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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Regarding Free Will

Flashes ground the mind’s narratives. It was a horribly cold night, my parents went out for dinner. I had a car, my silver 04 Camry (this era is one of benign-looking cars). I called my parents. “I’m going to a friends house, I’ll drive.” I didn’t have a license. My family approved nonetheless. I’d driven illegally for about a year at this point, so there was no reason to worry.

Near my house there are two roundabouts that I had to cross to get to the highway. I’d driven through them at least a hundred times. American civil engineers can’t design anything efficiently–I bet the guy who built that terrible road system takes pride in his stupidity, thinking any difference is innovation. Engineers…I digress. Anyways, I had to go through these two roundabouts to get to the highway. These roads were mine–they were soaked with familiarity, I’ve lived here my whole life, nobody knows them better than me. I turned towards the roundabout. I slowed down before entering. There was a car to my left. I drove. I was jolted. I drove on. He followed me. I pulled over, sobbing. The benign Camry was dented. The BMW had its bumper bent. I was 15. The cops came. The wind blew, it didn’t stop. My hands froze. I wore a gray sweater. Nothing happened, really, and my parents forgave me. The cop was kind. Just a fine. I didn’t get a license for years.

This is the first moment where I grew terrified of myself. I knew what I should’ve done. I should’ve yielded to the oncoming vehicle for it had the right of way. I was entering the line of traffic. Yet I moved–in some sense I chose to get into its way, but none of my will willed the choice. I realized, then, that I have a great capacity for evil–that the motions of the body are not mine, that something impels beyond the will.

I’ll deduce the point I’m trying to make. First, some terms. An account of an action is an explanation which answers the question: “what is the purpose of this action?” Anytime one gives an account of what is done, the account serves to justify their moves. Think of tragedies: the account of the tragic act, of the hero’s downfall, stems from a circumstantial explanation–their hands were tied so they had to kill their father, they had to lose their daughter. Augustine gives an account of his life to justify his moment of conversion, murderers give an account of their emotions to justify their slaughter, and so on.

Willing impels choice–it always leads to one; one wills, and then one chooses. Choice consists in deciding to act, and choices are either free or unfree. By act I mean doing anything. By free I mean unpredictable, for the predictable is determined. Willing leads to choosing which leads to acting; but not all choosing is born of will.

What can be accounted for is what is rational. As long as something justifies a move, it is rational. It doesn’t matter if the reasons are insufficient or wrong. If a good-faith actor was put in the exact same circumstances–situation, knowledge, foresight–and do what was done, then the act is rational. The rational is universal; it’s what anyone would do. Anyone would sacrifice their daughter to seize Troy, put in Agamemnon’s shoes.

Now, some claims. Willing always has an account. Nobody wills what they cannot justify. Even if the justification is perverse–you hate rolly-pollies, or, worse yet, ants, and seek to do nothing but destroy them–you can still give an account of your despotic slaughter–you hate ants. An account rests beneath any willing.

Since willing always has an account, it is always rational. Because willing is rational and leads to choices, willing causes rational choices. A rational choice is a choice with an account. If we can predict accounts and the choices they lead to, we can know the direction of one’s willing. By knowing the direction of willing, we can predict rational choices. We do not know whether or not rational choices are free, because we cannot understand the weight of circumstances on the will; that is to say, we don’t know if we can predict accounts. Willing & thereby rational choices, then, may be unfree, depending on whether or not we can predict accounts. We don’t know for sure.

A choice is non-rational if it cannot be accounted for, or that a given account is incommensurable with the rationality of the choice. When I drove the car into the accident, I made a choice I cannot account for. I have no justification for doing what I did. I wanted to get to where I was going, but that doesn’t mean I had to go right then. I could say that I wanted to get hit–but this account makes no sense, because I have no justification for wanting to get hit that I knew of at the time. The non-rational choice is not subject to willing.

The only demonstrably free choice is the non-rational choice, because I cannot give an account for it. Rational choices may be unfree–they may be predictable by virtue of their account–but none can predict a choice that lacks an account. The non-rational choice does not correspond to willing; seemingly, it corresponds to nothing. Yet it occurs and, to us, causes the free, unpredictable act.

Abraham made a non-rational choice in deciding to sacrifice Isaac. He could not give an account of what he had done–for this he walks up Mount Moriah in silence; for this he has faith, in an inexplicable devotion to God. Yet he understood himself. I made a non-rational choice in driving my car into the accident. I cannot say I drove in inexplicable devotion–for I reflect upon my action rationally, universally, ethically, and have no understanding of myself. My non-rational choice transcends me–there is no account to be found for anyone. There isn’t an absolute relation, a fundamental mysticism in the common non-rational choice. It simply happens, and nobody knows how.

I am terrified of myself because I am free. I act in ways I don’t understand. When I cut Hannah off in SB last week, I was riddled with guilt. In fact, I feel this most SBs. When I snapped at Nathan, retorted at Annie, and a couple other moments–I did something I did not feel or will. Afterwards I couldn’t give an account of these moments. My emotions failed to explain–I didn’t feel angry, upset, caged; I felt absent, watching myself from a third eye; if they were moods, I could give an account of the problem and change my actions accordingly; but divorced from my mouth and heart, I acted. The same holds maniacally–I cannot account for the care I offer, the overwhelming love I hold for the SB, for the longing I hold for those I’d never known. These are inexplicable choices. Nobody can change the free act, and that is precisely its danger–nobody knows it.

The storm of mood drags behind the incessant articulation that one offers to oneself. Articulation falters when the account, the atmosphere which conquers every mood, the narrative one gives about their ethical self, crumbles. Flashes blind, yet one can hear nothing but their fading. In the fallen atmosphere, the storm operates beyond the realm of will. Its moves follow no pattern; it can bring one to faith, to demons, or to love, and no rationality will affect it. One cannot rationally choose to be like Abraham, Jesus, or Don Giovanni. Stripped from articulate flashes, it descends upon you in freedom.


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