Whether or not we have free will is an ancient philosophical question. We have the impression that we make our own choices. So if I have decided to go out to buy a garden gnome yesterday, I am inclined to think that I could as well have decided not to go out, or alternatively, to buy something more useful instead. If the clock was set back I might have made another choice, or so I believe. That is, unless I felt an uncontrollable urge to buy a garden gnome. In that case I would have considered myself to be subjected to forces beyond my control.
Our options are limited by our biology and culture. You can’t simply stop breathing. And it is hard to make choices that go against the will of society, or alternatively, your family and friends. You still have a choice, it appears. Other choices, like buying a garden gnome or not, are not so controversial, and you appear free to make them. Recent advances in neuroscience allow us to observe brain activity associated with making decisions. It shows that our choices might originate in our brains several milliseconds, or even longer, before we become aware of them.
So if our choices are already made before we become aware of them then there is no free will in the way we traditionally believe it to exist. This traditional concept of free will is rooted in the idea that we have a mind, a spirit or a soul separable from our bodies. It is at odds with evolution theory and other scientific findings. It doesn’t rule out that we might make different choices if we go back in time. We appear to have options to choose from. Some scientists and philosophers claim that isn’t even possible as the laws of physics don’t permit it. And if we exist in a simulation running a script, this most certainly applies.
We experience that we make choices. These choices may be mere illusion but we do experience them as real. It is the experience of choice that we commonly understand as free will. In that sense we have free will. For instance, if there is an emotional struggle preceding a choice, the outcome may be predetermined, but the emotional struggle is real, even if it consists of mere chemical processes in the body. And so free will exists as experience even though these choices may be predetermined.
It raises some interesting questions. The first deals with punishment of criminals as a form of retribution rather to protect the public or to serve as a warning to others. The desire for retribution is a human emotion but it is moral injustice to hold people responsible for actions that are beyond their control. In human experience moral rules and punishment do matter, just like free will, and people do experience choice otherwise there is no point in punishing criminals to deter others. It may in many cases be better for society to address social problems and to try stop crime happening in the first place, but not addressing feelings of justice and the desire for retribution might undermine the fabric of society.
The second question deals with fate. If you will die on a certain day then what’s the point in going to see a doctor. Alternatively, you could opt for a hobby like mountaineering because the date you will meet the Grim Reaper is already set. Only, you don’t know the date. If you go to the doctor and he cures you from an illness that would otherwise have been fatal that would be predetermined, but if you choose not to go and die, that would be predetermined too. The same can be said about a fatal accident on the Mount Everest.
The third deals with premonition. If someone knows the future, this person can’t inform us in detail about it. Predictions that are too exact can influence the future in such a way that something else will happen, unless they remain hidden like the licence plate on Franz Ferdinand’s car. If I were to know that I am going to have a car accident tomorrow then I will remain at home tomorrow so that the accident won’t happen.
Predetermination does make it possible to do predictions that are more accurate than chance allows for. These predictions should be vague enough so that it is not possible to prevent them from happening. Actions taken to prevent it from happening may even help to make it come true. For instance, Oedipus fulfilled a prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother and bring disaster to his city and family. Oedipus didn’t know that the couple he believed to be his parents weren’t his true parents. Fearing the prophecy he fled, leading to a sequence of events in which the prediction came true. And many prophesies of ancient Greek oracles only made sense in hindsight.
Featured image: Aruba sunset. English Wikipedia.