Free will is one of those philosophical questions that everyone feels strongly about. Before we start reflecting on it, most of us have established opinions about the existence or nonexistence and the extent of human freedom of will. It is almost intuitive. After all, if I do not have any free will, then how can I be held responsible for anything? It is an impractical and, frankly, a dangerous intellectual path to take when we begin asking questions about free will. But that’s what philosophers do. They ask questions to find out what is behind all the warning signs and closed doors. In this short article, I take a quick peek.
There are numerous ways to approach the question of free will. What does it mean to have free will? Is it freedom of choice between multiple alternatives? Is it about agency, being the genuine author of our beliefs and actions? Something else? Even a cursory internet search will unleash an avalanche of information and content devoted to these and many related questions.
Typing ‘free will’ into Google search produces almost 18 billion results! Given that the current world population is estimated at almost 8 billion people, and not everyone has access to the internet or Google or speaks English, we really want to know if we have free will. I wonder if this wish is a free one? Or is it something we cannot stop thinking about?
This brings me to my today’s reflections. There is an opinion some people hold that there are no coincidences in life. Everything that happens is for a reason. We simply do not know that reason or do not see the full picture sometimes. On the surface, I tend to agree. I struggle to imagine pure randomness. To me, if something is random, it simply means that we do not recognize the whole pattern. Perhaps it is too complex for us to comprehend at this time. It’s more about our lack of knowledge than the nature of an event.
But that is the surface. If I take a philosophical peek behind the facade, an uncomfortable question comes to mind. If this is true and there are no coincidences, no pure randomness, then doesn’t it follow that everything is determined, even if we do not recognize it? How can I have any sort of freedom in my choices, beliefs, and actions, if everything is determined?
Perhaps I can save my free will belief by arguing that some events are determined by my will, my choice, and not any external circumstances. In other words, everything still is determined, but the freedom of will means no external determination, just that of my own will. It is my agency that is doing the determining in the cases that fall under the category of ‘free will’.
Maybe. But I am not an isolated island. People influence each other, we shape each other’s worldviews through direct communication and indirectly, e.g., via the cultural context we share. That much is beyond doubt. And I will not even start with the genetic and environmental influences that are (still) largely outside our immediate control. Don’t all these factors play a crucial role in determining my agency and how I exercise it? And yet, at least occasionally, I can choose my response to and perception of some of these influences.
It seems there is both a set framework and flexibility of individual variation within it. Something like your personal agency in a context of a game with determined rules. Of course, the extent of individual agency we actually have, as opposed to thinking that we have, is the next question that requires some more philosophical peeking below the surface of our intuitive beliefs.
Speaking of beliefs, do we really determine them ourselves? Can you simply decide to believe (or stop believing) something? While you are pondering that, you might want to have a look at my reflections on this topic here.