Do We Have Free Will?
By Taki Ejima-Dalley
The question of whether humans have free will is one of the most fundamental questions that humans can ask, and it affects literally every single decision you make on a daily basis, and has a history stretching back to the Ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Epictetus. Philosophy is all about asking (and hopefully answering) some of the most important questions about what it means to be a human and the question of free will is certainly one of the most important. Firstly however, we must establish some definitions.
So, what is Free Will? Free will is the ability of a person to choose between multiple outcomes, and this decision is not determined by any past events. Another important piece of terminology, and the rival theory to Free Will is determinism, which is the idea that all future events have been set in stone by events in the past, including all of your decisions.
So, what are the arguments supporting the existence of Free Will? The first and most intuitive argument for the existence of free will is that people have power over the world to make their own decisions, and that people causes those actions themselves. After all, we deliberate and spend time thinking about tough decisions, the idea that all of that is predetermined would force us to question our very existence.
Unfortunately, this is not an extraordinarily strong argument in philosophy, since what we experience does not necessarily tell us what is true; you may feel as though the Earth is flat from your experience, even if it is not the reality. Evidently, first-hand perception does not necessarily correspond to external reality.
A somewhat stronger argument for free will is the idea of agent-causation which was first proposed by Irish philosopher Rev. George Berkeley (1710). Agent-causation says that, while some actions can be caused by other things, such as a tree falling as a direct consequence of intense winds, the actions that people take are not caused by previous events, but are rather caused by those persons themselves, of their own free will, and nothing else. However, some problems may arise from this view. For example, imagine that you decide to pick up your phone off your desk. What caused this to happen? An advocate for free will may suggest that you did it of your own free will, you decided to pick it up. However, the desire to pick up your phone was not a conscious decision, it just appeared out of nowhere in your brain. American psychologist and philosopher William James (1907) argued that you cannot be said to be responsible for making the decision to pick up your phone if the desire to do so came about almost randomly, like in this example. This theory of free will look fairly weak as a result.
What about determinism? One of the best arguments for determinism draws some of the ideas from science, such as the thought experiment known as ‘Laplace’s Demon’ (Laplace 1814).
Imagine a demon, who knows the exact location, velocity, and mass of every particle in the universe. They would be able to track every single particle, and predict where they would go in the future, as well as every collision between them, like an intergalactic game of pool. This demon could calculate the future, just from predicting where all those particles would go and how they would interact with each other. Basic science tells us that our brains are also made up of the very same particles that obey the very same laws of Physics, therefore there is no reason to think that the mind could not be predicted in the same way as everything else can, and that all our thoughts could merely be the result of collisions in our brain! With this logic it is exceedingly difficult to make a case for the existence of Free Will.
In conclusion, from looking at just these arguments, it seems unlikely that humans have free will, since the idea of agent-causation in free will is somewhat tenuous, and Laplace’s Demon shows that our decisions may in fact be simply the consequences of previous interaction of particles. However, this is no reason to succumb to existential dread! While the question of whether we have free will is an important one, the answer doesn’t change your experience of the world, and ice cream would taste just as good regardless of whether or not you are determined to taste it.