Do you have any regrets?
I have made many decisions that, in retrospect, where not the best. Many of these decisions were made after very careful consideration and long periods of debate and scrutiny. This raises an obvious question: Could I have done otherwise?
Intuitively, the answer appears to be yes, I truly could have done otherwise. For example, it is easy to imagine a situation like this: “Today I wore a red shirt that didn’t really match my pants and shoes. That was a mistake. But sure, I could have worn the blue shirt instead. I didn’t, but I could have”. In fact, I don’t think this just aligns with our intuitions, I would go as far as to claim that it is the attitude that most people have towards their own and other people’s past actions. “He could have shot that penalty kick just a few centimetres to the right and we would have won the cup!”, “If I hadn’t kissed her that night, we wouldn’t be together today”.
The problem that I have with this intuition is that whenever I attempt to meticulously reconstruct the precise situation that led to a particular decision, I can’t genuinely imagine an outcome that is any different than the one that actually occurred. In the red shirt example, a moment’s reflection may lead to a train of thoughts like the following: “Now that I think about it, I recall that someone at work had claimed that I was a very conservative person, and I didn’t like the comment. The next day, when looking through my clothes, I remembered this remark and felt the need to prove that person wrong. At that point, I wasn’t thinking of matching my clothes well, but of making a statement in the office, so I opted for the more extravagant red shirt. I then took a glance at the time and realizing how late it was, I hurried to get ready, picking the wrong pants and shoes in the process.”
In this thought experiment, it seems very hard to imagine a situation were you would have chosen a blue shirt. Your actions were heavily influenced by prior events and by particularities of the current situation. Given that you were called conservative and that you woke up late that day, could you really have made a better decision? When we take into account all of the complex historical interactions, the chains of events and the current state of affairs moments before our decision was made, the possibility that we could have done otherwise seems to vanish. Think about the actions you regret. Think of everything that had influenced you back then, think of who you were and what you were experiencing.
Do you still genuinely think you could have done things differently?
In philosophical circles, the notion that human beings could have acted differently is known as contra-causal or libertarian free will. I want to distinguish this from the general discussion on free will, which is fascinating, but significantly more complex. For the interested reader, I recommend reading Sam Harris delightfully concise essay ‘Free Will’, as well as his exchange with Daniel Dennett. This blog post is also a nice summary of some common misconceptions regarding free will.
This post is not about free will. It is about contra-causal free will, and about how we don’t have any of it. Why do I claim so? Simple:
Contra-causal free will is not compatible with the fundamental laws of nature as we currently understand them.
More precisely, for any physical system–and humans are no exemption–its future state is completely determined by initial conditions and the outcome of random events over which the system has no control. In other words, given the state of the universe at some point in time and given the outcomes of possibly truly random events, there is only one possibility for the behaviour of any physical system. This includes human beings, no exceptions. In the face of randomness, which may be quantum in origin, our actions may not be determined or predictable, but by definition, we have no control over them either.
When we intuitively believe our actions could have been different, we are simply envisioning a situation that is also compatible with the laws of nature, so we regard it as a real possibility. The mistake we make is to neglect the initial conditions and influences that, when taken into account, yield only one possible series of events. If I hadn’t been thinking about not being conservative, I could have opted for a blue shirt. Except that I was thinking of not being conservative. If I had woken up earlier, I could have chosen different pants and shoes. Except that I did not wake up early.
Consider the pendulum of the video below as an analogy for the human mind, with its final positions as the analogues of our choices.
Could it have landed on a different final position than it did in the video? Yes. Given that it was released exactly from where it was released, and given the state of the air, table, light and everything in its surroundings, could it have landed in another position? No, it couldn’t have.
How do you feel about the fact that, in your entire life, you could not have behaved any differently than you did?