Dialogue on Free Will


The following dialogue takes place in the New Braunfels, Texas, home of Leo Madrigal and involves Leo himself and eleven-year-old Pagan Wright, one of the founding members of the Little Heathens’ Underground Tract Society and Free Press: 

Pagan:   Leo, I’m in trouble.  I’m supposed to write an essay on free will, and I don’t have any ideas.  Could you sort of get me started?

Leo:  Well, that’s a first, Pagan.  You have opinions on everything.

Pagan:  I know.  But this is different.  See, what I don’t understand is how anybody could doubt that we have free will.  I mean, it seems so obvious that there just isn’t anything to argue about.

Leo:  Perhaps.  But someone observed once—I think it was Bertrand Russell—that obviousness is often the enemy of correctness.

Pagan:  So does anybody not believe in free will?

Leo:  The question of whether free will indeed exists or is only an illusion has taunted sages and philosophers for centuries.  Some religious sects believe that fate or kismet controls everything we do.

Pagan:  You mean, without our even knowing it?

Leo:  Oh, yes.  And some theologians have speculated that the entire history of the world is but a play, of which God is the author, and that every word we speak is from a script written down by Him before the beginning of time.

Pagan:  Calvinism, right?  I’d forgotten about that.  My father preaches against Calvinism all the time.  I think he hates Calvinism even more than he hate Romanism, which is almost as much as he hates the devil.

Leo:  Nevertheless, there are people who believe in predestination, though not I.  And obviously, not you. 

Pagan:  How could I when I don’t even believe in God?

Leo:  There is another argument against free will, one that’s actually scientific.  Maybe it’ll appeal to you more.  It goes like this:  Events influence events in ways that are absolutely inevitable.

Pagan:  Oh, wow!  That’s like the old saying: One thing leads to another.  I never thought that had anything to do with free will, but now I can see that it sort of does.

Leo:  And you yourself are a product not only of your genes, but also of your upbringing and of every chance encounter you’ve ever had.  Therefore, the next decision you make (whatever it concerns) will be the only one possible for you at that particular moment.

Pagan:  Mmmm.  I wonder if that could be true.  Let’s take a “for instance.”  What if somebody were going to flip a coin, and he asked me to guess whether it would land heads or tails?  What kind of things might influence which I’d pick?

Leo:  I can’t imagine.  Indeed, it might well be argued that totally inconsequential decisions and those, such as you just mentioned, that involve guessing at purely random occurrences might be the only ones you have complete free will to make.

Pagan:  And for other decisions, I suppose weather and time of day and geography would all be factors.

Leo:  Sure.

Pagan:  Like if I were up in Alaska in the middle of winter, I’d hardly choose to put on shorts to go out and play.

Leo:  Unless events in your life had made you very perverse.

Pagan:  Right.

Leo:  This theory that happenings and circumstances conspire to determine what choices one makes is called determinism, and I think you’ll have to admit that it’s not entirely unreasonable.

Pagan:  It sounds pretty sensible.  But I still feel like I have free will.  Maybe I just don’t want to give up believing that I have the power to make my own decisions.

Leo:  Nor should you, for without that power, you become helpless, and life becomes pointless.

Pagan:  So what are you saying?  That both sides are true?  Aren’t free will and determinism opposites?

Leo:  Perhaps they are not so mutually exclusive as at first they seem.  Couldn’t they just be different perspectives on the same reality?

Pagan:  I like that idea.  All kinds of things have made me who I am.  But I still enjoy free will, even though somebody that understood me totally could predict exactly what I would do in every situation.

Leo:  I doubt that.  No one could ever identify all the factors that have contributed to making you the person you are; so no one could anticipate any but your most obvious choices.

Pagan:  That’s reassuring.  It would be like having somebody read my mind.

Leo:  Don’t worry.  Your privacy isn’t threatened by determinism.

Pagan:  Hey!  I just thought of something funny.  I mean ironic, not humorous.  Believing or not believing in free will would itself be a deterministic factor, because you couldn’t decide to become a better person, unless you believed that you could really make all the choices you needed to make.

Leo:  A wise person, it seems to me, is one who lives his life with absolute confidence in his own free will while at the same time accepting that the foibles and shortcomings of others have resulted from deterministic influences quite beyond their control.

Pagan:  I get it.  If you’re smart, you take responsibility for your own life and who you are, but you don’t blame others for not being as smart as you and maybe not having as much character.

Leo:  Exactly.

Pagan:  I think that’s very generous and kind.  Also pragmatic.  It’s a good attitude to have.  From now on, it’s the attitude I’m going to try to have.

Leo:  Good for you.  But what about your essay?  Do you think you can write it now?

Pagan:  Oh, yeah, no problem.  In fact, what I might do is just copy down this conversation and call it a dialogue, such as Plato wrote about the conversations Socrates had with his friends.

Leo:  That ought to be interesting.  I’d like to see how that comes out.

Pagan:  Oh, I’ll show it to you, and you’ll get half the credit for writing it, because I’ll be using your actual words.

Leo:  Good luck with it.

Pagan:  Thank you.  And thanks for all the help too.

Leo:  My pleasure.