Do you believe in free will? Or do you think everything is predestined by God or the laws of physics?
This question captured the attention of philosophers and other people having spare time to think about impractical things since the dawn of civilization – from Aristotle to Schopenhauer, and they developed many different views about it.
Our aim is not to analyze their views, but to develop our own, based on observations of the real world. Why do we need this? To close the question and make more free space for more useful thoughts and maybe have a fundamental understanding of the way of things, so we could base our decisions on it.
What is “free” and what is “will”?
Before asking is there a free will we must understand what is will, and when it is free.
“Will” or volition, how it’s called in psychology is the ability of the mind to make choices. Will can be applied consciously or unconsciously – the mind can make decisions on its own without us even noticing.
But then, what is a choice? Do bacteria make choices? Let’s assume that choice is a continuous range between the perfect surrendering to circumstances, like that one of a ball released in the air, which has no ability to decide on its own whether to stay in the air or not, and a perfect decision, where a bird is able to decide, whether stay in the air or not.
So, “will” is the ability to make a decision.
“Free” means that the decision can be made independent of external causes, even against them. Let’s imagine a Süpercomputer (a mythical all-knowing deity) that is able to know the state of the universe to the tiniest detail and every law that governs the universe. In this case, such Süpercomputer would be able to predict the state of the universe into the future to the tiniest detail. (A very similar concept was called the Laplace’s Demon.)
So, if someone is really free, the Süpercomputer cannot predict their decision with certainty, because they can make decision independently of the current state of the universe or the laws.
Sure, one can still make a decision, that would be implied in by the laws of the world. For example, if I asked you if you want to receive $1000 or $1, which one would you take? Most of the people would take $1000 and that does not prove the absence of free will. Humans are still able to choose the lesser of two amounts, and some of them would even do that. But this does not prove the presence of free will. It’s quite easy to predict that a monk might not want to take the money.
Thus, “free will” is the ability to make a decision independently of the circumstances (current state and laws), not a particular decision. Those who travel are not necessarily free, and those who work in the office are not necessarily slaves – they might have chosen this way of life by themselves.
Now let’s see where is free will possible.
Levels of free will
To see if the free will really exist, if we are able to act despite the circumstances, let’s check those circumstances, digging deeper and deeper. We’ll start with the level of things.
Can we make decisions independently of the surrounding things?
Sure we can. If someone gives us the two options – receive $1000 or receive $1, but not both at once, we are able to go against our natural urges and pick $1. I think we don’t need more evidence to agree that there is such thing as “free will” at the level of things.
Can we make decisions independently of our body instincts?
But what about more basic natural urges? Money is just a symbol, but what about real things, like a need to eat?
As much as I know, there are people able to restrain from eating even if they want to. This is called Hunger strike, that’s what Gandhi did to protest against the British government in India.
However, eating might be a complicated thing (we need to buy products, cook, serve…), but can we prevent our deeper natural instincts, like pain? As much as I know, people are able to injure themselves voluntarily, despite the fact, that we are biologically designed to avoid the pain. The example would be Christians in the Philippines who voluntarily agree to be crucified, to be attached to a cross with nails on certain festivals.
Yay! Free will is still with us!
Can we make decisions independently of the rules of society?
Society imposes many rules and laws upon our lives. But it’s quite easy to notice that people like to break those rules – prisons are full of those who have done so. Thailand and Malaysia are full of westerners who decided to go against the mainstream way of living and travel the world instead of working and studying.
Yes, we have a free will against the society.
Can we make decisions independently of rational logic?
One might say that all the choices we make are based on some thinking about what do we want and what is going to happen. For example, if someone wants enlightenment, then she will take $1 instead of $1000, will leave to the Philippines and will agree to be crucified. Otherwise, in their opinion, enlightenment will be out of their reach.
Of course, such view of enlightenment is ignorant. (Better ideas toward it are here and here) But if a person desires the outcome O and knows that this outcome is caused by action A, she will always choose this action A. That means she will just obey the laws of logic.
But we know how many stupid decisions people have made blinded by love, anger or hatred only to regret them later. There is but a tiny trail of logic in human mind. But that means we are free from logic – we can think not logically if we want.
Great! Free will!
Can we make decisions independently of our inner values, true purpose or all those similar things?
We all have some deep aspirations, life goals, the purpose of life or similar things that might be called by various names. These are deep beliefs, some important truths hidden in our minds. So, maybe these beliefs regulate us and inherently imply all the decisions we make on the way?
I guess no. Still, so many people are searching for the purpose of their life and the single most common reason why people subscribe to this blog is because they want this questionnaire to find their life direction. And many more books, courses and lectures on that topic are available for people to get lost in the search of the self.
Someone might argue, that this true self is unconscious and we always follow it, but I think, a human being choosing money over passion is more common.
We’re entering the gray zone, but still, there is free will here, the mind is somewhat independent of its own aspirations and beliefs.
Can we make decisions independently of the laws of biology?
Laws of biology describe how processes happen in our body. How do we move, how do we burn fat, how do we grow, and finally, how do we transmit signals between neurons in our brain. This particular thing is called neurobiology or neuroscience.
And here is the trick, brain itself is the thing that makes decisions, how can it make a decision independent of itself?
