Little thought experiment

Let us do a little thought experiment.


I am walking down a street that I do not know and a come to a T where I must go either left or right. I look both ways and see no particular difference in the streets: the same types of buildings, same width of street, same density of traffic and pedestrians. Which way to go?


I decide that this is a good time to examine free will. I will decide which way to go with just an act of will without deliberation – there being nothing I can see to deliberate about. I go left.


A little way down the leftward street, there is a fault in the sidewalk pavement and I trip, fall and hurt myself. What immediately goes through my mind? Why did I turn left? I am no longer interested in the freedom of my decision. I want to know the reasons for choosing left over right so that I may be able to avoid dangerous situations in the future. I now will regret my game of mentally flipping a coin if I can see any way I might have foreseen an advantage to right or a disadvantage to left.


When a decision becomes important rather than trivial, then we suddenly are more interested in finding the appropriate answer rather than the free one. Then cause and effect becomes very important.


When I made that choice to go left, I could also have thought to myself (once the decision was made) that it was not a choice at all but predestined. I was bound to make that decision. But when I fall, I forget my ruminations on my lack of choice. I want knowledge of why I make that decision so that I can do better at the next T in my life.


Neither the idea of predestination or of free will is very useful to us. What we want is to understand, nurture and use our decision making processes so that we make good choices. We actually don’t care whether our actions are pre-determined because we cannot use that idea to bypass actually making the decision to act in some way. We actually have to make the decision in order to know what choice it was that was unavoidable.


We want our decisions to be in our short and long term self-interest plus legal and moral. Where those criteria conflict, we want to best compromise in keeping with our situation and our values. When it matters, we judge ourselves on the quality of our decisions – they give us pride and self-satisfaction or guilt and shame. Even if there is complete pre-destination and no free will, we feel responsibility for our actions and this feeling is not illogical.

One Response to “Little thought experiment”

  1. Andrew says:

    Nice post. Thought-provoking.

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