Apples and Oranges and Free Will

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Have you ever been perplexed about why you like a certain food? Or why you like anything, specifically? I have. I think it’s mind blowing how shallow the modern concept of free will is when I gleefully bite into a sandwich with ham, pickles, mustard, and bacon. What on earth makes me like that combination?

My culture’s perspective on free will largely has to do with the principles of freedom and choice. With this I am sure everyone is familiar. As the philosophy goes, in order for one to be considered “free” in a given scenario, there must be two or more possible options or courses of actions or possibilities or whatever you will. If there was only one possible path to follow, one option to choose, then the outcome is already known. In the situation where if A is true then B inevitably follows and A is indeed true, B absolutely must come to fruition. In the event where A is true for a sentient being, B will still result completely separate from the being’s thoughts or feelings or current position in time. It may take years upon years and the being my be brought to B kicking and screaming, but given the scenario, B must come about.

Though I’ve explained it poorly, all of this is well understood and accepted. Nothing controversial has been suggested yet, and for the sake of making myself completely understood, I will continue in my somewhat unnecessary explanation of things that are well known. Individuals in the scenario explained above clearly are not free because they lack choice. Scenarios require at least two options and the ability of choice to allow for the exercise of free will. Rather than continuing with letters and abstractions, consider Jim. Jim is hungry, so he brings himself out of the living room into the kitchen. There, he finds apples and oranges. Jim is alone and lives in a country that doesn’t demand he eat one fruit and not the other; simply put, nothing outside of his own preference influences his decision.

In this scenario, we acknowledge three possible options. Jim could either satiate his appetite through the consumption of either apples or oranges, or he could indulge himself and eat both. Of course, the fourth option also exists where Jim decides he is not hungry after all and chooses to eat neither, but that is besides the point. What matters is that Jim must choose between one of four possible options without any external force to influence his decision.

Now, we must try to determine how Jim will make his choice. If this were a math problem and we were dealing with percentages and likelihood and randomness, finding an answer would be quite simple. When left to pure, unadulterated spontaneity, there is a one in four chance of selecting any one of the choices. Jim, however, is not completely as fair as random chance. On the contrary, he was biased before his options were even made known to him. As previously mentioned, one of Jim’s four possible options is very nearly ruled out. Jim is hungry and is hell bent on eating something, so the spread of options is heavily in favor of those that include food.

I am not nearly as baffled by the origins of Jim’s desire for food as I ought to be. The depth and complexity of appetite and the digestive system certainly are great. Alas, these things are already familiar and understood. We know why people are hungry in general. What I am exceedingly amazed by is Jim’s choice of apples over oranges, not food over starvation.

The natural thing we would expect Jim to do is pick whichever fruit he likes more. This is all well and good; no surprises. We all have favorite foods and preferences of one thing over another. Jim likes apples more than oranges, big deal. My question is, why? Have you ever considered why you like what you like?

To some (indeed a great many, for our culture embraces the shallow) this question is of no concern and is immediately dismissed. Why should I care why I like what I like? All that matters is that I like something and that I should have that something simply because I like it. Such is the worldview of my generation. Yet, such a simple rejection of this question is not worthy of the implications its possible answers may have. What is at stake when we ask this question other than the very spine of modern free will?

Nor is the scientific explanation of brain chemistry, reward based learning, classic conditioning, and genetics completely sufficient for discovering the root of human desire. It is the case that when Jim consumes apples, more dopamine is releases in his brain than when he eats oranges. That provides no insight as to why his brain does not release extra dopamine for oranges rather than apples. An argument could be made that Jim has been eating apples recently and has been in a great mood, and in turn has conditioned himself to prefer apples or some other roundabout explanation that gives a history as to why Jim likes apples more than oranges. Perhaps Jim ate more oranges than he can remember in his life and has grown sick of their taste.

Very well. This is where we will end our saga with Jim. For now, leave metaphors and analogies aside and recollect on your own experiences. Try to remember if you have ever loved something or someone inexplicably. Think back to a time where you had a passion seemingly without origin. For me, I remember the love I had for Megan. There were plenty of reasons why I had a schoolboy crush on her as a fifth grader. There is absolutely no reason why I continued to worry about and pray for her as an eighteen year old. It’s nonsensical. It’s irrational. In the midst of my prayers I would notice and acknowledge all of this and still my heart cried out. How am I to explain the roots of that desire?

You may call me foolish or misled or even crazy. I know I am the first, you might convince me I am the second, but I would argue against the third. I hope at least my closest friends would also vouch for my sanity. Even if I were mentally insane, however, the question would still remain. Where do our tastes, preferences, desires, and passions come from?

Even in these cases where an obvious scientific answer is unknown, some might still hold to the practical explanation. If all initial factors were known and enough medical information was gathered through continuous observance, an individual preference or passion could be predicted and observed. Whether or not this is true, I know that such and intimate omniscience of another’s life is beyond human capability.

Whether or not there can be found a natural explanation for the origin of desires, preferences, and the like, it is a fact that human beings do not—and to a certain extent, cannot—freely choose what they like. Free will, then, is far more misleading than most people give it credit. A common description of freedom is being able to do whatever one wants whenever one pleases. Yet, man does not decide what the target of that ‘want’ is. We do what we want, but we don’t get to choose what we want. Recognizing this, it becomes apparent that a force beyond our own understanding or control guides a majority of our decisions while we are convinced we act on our own accord.

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