is a writer and philosopher. His latest book The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well (2021).
Are you reading this as a result of your own free choice? It certainly seems as though you are. After all, surely you could have read something else, or done something completely different. We feel that we are free, the originators of our own choices, not just conduits through which the chain of cause and effect flows. But think about it a little more and this ‘voluntarist’ conception of free will starts to look untenable.
Go back to when you saw the headline or link to this piece. Given the ‘choice environment’ you found yourself in – your history, your personality, the other options open to you, your mood, your schedule – wasn’t it inevitable that you were either going to start reading, save it for later or move on to something else? And as you now decide to continue to read or not, are you really in control of how intrigued or irritated you are by the words in front of you?
Nothing you could do could defeat these worries. Maybe you’re tempted to stop reading now as a demonstration of your freedom to choose. But if you did, wouldn’t that also be just what you were always going to do, given how you react to reading this sort of stuff? It’s like the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) by Tom Stoppard in which the two protagonists, who are on a ship, get the sense that they are just pawns in a bigger game. ‘I could jump over the side. That would put a spoke in their wheel,’ says Rosencrantz. ‘Unless they’re counting on it,’ replies Guildenstern.