? Would you make an effort to trim-tab the course of larger civilization so that things were better for the rest of humanity in the midst of those same storms?

I would. I think you would too.


The past few days, I’ve been toying with some mind-map software, Xmind, to visualize some of the things I’ve been thinking about Beta Culture.

I’ll explain everything you see here in a near-future post, but here’s the mind-map so far.   It’s a pretty large file; click on it to open it in a new tab or window, big enough so you can read it.