If you’ve ever seen the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting you’ll probably remember the powerful scene where the psychologist Maguire, played by Robin Williams, tells Will, a mathematical genius played by Matt Damon, that “It’s not your fault”. At first Will shrugs it off with an “I know” but Maguire ignores the attempts to shrug it of and re-enforces the idea that Will is not to blame. He knows the weight of such a burden on Will even if Will claims to already know that it isn’t his fault.
If you’ve never seen the movie, what are you doing? Go watch it now! If you just don’t remember that scene you can re-watch the minute and a half here:
Free will belief allows people to blame others, think some are more or less “deserving” than another, and a whole slew of harmful thoughts that tend to lead to retributive tenancies and less compassion. It also allows us to invoke these very same feelings on to our own “self”. This can lead to self-blame, guilt, shame, depression, and even self-hate.
Keep in mind that these negative feelings are not really needed to correct for errors, nor are they something you “deserve” to have. If you did something that you wish you hadn’t, all that is required for correction is a little regret that things had to turn out that way at that time. This doesn’t mean you are to blame, only that you regret that the variables led to the negative result they had, and that you’d look to avoid repeating those variables if possible.
The understanding that we lack free will not only gives us more compassion for the variables of others, but also compassion for our own variables. This, ultimately, can assist with coping with our own actions and mental states. It allows us to move past many negative feelings we have about ourselves in order to focus our effects in a proactive light rather than a retroactive light.
When we are battling with the negative psychological emotions of a past mistake that depend on feelings of blameworthiness, it detracts from a more forward thinking mechanism of understanding that at that time we couldn’t have done otherwise – but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from a past mistake.
Lacking free will in no way implies that we can’t adjust such behaviors in the future, and we should try to whenever possible, but we don’t need to place ourselves in a self-blame situation to recognize that we can improve on our actions. Doing so has a tendency of being more of a detriment to our own psyche.
No matter what you’ve done in the past, it truly “is not your fault”. Forgive yourself, or better yet, recognize that forgiveness isn’t needed at all if it’s not your fault. The whole idea that you need to forgive yourself is faulty. If you did something in the past that you regret, recognize that you couldn’t have, of your own accord, done otherwise than the thing you now regret, and try not to repeat that behavior.
And if you do repeat the behavior even though you said you wouldn’t, recognize that you didn’t have the causal constitution to have been able to beat whatever compelled you to do it again. This isn’t the time to think everything is futile. It isn’t. What you think, say, and do are all a part of the causal process and it could be the case that causality drives you to change and work for a better outcome. One that you won’t regret.
If you aren’t sure why the lack of free will doesn’t imply futility take a look at the distinction between determinism and fatalism in this infographic as that can help you out:
Determinism vs. Fatalism – InfoGraphic (a comparison)
It’s good that you recognize that you’ve done something you regret and that you want to correct for it. But believe it or not, these feeling that it was your fault are not a requirement for change. In fact, they often can be something that hinders change, creating depression and other negative feelings that impact your desire to bother doing anything.
These negative feelings can also lead you to ignore or deny the action you did that caused them. It’s much easier to push things in the back of your mind than to deal with those feelings that you could have and should have done otherwise. These negative feelings, rather than allow you to fix the issue in the future, can just be a mechanism for pushing those feelings down. And as we all know that doesn’t really work, as all of those little things we push down tend o build up over time, and do so in unproductive ways.
With the understanding and feeling that it’s not our fault, due to truly comprehending what it means that we lack of the type of free will defined here, we can look at the happening from an almost outside observer perspective. We can be detectives and try to look for the causes that had led us to the state that we couldn’t have, of our own accord, avoided. We can do this while being free of the “blame” baggage we tend to place on our own shoulders.
I know this is easier said than done, but that is because most of us were brought up in an environment that enforced our intuitions about free will. We have a free will psychology that has been embedded with decades of being blamed and shamed, in which we tend to do the same. Breaking the free will illusion is anything but an easy task given a lifetime of a built up psychology. But learning why free will is an illusion and what it means is the first step in a type of “self help” that is based on the facts about our existence.
So listen carefully and take this in: It’s not your fault. You might think to yourself “I know”, but try to actually feel it? Do you truly feel it’s not your fault, not just say the words with your rational mind? Because the fact of the matter is, without free will, you really, truly, on a deep level, are not to blame. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
* Read here for 10 Benefits of Not Believing in Free Will!
Addition due to some social media comments: Some people are confusing the distinction between being “at fault” (what this article is addressing) and being “faulty”. These are not the same thing. In fact, the more “faulty” we perceive someone to be, for example, someone in a mental institution, the less “at fault” we tend to intuit toward that person. With the lack of free will, however, no person is “at fault”, regardless if they are considered less “faulty” or more “faulty”.