04 July 2010

Very Quick Post on Free Will

I have been looking for a way to describe a seeming contradiction in my thinking about free will or our lack thereof. That is the whole chicken and egg thing around if one has no free will, how can they possibly ever effect change in their own life. Ultimately, it comes down to rewriting our electro-chemical programs by changing the people we associate with, the food we eat, the exercise we do, the sleep we get, etc.

I think it comes down to something to nudge you in a different direction, then that nudge becomes a cascade of positive (or negative) results.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb who wrote The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness (the better of the two IMHO), tweeted something that I think says it well.

"Unless we manipulate our surroundings, we have as little control over what & whom we think about as we do over the muscles of our hearts."

So it's not simply deciding to do something differently, we have to change our environment, i.e. do something in order to set up the conditions to make a change.

I would add that external forces can change the surroundings as well. Think of the woman who tells her husband that his breathing is broken at night.

OK. That's it. Happy Independence Day weekend for those in the US, Belarus, Argentina, Algeria, Burundi, Malawi, São Tomé and Príncipe, Solomon Islands, and Venezuela.


  1. Let's face it, our surroundings are manipulated by other people to their advantage, right? For example, the grocery stores put the candy bars right next to the checkout to grab that last dollar out of our pocket, and add a couple inches to our waistlines too.

    We should manipulate our own environment for our advantage. It's fairly easy too. Eat too many potato chips? Keep them out of the house! Never seem to actually get out and exercise? Leave your running shoes and shorts out where you can see them and be reminded. Create little things to nudge you in the right direction.

    Create negative incentives too. Give somebody a check for a couple hundred dollars that he can cash only if you don't lose that 10 pounds you wanted.

    OK, these ideas aren't original. I got this from the New Man Podcast #88, and I doubt the ideas there were original either. (I have no stake in the podcast, BTW.)

  2. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the comment. Those are good tips. I was thinking about that yesterday when my kids (bless their hearts) packed a lunch for me that had a bunch of junk food. There was good stuff too, but those Rrrrrrrruffles are deadly for me.

    The fact that so many of us need to take those measures to help manipulate themselves into action demonstrates (I believe) that "free will" is way overrated.

    On the negative incentives side, Stickk allows you to set up an irrevocable negative incentive. It's pretty cool.

    You are right, the tips for succeeding aren't original, but people keep insisting that those who get distracted or have problems are somehow lesser beings, when in fact our internal and external environments are the determining factors.

    Tony (e4e)