Feb 10

Free Will and Personality

My dad and I have a running debate on the concept of free will. His position (and I’m vastly oversimplifying here) is that free will doesn’t exist and we’re nothing more than highly complex machines operating according to the programming of our genes and environment. He does a better job explaining the details of his views, which you can read on DeBaytable, his blog.

We tend to agree on most topics, but this is one on which we’re poles apart. In fact, my response to this view is powerful and visceral rejection. It’s no surprise that the debate between us on this topic can get a bit heated. So when he mentioned that he was planning on writing another post on free will, I think we were both treading with care around the hissing volcanic vents of disagreement.

Part of our discussion was a recent Hugh Howey post in which Hugh talks about how writers respond to the realities of book sales and what part free will plays in these responses. Hugh says,

That is, the more we are aware of our lack of free will, the more free will we exercise. We suddenly begin to “feel” ourselves reacting to our environment in a manner we find distasteful — and we immediately fight this urge. Learning that our attitudes are mostly reflex gives us impetus to change them.

My takeaway from Hugh’s post is that, while we may be programmed to some extent, we also have the the ability to be aware of that fact and to change our responses.

This got me to thinking about the Enneagram theory of personality. In this theory, each of us belongs to one of nine personality types. While you can’t change your basic personality type, you can move up and down the levels of health within your type, responding to life in a healthy or unhealthy fashion.

This seems to reconcile the differences between my dad’s position on free will and mine. While we may be incapable of changing who we are, we aren’t locked into the tiny prison of blind automatic response to stimuli. Rather, we have room to exercise, to stretch, to try out new responses and new behaviors, to choose to move to a place where the views are higher and the horizons broader.

Within the bounds of our personalities, we’re as free–or as constrained–as we choose to be.

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