For centuries we have believed that the one thing that differentiates humans from all other creatures on earth is ‘free will’. While all other creatures behave based on survival instinct, only humans have the power to choose their actions consciously. Having free will enables humans to choose between different courses of action based on their perceived consequences and desired results.
The belief probably comes from the fact that we are given credit for only those actions and results that are a consequence of a free will – something that we have done knowingly and specifically, targeted towards a desired goal. So, for example, if David suddenly gets millions of dollars due to an unexpected inheritance, he was just lucky and did not actually do anything to deserve it. On the other hand, if David had chosen to invest in the right stocks or chosen to work hard towards a wealthy future, his success or wealth would be credited to him. The same is also true for negative outcomes. Actions that happen without conscious choice that are worthy of blame are often not ascribed to the individual. Jason hit his younger brother because he has a mental condition and therefore cannot be punished for what he has done!
Free Will and Destiny
A large proportion of the Hindu population believe that the fate of an individual is sealed based on the date and time he or she is born. Which is why astrological charts prepared based on the date, time and location of birth can be read by eligible pundits to foretell the fortunes (and misfortunes) that will befall this individual. In the western world this belief is called ‘determinism’. Determinism states that there is only one way in which events shall occur and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. Pretty much like the belief in destiny – each and every event, action and occurrence is predetermined!
The concept of free will was introduced by Christianity in the 4th century BC. Even though there are mentions of this philosophy in ancient Greek literature, free will as a concept only became popular after the Christian philosophy was spread worldwide.
Free Will and the Modern World
The importance of free will has only enhanced in the modern scientific world. In the earlier days when man did not have the means to fight draughts, disease, and epidemics, the only course of action was to ascribe it to the fury of the Gods. The cause of these events was outsourced to forces that were unknown to us. We prayed and made sacrifices to assuage the Gods and to win their favor.
Over time we have realized that we have the power to avert epidemics, cure diseases and prevent some natural disasters. While not all human issues have been solved yet, there is a belief that we can manage and change our environment to ensure a better life. Because of this belief, scientists are today working on human longevity, everlasting youthfulness and even conquering death.
Today we believe we can change our environment and the course of our lives based on the choices we make. We believe that we can make it a better world if we control pollution, reduce toxic waste and leave a negative carbon footprint. We also believe that by making investments in the right area, we can fight any disease – if not now then, in the future. All depends on the actions we take and the choices we make!
The Need to Believe in Free Will
Whether humans have free will or not and whether it is another fable created by those who thought they knew, can and will be debated later. Myth or reality, free will has a place in our lives today for a reason. The absence of a free will removes all semblance of meaning from our lives. If we are not free to choose and if everything has been pre-determined, then what is the point of life? Are we in control of anything if not even our own desires and actions?
Weirdly enough, thinking humans need a purpose in life. While it may be the most natural of things for all other species to exist, survive and then die one day, humans are no longer capable of living that kind of existence (which is a pity in many ways). Therefore, this desire to believe that we can decide what we want to do. What we do, has consequences and these are the fruits of our actions. Therefore, we have the power to change, manipulate, modify and enhance our lives. This promise of a better tomorrow is what most of our seeking.
Some Questionable Aspects of Free Will
Who’s Free Will – Stop for a second and think about whose free will are we talking about? We are talking about our true self, right! The real person inside who you think you know best and no one else. This real self is the one who decides what you want to do in al circumstances and actions. And yet, there are times when you do not know what you want. And yet, there are times when you don’t know what your hearts desire is. And yet, there are enough times when you are confused about whether you should do this or that or nothing at all.
Bundle of Genes, Hormones and Neurons -As a lot of biochemists are discovering now, humans are a bundle of genes, hormones and neurons. A myriad of combination of these aspects decides what we really want. Anyone who has done stupid things ‘in love’ and realize later what a fool he or she has been, will understand what hormones can do to your system. While the hormones may last for a shorter while, there are biochemical reactions happening inside that determine how long a feeling, a belief or a desire will last for. These triggers that define how we feel and what we do can only be defined as random. Well, at least humans have not been able to figure the trillions of combinations between genes, hormones and neurons that cause different reactions and therefore can best be described as random at best!
Free Will or Natural Selection – If free will is real, then the theories of Darwin fall flat. Humans, then, did not evolve due to a process of natural selection but through careful planning of choosing to eat nutritious food, mate with the healthiest mate and being cautious of predators all the time. A bit tough to believe given what we are doing with our planet and the universe right now given the power that we have of free will (also the technological gadgets to back us).
Feeling Free – Despite all the arguments that scientists and philosophers may give, there are people who believe they have free will because they feel it. They decide consciously to do something and then they go ahead and do it. If they feel like having a pizza one Sunday, they pick up the phone and order one right away (unless they are struggling with maintaining a healthy diet). However, we have brain scanners and these amazing machines can predict your action before even you are aware of them. This was proven in an experiment where subjects were asked to press a right or left button at random based on what they want to do or what they feel like. The predictive capability of the brain scanner to tell which button will be pressed next was eerily accurate!
So, in fact, we are being manipulated all the time by chemicals that we are conscious creatures have no control over. So, if you have felt angry at other people trying to control or manipulate you, consider this – you are being manipulated ‘all the time’!
But don’t worry – you are capable of living, enjoying, experiencing, internalizing, empathizing and surviving. Be a part of this glorious nature that we have today and it may still be all worth it!