Free will with every packet of cornflakes

Yesterday I spent all day writing. What I produced was rubbish, all 2000 words of it. The words were flat and lifeless with no energy at all. In contrast, last week I was working on short story and the words zinged across the screen. I didn’t know where those words came from, I hadn’t planned them in advance. They just appeared.

Every fiction writer knows the excitement of setting up a situation and then being surprised at what happens next. Your characters can behave in ways that surprise you. Are they exhibiting free will? Even when you consciously plot out your characters’ stories, you have to be sensitive to what feels right and what doesn’t. If you force your characters to do something for the sake of the overall story, they may turn into puppets. They lose their ‘divine spark’ and the story can feel over-engineered. (Interestingly, this may only be true in literature. In Kleist’s famous essay on marionettes, he pointed out that they can be more graceful and more likely to achieve ‘perfection’ in their movements than humans, precisely because they lack human’s self-consciousness which, according to him, inhibits a complete understanding of the universe.)

Nowadays, free will is elusive. It suffered a fatal blow in the seventeenth century from Newton’s discovery of universal physical laws. The corresponding vision of a wholly predictable and mechanistic universe which only needs to be set going before it simply carries on for ever, doesn’t seem to need free will.

A universe that allows time travel (ours doesn’t appear to rule it out) must also impinge upon free will in some way, if only to prevent logical paradoxes (think of ‘Back to the Future’).

Is there any space for free will in quantum physics? After all, it (re)introduces uncertainty into physical systems, albeit on atomic scales. But this uncertainty (in the ability to know simultaneously an object’s position and momentum) is random. And when we exhibit free will, we don’t think we behave randomly.

Geneticists don’t have much time for free will, either. We’re creatures ruled by genes and all our behaviour can be explained by those genes’ desire to replicate themselves. Even apparent altruism to other people only seems to exist because we share practically all of our genetic material (99.9%).

So perhaps we enjoy reading about characters in novels who appear to exercise choice because that choice is a mirage in our real lives. Do our fictional characters have more free will than we do?

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