Don’t get discouraged by the first paragraph of this John Tierney editorial. When I read the sentence, “suppose Mark and Bill live in a deterministic universe,” I thought I had accidentally clicked on David Brooks and was about to read 750 words about how Mark is a hardworking small business owner, Bill is an Ivy-League professor, and their opinions about NASCAR are going to decide the 2012 election. Fortunately, though, Tierney is not a smug panderer out to steal your last McNugget. Instead, he has written a thoughtful column about the problem of free will that links to actual scientific studies, including this one suggesting that belief in free will correlates with hard work. Tierney concludes that, “The more that researchers investigate free will, the more good reasons there are to believe in it.” This argument is totally unconvincing, of course. You can’t choose to believe in free will just because it might make you more successful, in the same way you can’t choose to believe you’re stunningly attractive just because it will make you more confident on dates. And like that, we arrive at one of the fundamental problems of free will.
Free will is a tricky thing. We imagine ourselves as independent agents, but anyone who has ever stood on the bar at his cousin’s wedding and mimed rear-entry copulation with a coffee urn while swinging his jacket above his head—only to realize that Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” is playing, and now he looks like an asshole—knows the smudged border between decision and compulsion. Why do we want what we want? “I don’t know where I’m going,” David Coverdale sings, “but I sure know where I’ve been.” Here is the lament of a man caught in the trap of subjectivity: convinced that he is free while he is acting, his is forced to admit, in retrospect, that he might only be a cog in a deterministic machine. That’s why David Coverdale has made up his mind. It is not why he’s tired of wasting all his time—that part’s in there pretty much because it rhymes, and also it was in “Foxy Lady”—but the point is that David Coverdale has made a choice, even in the midst of habit and conditioned response. Coverdale will go [there] again on [his] own, living a life of free choice even if—paradoxically—it is the only road [he’s] ever known. Maybe it’s because he has to, but David Coverdale chooses freedom, and you should, too. If we free people living after the 1982 release of Saints and Sinners want to live boldly, deliberately, we must distinguish between correlation and causation. The list of actions that follows will help you decide whether you are doing something because “Here I Go Again” came on, or if it just happens to be playing.