Free Will or None: How Much Control Do We Really Have?


Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy which questions the basic nature of reality. As with all branches of philosophy there exists more than one school of thought within metaphysics; for example, materialism which holds that matter (the stuff of which the universe is made) is ultimately what is real, idealism which holds that ideas are the only reality, and realism which is closely related to materialism and argues that things exist in their own right. Naturally one cannot question the nature of reality without also concerning oneself with what, if any, control one has over that reality which gives rise to one of the more complex debates of philosophy: Do we or do we not possess free will?

There are two primary theories off of which all other theories branch: Determinism and Indeterminism. The former suggests that human beings are not free agents and that we, and subsequently the “decisions” we make, are nothing more than the effects of prior causes; the latter suggests that human beings are free and not merely determined by prior causes. But, is either of these theories truly reasonable? Proponents of the theory known as Compatibilism would argue that human beings, while products of events beyond their immediate control, do possess the will to overcome those events; it is an argument with which I fully agree.

As stated earlier, Determinism, which falls in line with metaphysical theory of materialism, suggests that human beings do not have control over their own actions. There are two theories within determinism worth mentioning that support this idea. One is known as scientific determinism which insists that nothing happens without a natural cause and since human beings are part of the natural world  every act or decision is just one kind of a natural event. In order for free will to exist than all actions must also be random; if this is true then the universe and nature would fall into chaos. The other is a religious concept known as predestination, which states that God, in His infinite wisdom, has a plan that has been set in motion from the creation of the universe, and all human beings have a part in that grand plan. At first glance either of these would make sense: the sun is the center of the solar system and all planetary bodies revolve around it each following a set course from which they never deviate; supporting the theory that there is order in nature, or everything works according to God’s design (though we won’t delve any further into the latter point as that is a whole other argument in an of itself). However, upon further scrutiny of the concept of order existing in nature it becomes apparent that there are moments that appear to occur at random, especially when one delves into quantum physics. There are moments when it would seem that the actions of human beings are certainly chaotic: we rape, murder, wage war, and riot; I must ask, where is the natural order, or for that matter God, in those moments?

This brings us to the theory of Indeterminism, which is a branch of idealism, or free will. Proponents of this theory would argue that human beings possess complete free will; the basis of their argument is that one could have always acted differently even if every event up to the moment the decision was made remained the same. Given the often violent and seemingly chaotic actions often taken by human beings, one could see how this might seem possible. Why do some people go to war while others protest? Why do some people in a crowd riot while others disperse peacefully? An indeterminist would say because each agent acts according to his own will.

However, there are some problems with this. The first is that we are inevitably influenced by past experiences, by our upbringings, and our educations. To say we are completely free is to deny such obvious facts as one cannot choose one’s parents; when we are children we are completely at the mercy of our parent’s whims, financial status, and religion. The second problem is that of the victims of violent crimes such as rape or murder. Surely we are not expected to believe that the victim is in control in such situations. Furthermore, the idea that people’s choices and actions are a matter of pure chance, as argued by William James, then what reason would we have to feel as if those decision were truly ours in any real sense? If our choices and actions were just a matter of chance then anything we did would be unjustifiable, erratic, or explainable, which really does not fit the characteristics of most human behavior.

Compatibilism, which ties into realism, walks a fine line down the center of the afore mentioned theories: human beings are free agents, to a certain degree. Compatibilism asserts that we are products of our environments in the sense that how we were raised, the education to which we were exposed, and the culture in which we live add to our sense of self and each can influence the decisions we make. Furthermore, it takes into account that we make decisions contrary to our conditioning everyday; for example, often despite of ,or in spite of, the religious upbringing we may or may not have received as children, people choose to believe a completely different theology than that to which their previous education had exposed them.

There are two versions of the Compatibilist view: Passive Self-determinism and Active Self-determinism. The first of which, as advocated by philosophers like David Hume and John Locke, states that freedom means being able to do as one wills for one’s self without external coercion from anyone else, to act according to one’s own preferences and motives; what one wants/decides is the result of one’s personality or character as determined by such as genetics and upbringing. In this sense freedom falls in line with scientific determinism (or realism) which states that one’s impulses, preferences, and motives are completely determined by prior events. The latter version, as advocated by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, asserts that freedom exists as insightful awareness. Proponents of this view argue that human beings are not innately endowed with free will, and that all human responses are subject to accurate predictions; however, as thinking beings humans are capable of reflection and thus become insightfully aware. In this sense freedom falls more in line with objective idealism because it advocates that through thoughts (or ideas) people possess that ability to judge their own judgments and consider the alternatives.

There are of course problems with each of these ideas. In response to Passive Self-determinism, I must point out that there are many types of inner coercion that can drive a person to act in a manner they may not to behave; for example, people suffering from Bipolar disorder (manic depression) suffer severe mood swings over which they have no control, one moment feeling excitable and anxious and the next moment feeling deeply and inconsolably depressed. As for Active Self-determinism I must ask that if freedom is something one must learn than would that not limit freedom to be based solely upon knowledge one acquires about one’s self from the world around them thus not really being as rooted in the mind as idealism would require it to be?

I find it to be unreasonable, at least in my opinion, to insist that human beings are at the mercy of events set in motion from the outset of the universe or that we are completely free agents in full control of our lives. I say it is unreasonable because each assertion, determinism and indeterminism alike, have very narrow views of reality, each one ignoring those aspect which they cannot explain. Determinism ignores that people make reflective choices which result from an intricate process of weighing the pros and cons of any given choice; while indeterminism ignores that there are events in each of our lives in which we have no options, like where, when, and to whom we are born. Ultimately for me, Compatibilism (specifically Passive Self-determinism/realism, despite my expressed concern) is the most reasonable because it asserts that human beings are rational, free-thinking agents capable of making decisions without ignoring that we are, at moments, at the mercy of events beyond our control.


About Karen

1) I speak my mind. Sure, sometimes it drives people away, but I'd rather regret the things I've said than the things I haven't. 2) I'm a Progressive Liberal, which means people and the planet matter to me. 3) I'm a woman (this needs no further explanation).

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