We’re not so different, You and I

Mickey Rourke as Randy ‘The Ram’ in the 2008 film ‘The Wrestler’

Real Life

When we meet someone new in a social situation, we’re skeptical. Who is this person? Are they good or bad people? Are they worth our time? Fear and trepidation simmer beneath the surface of casual conversations. We ask the same questions about jobs, hobbies, family — searching for a sign that this outsider is like us. That they can be trusted.


Fiction lets us meet someone new without the skepticism. When exploring a fictional character, we don’t have to worry about whether this person is really nice, or just acting nice. The personal stakes in our own lives are gone. We’re observers, not participants, watching someone else’s story unfold. We feel empathy for strangers.

We don’t actually know these characters. They want different things than we do. Their personalities, skills, and intelligence aren’t like ours. We disagree with some choices they make and agree with others. And yet, in a way, we accept them. We understand how they feel and want to know what they’re doing, much more than when we meet a stranger in real life. The power of fiction is that it shows us an unfamiliar life, and yet we feel at home.


The empathy we find in fiction raises philosophical questions. Questions like: what makes each of us different? Empathy is the ability to understand someone else — to share their feelings. If we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes then we start to ask what makes us different from them.

Our impulse is to say that our ability to choose makes us different. We are in charge of our lives. Everyone has free will — the power to make our own decisions. I’m not like you because I chose not to be like you, and you chose not to be like me.

Not everyone agrees.

Rockwell Kent illustrat ion from Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ (1930)

Schopenhauer on Free Will

In the 1839 Essay on the Freedom of the Will, philosopher and notorious stick-in-the-mud Arthur Schopenhauer acknowledges that we do choose things. We make decisions — that much is obvious. I just drank a sip of coffee. No one made that decision for me.

But, Schopenhauer makes a subtle qualification that I find very interesting. He says that we don’t choose what we choose. We’re free to do what we want to do, but we’re not free to choose what we want. “… your willing itself, on what does it depend?” he asks.

Where do our desires come from? Did we manifest them? Do we choose to like the things we like? Or do our preferences happen to us? Are we free to do something that we don’t want to do? Can we make ourselves want to do it? So many questions.

Harris on Free Will

Modern philosopher Sam Harris picks up the baton 173 years later in his book Free Will (2012). He writes:

Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?

I love these arguments because they spin us around and ask us look at ourselves. What are we doing? How are we doing it? And why?

If everything is a complicated web of causes and effects, then we must be in the web too. We are reactors. Why do we make the decisions we do in the moment? When we look seriously, we’re flummoxed. We can’t see the whole web, because we’re a part of it. Trying to see the causes of our actions is like trying to look at our own eyeballs or taste our own tongues. Action itself is a wonderful, weird mystery.

Gustave Dore illustration ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes (1868)

Rethinking the Obvious

Of course, not having free will sounds terrible. We hate the very idea of it. We feel imprisoned. We’re assaulted by determinism, powerless to escape the bonds of fate. We yearn to break free.

But there’s a point we’re missing in Schopenhauer and Harris’s arguments. It’s a weird point, but important. We’re assuming that there’s something that can break free. But these arguments ask us, “who is it that wants to break free in the first place?”

If there is no free will, then there’s nothing trapped. There’s no missing out on a freedom we could somehow achieve — it doesn’t exist, they argue, and never did.

“We’re trapped!” we say. Harris and Schopenhauer’s arguments respond: “The thing you think is trapped doesn’t exist.” The imagined controller — the part that’s separate — is not actually separate.

Here’s the way Alan Watts put it in The Way of Zen (1957):

Oddly enough, if we had to decide to decide, we would not be free to decide. We are free to decide because decision ‘happens’. We just decide without having the faintest understanding of how we do it. In fact, it is neither voluntary nor involuntary.

We could think of it this way: we’re being lived, instead of living. But don’t take their word for it — explore these crazy, exciting ideas for yourself.

Frank Schoonover illustration from Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’ (1908)


“No free will,” as we said before, is a scary idea. At least at first. In another way, it’s a big relief. It’s freedom from an imaginary self that we thought needed freedom. In exploring these ideas, we let go of an assumed identity — that we’re all separate little islands of choice.

Poet A. E. Housman wrote: “I, alone, and afraid, in a world I never made.” This represents how we feel most of the time. Us against them. We fight the world to get our way, to get what we want. Examining the source of our decisions changes our perspective. We don’t feel so alone. We realize that we’re a part of the world. There’s no separation.

Physicist Erwin Schrodinger touches on this idea in My View of the World (1964). It asks more questions about identity, challenging us to see something counterintuitive. Schrodinger approaches non-separation in a passionate, persuasive way. Here’s the passage in full, found on pages 20 and 21:

What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you? The conditions for your existence are almost as old as the rocks. For thousands of years men have striven and suffered and begotten and women have brought forth in pain. A hundred years ago, perhaps, another man sat on this spot; like you he gazed with awe and yearning in his heart at the dying light on the glaciers. Like you he was begotten of man and born of woman. He felt pain and brief joy as you do. Was he someone else? Was it not you yourself? What is this Self of yours? What was the necessary condition for making the thing conceived this time into you, just you and not someone else? What clearly intelligible scientific meaning can this ‘someone else’ really have? If she who is now your mother had cohabited with someone else and had a son by him, and your father had done likewise, would you have come to be? Or were you living in them, and in your father’s father… thousands of years ago? And even if this is so, why are you not your brother, why is your brother not you, why are you not one of your distant cousins? What justifies you in obstinately discovering this difference — the difference between you and someone else — when objectively what is there is the same?

The Next Party

In this essay I’ve made explicit some ideas that fiction implies. Fiction is more elegant than philosophy. It points to these ideas about free will and identity without actually saying any of them. It has no arguments. But when we empathize with a fictional character, we can feel these ideas gestating in our heads. “Who are we?” we ask.

We want to hold onto our ideas of free will — our special status that says we are in charge. But there’s a tension. Something doesn’t feel quite right.

Empathy changes us. What makes us who we are? Next time we meet a bunch of strangers, we’ll wonder if they’re so strange.

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