Free Will: Real or Imagined?

Think of the many different actions we perform everyday. We pick out a shirt from our wardrobe to wear to work. Perhaps we also pick out a tie. Then we may grab a bite to eat. In each case are we really free to choose our actions? Are we making a conscious choice? Or is our choice predetermined based on our experience?

In America we are taught from a young age that we have free will and are able to achieve whatever we set our mind to. Our judicial system operates in a manner that assumes that we have free will if we decide to break the law. But there has been an extensive amount of recent research that seems to indicate that we might not be as free as we thought when we engage in decision-making.

For close to a century the nature versus nurture debate raged on. Is the environment or our innate genetics the prime determinant of our actions? Through extensive research many scientists have come to the conclusion that both play a role. We are born with a certain genetic make-up but have the capability to essentially alter the degree to which genes are expressed and utilized by altering our environment. This is supported by the recent advances in brain scanning technology that allows us to peer inside the human brain and examine the intricate networks of neurons.

OK, but why does this matter? This is relevant because in a sense we may not really have free will since the choices we make are based upon the neural networks that we have developed throughout our life. The firing of neurons through these pathways form all of our thoughts, actions and dreams.

Therefore, criminals – especially psychopaths – really are unlucky. They didn’t choose their parents, their genes, or their upbringing. And yet it was that combination of factors that led to their brain and neural development which formed their intentions and actions. In short, they are a product of their environment and genes.

However, we ought not form a fatalistic view if we are under the assumption that there is no free will. In such a case, we might act as if we have no control at any extent over our actions and no matter what we do, our effort will not make any difference. There is no inevitable destiny (or larger mysterious ‘plan’ as supported by many religious folk) that we move in accordance with, as if our whole life were pre-planned. 

At this juncture, I believe that free will does not exist in the traditional sense, although I am continually evolving my stance. However, I’m convinced that this belief would not be beneficial in the long-term for our society. If everyone believed they didn’t have free will, what would the consequences of moral responsibility be like? Well, recent studies by psychologists Vohs and Schooler have shown that people will behave less responsibly if they regard their actions as beyond their control.

So therefore I currently believe that although there does not seem to be free will, people would be better off under the illusion that it does exist.

I believe an analogy of a restaurant can be illustrative of this point. How do we choose to decide where to eat? Well, we first decide what type of food we’re in the mood for. How? By examining our experiences with different types of foods likely based upon our country of origin, and particularly our family and friends. Therefore, we are in a sense bound by our exposure to a certain pallet of food, which shades our preferences. Once we finally do decide on a location, we stroll in and receive a menu. We are in a sense free to choose any dish, although we tend to order from the options we are familiar with. So we have the illusion of choice since we are given the ability to choose, albeit in a way from a preselected set of offerings which is based upon our upbringing and a whole host of other factors that have shaped our unique pallet. In reality, we might not have free will to choose, but practically speaking we arguably have free will since we can select from a range of options without being coerced by a criminal holding a gun.

So to summarize, perhaps free will in its current form is merely just the ability to have freedom of choice from a set of options that manifest from a combination of a whole range of factors that have occurred throughout our lives.

What do you think?


Author: Symbiosis

I am a premedical student whose interests lay at the intersection between the humanities and science. I believe that by broadening our interests and investigating both the humanities and the sciences, we can engage in a humanistic approach to science and concurrently promote intellectual innovation by forging productive connections between the two cultures. - E.J. Tanenbaum

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