Monday, June 3, 2013

Is free will an illusion?

Sometimes I think so.

Wouldn't you agree that your physical characteristics -- height, build, hair color (and amount), eye color, etc. -- were largely pre-determined at birth (or even before)? Granted, you can influence your build with diet and exercise, but wouldn't you also agree that there are naturally fat and skinny people?

So what about your non-physical characteristics, i. e., your intelligence, personality, etc. What if those were pre-determined as well? Why else would so many doctors' kids become doctors and so many lawyers' kids become lawyers, etc.?

If I told you that Michael Jordan's son was a good basketball player, you wouldn't be surprised, would you? And if your neighbor's son went into the same line of work as his father, you wouldn't be surprised by that either.

"He's a doctor? Oh, well, sure -- his father was a doctor, you know."

Does that mean the son went to work every day with his father, watched him treat patients, deal with insurance companies and said to himself, "I want to do that, too"?

Or does it mean that the son, like his father, was good at math and science, was a hard-worker, disciplined, got good grades and so went to medical school?

I remember when my kids were young and one of their classmates would be a good baseball or football or basketball player. And then the kid's father would show up for practice one day and he'd be about 6'2" and 200 pounds or so of solid muscle. Oh, and it turned out he played ball for [fill in the blank] college. Will wonders never cease?

So why wouldn't the same thing be true of our intangible qualities?

I'm only on this rant today because I read a speech Ben Bernanke gave at Princeton yesterday. Here's my favorite part (my emphasis):

A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

And it's true. Look at me: I've been incredibly lucky -- good health, great looks, and born into a two-parent family firmly ensconced in the middle class. My dad paid for my education (as his dad did before him) and I never really wanted for anything. Of course I was going to "succeed" in the meritocracy.

Look back at your own life. Could you really have done anything differently at any of life's inflection points which would have made things turn out otherwise? Or did you make the best decisions you could with the best information you had at the time?

Could you really have been a doctor if you'd only worked harder? Did you really have the aptitude for chemistry? Were you really the type who could have stayed in on Saturday nights to study? Be honest.

Chances are your life turned out pretty much the way it "should" have. And maybe you're leading the life you were always "meant" to live. Maybe you never really had the power to influence it that much anyway.

Maybe free will is just an illusion.

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