East of your Elbow…thoughts about Free Will and Determinism

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Reading this quote still gives me that delightful chill—you know the one—that tingle that comes when you read something that sounds so right because it hits at that right time in your life when you need it most. When I read East of Eden, I was deep in the midst of a sweet spot of creativity—writing and making art—everything in balance. This feels so right. I ask myself—how come? How did I come to be this way? There’s the interesting genetic determinism that I inherited from my ancestors that explains why I have the penchant to write—allegedly, from my mother’s side, I’m a shirttail relation to the 19th century poet Samuel Woodworth who wrote the sentimental poem The Old Oaken Bucket, so it seems I am hardwired to be this way. But I believe there is more to my “how come” than that.

The question has been put before me—“Are we deterministic machines with no real freedom of action or do we in fact have some “elbow room”, some real choice in our behavior?”

I say, let those elbows swing wide—I believe we do have real choice. There is a natural duality that shapes our human experience—possessing the qualities of both Determinism and Free Will; my creativity thrives on this duality. Free will and determinism, good and evil, black and white, night and day, dreams and realities—they coexistence as elements within the individual—you cannot have one without the other. Determinism is the foundation of character via contingencies such as genetics and environment, our “how come” is prevalent in who we are—it’s unavoidable. There is comfort in determinism that makes it very logical to reason out the mysteries of life, of consciousness—the soul. It is only natural that we create doctrines to try to explain our existence—our “how come”. Yet, there are our acts of free will, the choices made with blissful ignorance of what lies ahead that make each of us unique individuals. The creative mind is a complex and beautiful experience—wonderful and awful at the same time. The writer’s experience in creating a work has to be one of the most intense moments of focus. For me, when I sit down to write it is intuitive; all the best laid plans I’ve outlined can be easily cast aside to allow an unexpected outcome never realized until suddenly I write it and I’m surprised that I wrote it. This is the magic of creativity—it is free will running perfectly willy-nilly. I look to Virginia Woolf’s description of her writing experience as a primary source example of this experience:

Virginia Woolf, A Writers Diary

Saturday, February 7, 1931 – Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead….How physical the sense of triumph and relief is!…

What interests me in the last stage was the freedom and boldness with which my imagination picked up, used and tossed aside all the images, symbols which I had prepared. I am sure that this is the right way of using them—not in set pieces, as I had tried at first, coherently, but simply as images never making them work out; only suggest. Thus I hope to have kept the sound of the sea and the birds, dawn and garden subconsciously present, doing their work under ground.

And these two small pieces from Steinbeck’s, Journal of a Novel

March 15, 1951 Thursday – “This is a very headstrong story, Pat. It has taken its head and it goes as it wishes and I learn from it rather than being taught by it.”

May 3, 1951 Thursday—“There are strange things in people. I guess one of the things that sets us apart from other animals is our dreams and our plans.”

When I have considered the philosophical issues of Free Will and Determinism—what intrigues me the most is the spark of inspiration that drives the creative process and how this fits into the scheme of things—creativity feeds off the innocent power of free will that wanders over the landscape of determinism with audacity. Writing a book is a process that is all-consuming; the line between dreams and realities becomes fuzzy while in the thick of it, a writer can be easily lost, caught up in the tides of emotions, the spigots are turned on at full blast. This is part of the package of being a writer. Creating—writing a novel or poetry is a magical act that so few of us undertake in our all-too-brief lives. I cannot comprehend being a deterministic machine without choice in how we live our lives (or write a book)—that it is all planned out with the precision of equations and answers—the circumstances and the choices—cause and effect. There are infinite possibilities and we freely make choices every day. I do agree that we are who we are based on our experience, our nature, our genetics—yet it is that act of choice—a unique autonomy of the individual that is at the core of free will, and to which determinism bends as we reinvent ourselves with the choices we make. The river flows—no one ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and they are not the same person.

Although it seems that there is a tendency for free will to lose in a philosophical discussion with determinism at every turn because of the clever way determinism always comes back with the level-headed utilitarian rebuttal—yet free will keeps speaking up and with the innocence of a child asks: “How come?” And then without waiting for an answer, runs off to go play.

“It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there…This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest.’” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Originally published on Red Lemonade, 7/20/2012


A few years back, I was flitting around in Richard Nash’s experiment Red Lemonade trying to find my way and was invited to write an essay on the subject of Free Will and Determinism…and so this collection of words is the result…much of my work has to do with this sort of stuff, so…whatever.