By Victor Ji
It’s school season with COVID-19 rampaging on around the world, and you are sitting before your desk with a problem set out; yet, you are bored. “Nice,” you tell yourself, “I am procrastinating again, with the brand-new problem set due tomorrow; what is wrong with me?” Yet your mind remains uninterrupted in its doings, leading you to wander aimlessly into the horizon of time.
We live in a culture built upon the ideas of freedom and agency. Yet, when one reflects upon the experience of procrastination, it can be legitimately described as a state of being stuck in the present, a sense of entrapment, of being stuck in a succession of events where one feels powerless in altering the outcome.
We all know the greatest despair is the moment after the boredom-induced procrastination, where we immediately feel the remorse of not getting done what we should have. However, there is one hidden dimension of procrastination most haven’t explored, and that is its relation to the perennial problem of free will and human agency.
Back to our earlier scenario, when someone asks you why you didn’t finish the problem set, you might answer with something like this: “Well, I could have finished it, but I didn’t.” Here, we have a contradiction: our reflection upon the boredom-induced procrastination is concerned with a feeling of non-agency. Yet, when we describe the state of boredom-induced procrastination upon reflection, we formulate it using the word “could”, granting ourselves the luxury of potential agency at the moment; as a situation where we had control, and we could have chosen to have done otherwise. So what is the truth?
First, let us recall the principle of sufficient reason, which states that all things that have happened must have had sufficient reason for them to happen. Some could argue that if we believe in the laws of logic, then based on the principle of sufficient reason, we procrastinated because all the necessary and sufficient conditions for us to be doing what we have done had been satisfied, not because we have chosen to delay on completing assigned tasks. If we acknowledge that every past event has had a sufficient cause, it would seem like we would eventually have to concede that nothing could have happened except what did happen. The reasoning above carries a horrifying implication: procrastination, as much as we want to make it an act that should be avoided and label it as the typical act of the lazy and the weak-willed, it is instead a state that we cannot help but to fall into. In other words, by the principle of sufficient reason, every time you procrastinate, it must have been the case that you have reached all the necessary and sufficient conditions for you to do so, and that would be exactly what you would do.
Nonetheless, we can look at things from a less bleak perspective by employing Professor G.E. Moore’s model for examining free will and its relation to the principle of sufficient reason. The secret lies in the philosophical exposition of the word “could.” In the Moorean theory, the phrase “I could” takes on the meaning of what was in our power to be done rather than what arbitrarily would have happened dictated by willful imagination alone; this means, as much as in popular culture we think of the will as truly omniscient, it is only capable of achieving what is in our powers. Moore argues that free will consists in not what we absolutely can do but instead in what we can do if we so choose, implying the existence of free will is dependent upon the agent’s available ability and the agent’s capacity to choose rather than the actualization of some arbitrarily determined alternative state of affairs. In simpler terms, Moore sees that in order to determine the existence of free will, we only need to ascertain three conditions: 1) we must indeed have the capability to act differently, 2) we must have had the choice to act differently and 3) no one knows for certain what will happen next, it doesn’t really matter whether things are determined or not. Even if they are determined, you still have to make the decision.
Applying the Moorean theory to our situation of procrastination, it is not hard to see that first, we definitely have the capability to study. Second, you have had the choice to study. Most importantly, you never know whether you will procrastinate or not until the moment comes when you sit down and open up the problem set. To conclude, as far as we are concerned, you really could have done otherwise last time you procrastinated. So, buckle up and do your work next time you have a decision to make as to whether or not to procrastinate.