Do we have free will? I used to think that the question had meaning. But that was back when I was still religious.
In order to answer the question, one must first define what “free will” means. Is it the freedom to do what one wishes? We already know that we sometimes do what we wish to do hence free will, in this sense, is not really a subject of debate for reasons of “obviousness”.
When the philosophically inclined think of free will, what they usually have in mind is the issue of determinism and indeterminism. Have we been preconditioned to make the choices that we’ve made before we were even born. Do we have a predestination? In a deterministic universe, all our actions have been predetermined since the big bang. In a non-deterministic universe, our actions are indeterminable or unpredictable
People argue that in a deterministic universe, there can be no free will since if our actions have been predetermined, they are not actually ours and we are not responsible for them. But in what other kind of universe can free will exist?
Right now I’m feeling thirsty. I could follow my biological need to get some water right now, but because I want to prove that I have free will, I decide not to follow my biological cravings and instead continue writing this article. Did I actually violate determinism by not submitting to my biological needs?
I’d say no. If I didn’t decide to write this article right now, I probably wouldn’t be thinking of the issue of free will at this particular instant. If I were not thinking of the issue of free will right now then the decision to challenge it probably wouldn’t come to me at this particular time. If the decision to not challenge free will didn’t come to me at this particular time, then I’d have gotten myself a glass of water already. Point is, our decisions are a result of inter-related cause and effects. Even if you decide to choose the least likely choice, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re violating the rule of causality
Some argue that we, as conscious entities, have the capacity for self inference. We can decide how we’re going to react to stimuli. But what is concsciousness.We know that it is produced in the brain. Your thoughts, your emotions, your memories are all a web of bio-chemical processes. The chemico-biologocal processes in my brain right now that say I need to prove that I have free will is greater than the chemico-biological processes that say I need to get water. Hence, I’m still thirsty. Since those processes originate in your brain which is a physical object and therefore follows physical laws, you’re still subject to your biological make-up and the laws that govern them, even if you think that you’re actually violating those laws… You’re like a gear in a machine that you may not be aware of.
So if your decisions are produced by your consciousness and your consciousness is produced by your brain, and your brain is composed of matter and matter follows physical laws, then that must mean that your decision making follows physical laws.
The question now shifts from philosophy to science. Are the laws of physics deterministic or not? The consensus in science now is that large objects follow the laws of classical physics which are deterministic. When you go down to the size of subatomic particles though, the “rules” become very strange. Quantum mechanics governs the behavior of very small particles. Particles can be in a superposition of many states, particles can be in more than one location at one time, causes don’t always have traceable effects. In short, determinism doesn’t rule here. Human brain cells are way too large to be influenced by quantum phenomena but let’s say that human consciousness is influenced by quantum properties and therefore indeterministic, does that mean that we have free will?
If yes, then what is free will? Randomness in the brain? I fail to grasp why this is a desirable thing to have. Do you actually become less responsible for your choices if they have been predetermined? To answer the question, I’d ask you the antithesis of the same question. Do you become more responsible for your choices if you’re choices were random? I think not
Determinism isn’t some conscious, scheming entity that makes your decisions for you or forces you to make decisions against your will. Determinism, through a long chain of causes and effects, both external and internal to you, determines your desires, your personality, your inclinations, and in the end, your decisions. It doesn’t make you arrive at a predestination against your will but rather it makes you “will” yourself to arrive at a predestination.
If “will” or “intent” is the measure of responsibility for an action, then determinism has no bearing on whether you’re responsible or not for your choices since your “will” still determines your choices. Your will though is produced though physical processes in your brain and as such, is subject to physical laws, whether they be deterministic or not.
Do I think that we have free will? The word doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what its significance is. I think It’s an obsolete concept. A remnant of the days when man thought that he had a special place in the center of the universe and that he was somehow independent from it.
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