On Free Will and Determinism

Long has the debate raged over free will versus determinism. I have had discussions with several people recently relating to creative visualization: Books which espouse the philosophy that we all create our own reality and thus are the architects of our own destinies have become very popular lately. I believe that people have limited freedom of choice within certain environmental and economical limitations.

The very popular (and profitable) book, THE SECRET, written by Rhonda Byrne, has made it popular among the middle and upper classes to espouse the philosophy that the Universe is some kind of gigantic wish-granting machine, designed to give us anything we ask for. According to this book all we have to do to harness the power of this beneficent Universe-Genie, is to practice envisioning what is we want in great detail and then behaving as if we already have it. According to the book, bad things only happen to people who engage in negative thought--unfortunately, it appears that this magical wish-giving machine can’t tell the difference between fears and hopes; as a result, optimistic people lead happy and successful lives, while pessimists are constantly seeing their worst fears come true. In my opinion this book should be categorized with such things as horse-feathers, bull-pucky, and gobeldy-gook.

In order to accept such a philosophy one must assume that tragedy is caused by negative thought, instead of the other way around. I do agree that there is great power in positive thinking, and I think I am generally regarded by my friends as a fairly positive and optimistic person. In my opinion, a more realistic model of the factors influencing "success" can be found in Malcolm Gladwell's book, OUTLIERS. Mr. Gladwell offers a refreshing look at the way our society thinks about success and brings up some astonishing statiscal facts to make his point. Let me ask you to ponder these questions:

1. How did the first negative thought originate?

2. Why are some people gifted with this magical ability to think positively all the time, while so many others seem to be unable to do so?

3. Am I a negative thinker for writing this article?

I believe that negative thought is born out of negative experience. In this way people are a little like tape-recorders: their experiences become a part of their persona. Not only do negative experiences teach us to avoid unpleasant situations or circumstances, they can also be useful in teaching us to survive. For instance, if I burn myself on a hot stove, I learn through negative association not to get to close to hot stoves. Conversely, if I hear a song that I enjoy, I know that I will probably enjoy hearing it again in the future. Also, if I try a food I like, I am likely to try it again.

I see it as normal that wealthy and successful people should believe in free will. When a person is successful at what they set have out to do, it is natural that they should have such a belief. But how many struggling, poor or poverty stricken people believe in free will? Let’s not forget that there are forces beyond our control which shape our destinies. Were the victims of the 2004 Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina simply negative thinkers? How much free will do you think an orphaned child in war-torn Iraq has? One friend of mine from a fairly affluent family argued that she knew a young man who had come to the United States from war-torn Iraq to become a successful and popular musician. After I pointed out to her that there were many talented and deserving musicians in Iraq who didn't make it out, she had no reply. My wealthy and successful readers will find this distasteful, but I will put it to you that a person’s success in life depends more on luck (environment) than anything else. Look at the weeds in a nearby vacant lot. Why do some weeds grow to be larger than others? Generally, life grows to the limits that it's resources allow. That is how dominant humans have managed to occupy virtually every bit of habitable space on the planet.

Of course, success usually (not always) requires talent, self-discipline, and sacrifice, but without a certain amount of good luck these qualities are not enough. Although I know people with vast estates, I have never met anyone who called themselves rich. My wealthiest friends say they are just middle class—they always point their fingers to others who have more, maybe a few of them consider themselves to be lucky. I suppose “wealth” is a very relative term. I do not equate success with wealth. For the purposes of this discussion, success should be defined as having achieved a sense of well-being and satisfaction with one’s accomplishments in life and an ability to pursue one’s true passion.

One might say that a person’s measure of free will is directly proportionate to his or her wealth. I will agree with this only to a certain degree for there are certainly other factors which can either add to or decrease a person’s free will. Even the wealthiest man on Earth can’t visit a nearby star should he so desire, although it’s possible that we might reach such a goal collectively as a race someday. Of course, an individual’s free will is also relative to his or her desires. In other words, if a person wants nothing more than to eat, drink, defecate, urinate, meditate and sleep, one could say s/he would even have free will in prison.

Although it might be pleasant for one to believe that all of the good fortune a person enjoys is due to the fact that they simply have a great attitude and know how to ask for what they want, but if you ask any one of the millions of struggling, poverty stricken people in the world to believe that all they have to do is “be positive” and their bad luck will change, this author thinks that most would disagree.