There was once a man who had caught philosophical anxiety. He worried whether life had meaning and what it all meant. Most of all, he worried whether humans had free will. If science said that everything was determined by physics – not that he understood science much – then how could we make our own choices? If there was only one way how things could happen, how could one choose?
He was haunted by this. Often it felt as if there was real choice, but often it felt as if there was a cause he could not change to his actions. He felt like a puppet at times.
So when the man freed a genie from a bottle and was granted three wishes, and was told they could be anything, this was what he thought of.
“Can I wish to have free will?”
“That’s too vague. You have to tell me what you mean by it.”
“All right. I wish that I can make choices for my own reasons, not as a mindless slave to causality outside me.”
“It is done.”
The man asked the genie to wait and went out to test his newfound freedom.
For a while, things seemed to go very well. The man did as he pleased. He made good choices and was in control of his life. Then, one day, he went to the store hungry and bought two bags of chips even though he hadn’t meant to. He ate them even though there was no point in eating so much at once. Then he felt bad.
This caused him anxiety again. Wasn’t that just causality, not choice? Why had the wish not worked as he wanted it to?
He went back to the genie.
“Genie, why did I buy two bags of chips when I shouldn’t have?”
The genie, conveniently, was all-knowing as well as all-powerful, though not very good at being helpful. “Because you were hungry.”
“That’s a cause.”
“I thought that I was supposed to do things for my own reasons, not as a slave to causality.”
“It was your own reason; the hunger was yours. When it caused you to do something, it was a cause as well.”
“I thought I was free now, and I could choose what to do.”
“Yes. You choose by your own reasons.”
“Hold on… did you actually do anything when I asked for this wish.”
“No. It still counts as a wish, but that’s how you were already. You know we genies aren’t that creative in interpreting the wishes we grant.”
“All right, then. Here’s my next wish. Make it so I can make choices that are not determined by anything.”
“It is done.” This time, the man felt a clear magical tingling.
The man left again. Once on the street, he was met by a woman walking a large dog. With some effort, he picked up the dog and started running across the street, stopped shortly when the dog’s leash caught him up – just as well, as there were cars moving on the street.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I… chose to do that,” the man said, puzzled himself. It had clearly felt like a choice, but it was different from before. There had been no reason for it. Anyway, he made a different kind of choice – for there was a clear reason for this one – to put down the dog and run away. There was no way he could explain this situation.
It took longer than usual for the man to get back home because he kept making wrong turns and stopping to do random things. He’d read enough philosophy to have heard about Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and the fear it entailed because you could never know what you might choose to do, but now he really knew that feeling, and it was different than he had imagined. He tried to keep from imagining what crazy things he might do next, as thinking about a possible act seemed to provoke a choice whether to do it with fifty–fifty odds, and he had already chosen to do such things for no reason more than once. They had all been genuine choices – or at least, he’d had the strong feeling that they were at the time.
He could still make causal decisions too, which was something of a relief. And he actually brightened up when he noticed he was hungry and he was walking by the store. He went in, bent on only buying some cigarettes.
When he walked by the potato chips aisle, he stopped and looked at the chips. Yep, they sure looked delicious. He evoked his new freedom to make a decision about whether to buy them.
He bought one bag of potato chips, some trading cards he didn’t collect, and no cigarettes.
“Why did I buy chips anyway?” he asked the genie.
“For absolutely no reason,” the genie said. “That is what you asked for. You make decisions that are not based on any cause, not even your own reasons.”
“I thought I’d be free to ignore the desire.”
“Yes. But you also ignored your desire to abstain from buying. When your choices have no reason, they are absolutely unpredictable.”
“That doesn’t sound right. It’s not what I was thinking of… What if I had asked for the choice of which desire to follow not to be determined instead?”
“Then you still might have gone either desire’s way without any reason or way to predict it. You wouldn’t do things you had no desire to do, but whichever you chose from among the desires you had could be any of them with no pattern.”
“So I might still follow the wrong desires?”
“Yes, and there would be no way for you to fight against them, though you might choose otherwise by luck.”
“Well, at the moment, I can still also make choices for a reason.”
“Yes, because you asked to be able to make undetermined choices, not to make all your choices like that. If you had, you would be in a madhouse by now, and could not do anything that served any purpose other than by chance. You could know a choice would make you absolutely miserable and still make it; you could know another was absolutely vital to make but not do it. Eventually, you would kill yourself one way or another.”
“I don’t think I’d be in a madhouse. If it had been like that, I would have come back here even sooner.”
“No. You imagine yourself doing that for a reason. That is not what would happen.”
The man slumped. “Look, I just want to be free. I don’t even know what that means any more. What should I wish for?”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘free’ if you don’t know it yourself.”
“Well… what would help me function as a human being, not determined by desires I don’t want to be determined by, but not do all these random things I don’t want to either?”
The man stuck both middle fingers in his nose for no reason, painfully hard, then pulled them out again. “Argh!”
“You would need to act for your own reasons, but you would also have to be aware of all of them and how to balance and prioritise them. You would have to see what is overall the best thing and then not be too weak to choose it.”
“I’m not sure I understand. But do it, please, I need a resolution for this!”
“It is done.”
The man became perfectly rational in terms of the overall picture. He was now unlike any human being ever before. He stared for a moment in amazement, then thanked the genie heartily and rushed off to change everything.
Five years later, the man received the Nobel Prize for peace. Five years after that, a major religion had formed around him, though he denied any claims of divinity. Five years after that, because he hadn’t wished for everyone else to be rational as well, he was shot by an extremist who didn’t like the way in which he was making the world a better place.
In case you’re wondering, while he lived, the man no longer bought any chips when he knew he shouldn’t – because he saw that he shouldn’t and he had the strength to do as he knew to be best.