Some research is made, which found that probably, humans do not make decisions consciously, probably, the brain makes decisions by itself and only after one second or so we become aware of it and then we begin to think that we made it consciously. The research and the experiments are at the level where astronomy was 600 years ago when we still thought that the Earth is at the center, so there is no need to analyze them further.
Let’s see is it possible for our brain to make our organism to act not as the laws of biology would predict. This would mean, for example, imagined diseases or miraculous recoveries. Imagined diseases are called hypochondria, and are real disorder diagnosed to 3% of the visits to the primary care doctor (as reported in 1998 (but I have lost the link to the paper)) and miraculous recoveries are called placebo effect, that is used nowadays to test the efficiency of drugs. If a drug does better than placebo, then it is suitable to sell.
So, we can argue that our minds can decide if they want us to get ill and if they want us to recover from illness. Seems that free will is still possible, but I believe that half of the readers remain unconvinced. Good. Let’s proceed deeper.
Can we make decisions independently of the laws of physics?
Astronomers observed that galaxies do not move according to known laws of physics, but they did not conclude that galaxies have free will. Instead, they decided that there is something wrong with the matter, and there must be some kind of dark matter, or there is something wrong with the laws.
We are not able to decide to obey the gravity of the earth or to float above the ground as Superman. (as much as I know) We are not able to suddenly raise the temperature of the body at will as the Human Torch from the comic Fantastic Four, or to stretch the tissue of the body into any shape, like Mister Fantastic from the same comic does.
Seems that if there is a Süpercomputer, it could predict what will happen to us with an unlimited accuracy based on the laws of physics.
But wait! We have a will power to make a decision at other levels! Yes, but isn’t the brain an object of this very world governed by physics? Molecules do not move by themselves in our organism, they are guided by the laws of physics. The same applies to neuron cells in our brain, and that means all the thoughts we have, all the decisions we make are the result of physics. So, they are perfectly predictable. (Unless we assume that the mind is some kind of supernatural entity, maybe called the soul.)
People from other sides of the word might react to these ideas normally, but people from the USA already hate me because of their all-embracing belief in freedom.
We still have quantum physics, it might save me. According to so-called “Copenhagen Interpretation”, the quantum processes are inherently random. That means, even a Süpercomputer cannot predict everything up to tiniest details because fundamental nature of our universe is random, it can just guess, but we can do that too.
Does that imply the free will? Many thinkers express the ideas of quantum mechanics as a proof of free will, but I do not see any proof here. It just says that our future is not predestined, even worse, it says that our future is random.
We can argue how much those quantum processes influence our everyday life, but what is more important – this is only one of many interpretations. For example “de Broglie-Bohm Interpretation” says that quantum processes are not random. In this case, we have a fixed destiny encoded in the laws of physics.
I have no idea which one is correct – Copenhagen, de Broglie-Bohm or any other, it is still an ongoing debate: is the future of the universe determined at the quantum level or is it random? But this does not allow us to have free will in the word of physics and disobey it’s laws as if they were laws of the country.
According to philosopher Baruch Spinoza, If we are aware of our action, but not aware of its causes, we might believe that we have chosen it freely.
This means that we don’t understand what causes our decisions and actions, we are unable to link those causes to results, therefore, we believe we have free will. It does not depend if causes are random or determined.
What about the real life?
So, at the quantum level, there is no free will. But what about the sea level?
Don’t worry! If we are not going to do anything against the laws of physics, we do have free will. We might even be able to recover from an illness without any rational reason due to the placebo effect.
But what about a killer, does the absence of free will means that we should not blame him? Well, people blame even a computer or a car if it breaks. Of course, we should not blame the killer. But if we try to keep working with a broken computer, or drive a broken car that would be just silly. So, we should keep a killer in prison, otherwise, he could kill us too.
Shouldn’t we bother about our future, because everything is predestined or at least random? Exactly! Just go with the flow and allow to happen what is beyond our control. But still, we should exert our free will in the world of things, in the society and our own mind, otherwise, other individuals with free wills will influence us in a way we might not like. What is preventable must be prevented.
There is such a thing called Chaos Theory. It means that a slight change in the initial conditions will result in tremendous changes in future, because relations between things, laws of physics, actions, our neurons, people around us, society are so complicated, that even the best supercomputer could not be able to predict the future given all the information about current state and using all the laws.
That means we have no idea how things are influencing us and we have freedom to keep thinking that our will is free.
Free will is an illusion, but for most people, it’s a very useful one. The belief that we have some control over our life motivates people to work, to seek goals, to achieve. Sometimes this illusion might seem better than the harsh truth.
And that’s because the absence of free will is perceived as fate when the future outcome does not depend on our actions. That’s not the right view – the future outcome does depend on our actions, but our actions themselves depend on the past. (Here is a great article about it)
You may disagree with my claims, but what I say here is the view of the world that sets my mind free. The belief that there is no free will frees me from worrying about future, calms my noisy mind. And a calm mind is a more focused mind and a more creative mind. With a more creative mind, I can think of better goals, with a more focused mind, I can achieve them more easily.
I find it comforting to believe that I’m just a droplet in the ocean, that I obey the same basic laws as the universe in general. A feeling of unity with the universe emerges,… a purely scientific, though.