Free Will: Does It Even Exist?

3 min read

What made you decide to wear the clothes that you’re wearing today? Or the meal that you last ate? Or simply whether you wanted to wake up on time or snooze the alarm for another five minutes? Even if you’ve been living under a rock, you would probably think that you’ve been exercising your free will all this time. You might even assert that you’re exercising your free will even right now as you read this blog. But what if I told you that you had no other choice but to do exactly what you have been doing. There just wasn’t ever going to be any other way that it would have worked out. Like they say, it’s always been “written in the stars”. At least, something like that.

Wherein Lay The Fetters

Consider the number of factors that came together to build the unique individual that you are. From the age and place in which you were born with pre-coded consciousness, to the parentage, culture, education, and financial background into which you were born, none of these factors had any possibility of being controlled by you. More importantly, you don’t even get to command your genetic makeup and bodily development including that of your brain. You may be tempted to argue that you can always influence and alter it to some degree. Perhaps you choose to take the guidance of the finest doctors in the world and benefit from the diktats of health coaches while eating healthy meals under the watchful eyes of a nutritionist. Can you even then guarantee yourself that you would receive the exact outcome that you had been hoping for? Many a slip between the cup and the lip!

If Free Will Is Just A Fantasy???

For ages now, the free will debate has been raging on with no end in sight. Do we really ever choose anything for ourselves or is it already chosen for us? No small feat, this debate has far-reaching consequences on many of the fundamentals of human life. If one were to subscribe to the fact that one really is a victim of their circumstances which dictate who we become over time, then we really can’t help ourselves in anything, can we? Think about the implications this would have. Should serial killers not then get pardoned for their actions? Should we really be lecturing anyone about the lack of regard or concern they have towards others and society in general? Do we have any right to admonish children over their misdeeds? What, then, is the point of moral and religious teachings?

To make matters worse, it has now been close to 50 years since science conclusively proved that the human brain already formulates its decisions for us before we even become conscious of us choosing to decide the matter at hand. This conclusion effectively reduces the concept of free will to that of another much-cherished illusion that every human being clings to quite dearly. How to make sense of our puppet-like existence then?

The Head And The Tail

The answer to this dilemma lies in the understanding of the terms “agency” and “fatalism”. Simply because one is born a certain way does not mean that they are destined to imprisonment in that condition. Unlike what a fatalist may be tempted to believe, none of us are condemned to remaining powerless in the situations that surround us. Think about it: what, then, would even be the point of doing anything at all, for example, getting an education at sought-after institutes? This is where our agency comes to our rescue. 

Despite the many limitations that we are helplessly forced to endure throughout our lives, we learn to work with them and always aim to make the best of our situations. Man is forever attempting to improve his circumstances and, in the end, his decisions do impact his outcomes and the further choices that he is faced with. This is about as free as one can get. That first choice shall remain forever elusive. One cannot will themselves into taking birth as a certain individual, or even will themselves into being born, for that matter. However, once here on Planet Earth, we then get to take the reins of our lives into our own hands and choose who we evolve into.

So, How Free Is Your Free Will Exactly?

Think of your journey through life as one of those flowcharts you used to make in Computer classes as a young kid. You don’t get to choose the program you’ve entered but once you’re standing at the “Start” position, your journey to the “End” position is entirely a series of your own decisions. This is not to discount the limitations that were earlier spoken of, but every ‘yes’ and ‘no’, every ‘this’ or ‘that’ opens up a new set of avenues with its own accompanying choices. This long series of decisions is what makes us “unique”. This capability and series of exercising our right to choose are all that one can classify as ‘free will’, albeit the freedom is a little curtailed, especially in its nascent stages. 

If free will were to be illustrated in the words of Robert Frost:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

“Our time and thoughts are no longer our own, with capitalism and technology having long commodified even the most atomic detail.” 

Our 80 billion neurons, with layers of consciousness (built over lifetimes if you believe in that), lead to a super complex comprehensive quantum infinite possibilities lead decision matrix, which we feel still allows us to have the “free will”. 

Is our free will at the end a complex vast neural network whose inputs and outputs may have been predetermined? we just chose to believe it’s our idea, our decision , our journey … but maybe in reality it’s not truly ours?