The Paradox of Free Will
By Maria Popova
“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,” James Baldwin observed in recognizing how limited our freedom is and how illusory our choices, for he knew that “people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.”
And yet we move through the world with an air of agency, without which life would feel unlivable — a gauntlet of causality stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, into which we are hurled as helpless pawns in some cosmic game that has already played out. It is a disquieting notion — one we have countered with our dream of free will, continually mistaking the feeling of freedom for the fact of freedom.
But even within the presets and parameters conferred upon us by the cosmic and cultural forces that made us, there exists a margin of movement in which notions like control, agency, and moral responsibility live. In that margin, we become fully human.
In this fascinating BBC documentary, journalist Melissa Hogenboom and a constellation of neuroscientists, physicists, and philosophers explore the science and subtleties of the free will question — a question that remains not only unanswered but a testament to Hannah Arendt’s astute observation that “to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to lose] the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”
Complement with Einstein on free will and the power of the imagination, C.S. Lewis on suffering and what it means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws, and neuroscientist Christof Koch on the paradox of freedom.
Published May 13, 2023