The debate around free will has long captivated western culture. From a storyteller's point of view, a kind of romantic fatalism -- as a balance between choice and determinism -- seems to be favored. The idea that no matter how we go about things, no matter how or when or how many times we attempt it, the result is the same and predetermined by our character. It's a nice variation on predestination, which always seemed to make marionette dolls of us and, in the process, offer a kind of hollow absolution. By contrast, predetermination would have us struggle of our own free will, but somehow reach the same result anyway. It grants agency. It confirms identity through choice while offering the comforting surrender to "there's nothing we can do about it in the end." It's a perspective that wisely parallels life.
One thing I've been wondering about recently, though, is whether there exists a model for predeterminism that has less to do with fate and more to do with kinds of truth? If we could only see ourselves truthfully, would we perhaps understand better some of our choices and even choose differently? Truths can betray us, but they can also, like a stronger current beneath the surface, pull us towards our inevitable destination without our knowledge. In this model, then, it would be in recognizing truth that we have the power to change ourselves. I'm curious about this because then the responsibility of choice hinges upon observation.
I'm also curious, finally, about the relationship this brings up between character and action. I think where this becomes interesting from a psychological perspective, is when our motivations are complex and not obvious. For instance, when someone acts selfishly, we tend to assume that they are self-centered or only care about themselves. But perhaps that person was brought up with a strong sense of community and learned to make selfish choices because it was necessary as a way of asserting oneself in a community-centered environment. Similarly, when someone acts considerately, we tend to think of them as particularly empathetic or caring, but perhaps consideration -- outwardly directed sensitivity -- is an adaptive mechanism in people who are in fact more isolated and self-centered, as a way of connecting to those around them.
Tied up with both of these examples is, of course, the question of how well we know ourselves. On a given day, how capable is any one of us of distinguishing our behaviors from our character? And how deeply embedded is something like empathy or selfishness? Is it possible to be fundamentally empathetic or fundamentally selfish, and is that something determined by nature or nurture? Or are we all fundamentally one or the other? Various philosophers (Hobbes, Rousseau) address this question, which these days is perhaps better answered by neuroscientists. But perhaps none of these perspectives, philosophical or scientific, are as important as simply being able to ask, and try as best we can each day to answer, "What feels true to us?"
There is a soldier, Joseph, returning home from war. He travels with a few souvenirs and his fiddle. Resting for a moment, he meets the Devil disguised as an old man.
"Hello," says Joseph.
"Hello," says the Devil.
"What's your name?" asks Joseph.
"Surprise," says the Devil: "I'm the Devil."
"The Devil, you say?" Joseph asks, nonplussed.
The Devil is suddenly hesitant.
"And what do you want?"
The Devil rallies.
"I can teach you to become the greatest violinist in all the world. And I can make you rich."
"And in exchange?"
The Devil is back on track.
"Didn't see that one coming," says Joseph.
The Devil hesitates, then forges on:
"So you accept?”
"Sure, why not," says Joseph. He continues apathetically: "War is hell. My family won't remember me. What else is there to lose?"
"All right," says the Devil, gleefully, ignoring the red flags.
"Here you go," says Joseph.
"Kind thanks. I'll be on my way."
The Devil vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Five years later, Joseph is enjoying life as a celebrity violinist. It's the 19th century and he's basically German Paganini. Kings are throwing gold at his feet.
One night after a concert the Devil reappears.
"Hello," says the Devil.
"Hello," says Joseph. "Fancy seeing you here."
"Listen," says the Devil, "I need some of that money back. Tragedy's been trading hot and I’ve got some new souls lined up but they're not going cheap."
"Sorry," says Joseph. "No can do."
Both of them now have inexplicably transatlantic accents.
"Look," says the Devil, "Do you want your soul? I'll return it to you for your gold."
"Can’t help you.”
"Half your gold."
"You don't want your soul??"
"Well," says Joseph, "at first I missed it, but seeing as I'm soulless I don't really much mind. And besides, I'm living my best life."
"After all I did for you," teases the Devil, seemingly casual, but really he's feeling a bit emotional and trying to hide it. He'd always thought himself cool in these exchanges.
He tries again: "You think money grows on trees?"
He's trying to guilt Joseph a bit now.
Joseph isn't having it.
"Look," says Joseph, "Things are a bit different since we last met. I might seem to be living the life, but I've also got a mortgage and two kids. So right at this moment I don’t really have the cash to spare."
"And how's that going for you, without a soul?" the Devil asks sourly.
"Actually fine, thanks. It's Germany in the 1830s. The middle class is on the up and up. You should really consider moving to Düsseldorf.”
"Thanks," says the Devil. "I'll keep that in mind."
They come to a pause.
Suddenly the Devil realizes he’s about to lose the deal. He needs Joseph more than he thought.
Joseph breaks the silence: "I might go grab a glass of --"
"Wait," says the Devil. "When I take someone's soul," he pauses (he hadn’t expected to be so emotional but he suddenly is and leans into it), "I give them a piece of myself. It’s a deeper exchange. Now you're telling me it was all just about the money?"
Maybe it's not so bad, the Devil thinks: playing the victim.
"Come on," says Joseph. "No hard feelings. We had a good run of it."
The Devil's spirits sink.
"At least play me a tune," he says.
"Ah," says Joseph, smiling. "Now you’re speaking my language. For that you'll have to pay."