Free will is something we take for granted. We all feel free to do what we want, when we want. As a matter of fact, our entire judicial system is based on the notion that we are free agents, morally culpable for our actions. We punish people with harsh sentences and even put people to death based on this implicit assumption. But, like all things, free will too must be investigated using the best techniques of science and philosophy. That investigation has led us to a startling conclusion: we are not free.
Consider this: you had absolutely no control over most of the variables that made you who you are today. You did not choose your parents or your country of origin. You did not choose your genetic make-up or the environment in which those genes flourished. You did not choose the events that have taken place in your life or the people you have come into contact with. Yet all of these factors are built upon one another to create the person you are today. Your brain has been programmed, and it has been programmed by variables that exist outside the realm of your control. Today, your brain makes decisions, filters information, and reacts to stimuli based on these variables. Where is the freedom here?
Further still is this problem: you do not know what you intend to do until the intention itself arises. You do not know what you think until the thought arises in your consciousness. These thoughts and intentions emerge out of background causes that you have absolutely no control over or knowledge of. For example, I decided to buy a Camelicious Latte today (keep your judgments to yourself, it is a delicious beverage!), why did I choose that? I don’t know. The desire to buy that instead of coffee or tea was not something I chose. The desire simply arose in my consciousness and I acted on it. Of course I could have chosen to not act on it, but the fact that my desire for it arose without my conscious control is the point. Why didn’t a desire for an apple or tea or a shot of liquor arise in my mind? I don’t know, and that is the point.
Scientifically speaking we have a collection of research done by different neuroscientists and psychologists that prove that intentions arise before the person becomes aware of the intention. One study even found that 3-7 seconds (sometimes 10 seconds) passed in between the neuronal activity in the brain (the intention) and the conscious awareness of that intention. This proves that our thoughts, intentions, desires, etc. appear out of what seems like nowhere. It is only after they have arisen that we have any semblance of “free will” to choose between desires. It is like America’s political elections, we don’t control who become candidates but we get to choose between them. Out of 350 million people in America, only 5-10 candidates arise for us to choose between. This is not freedom of choice or will, it is merely the ability to choose out of a very small sample.
Above I have described why we cannot have complete free will, and the argument was raised towards those individuals who have a scientific disposition and who react to evidence. But the religious reader, free from the bonds of rationality and the physical sciences, may feel they are in a position to salvage free will from the grip of physical determinism (I am not a determinist in the strict sense, but the word, if not used too literally, works here). They believe that God endowed them with free will and you will often find them clinging incessantly to this precious notion of free will whenever one brings up the disturbing problem of evil in the world. “God gave us free will, that is why little girls get raped and murdered”. We have all heard the argument, but even if you take this view of free will you have a problem. In fact, I believe you have a bigger problem then the scientific materialist. Here is my argument: If God is all-knowing (a proposition any religious person would have to accept) then it is obvious that God knows what you will do before you do it. Indeed, God will know what you will do before he even creates you! Following this logic, God knows he is creating a child-rapist as he creates him. If he did not know this then God would, by definition, NOT be all-knowing, and thus would not be perfect. So how can you have free will if God knows what you will choose before you are even born? There is ABSOLUTELY no room for free will in the religious conception of the universe. This is made all the more troubling by contemplating the fact that God sends most of us to Hell after we die. If God is all-knowing, then he knows who will burn for eternity in Hell before he creates them, leaving a perplexing question: Why would an all-loving God create beings that he knows he will send to Hell to be tortured for eternity. It is more compassionate and ethical to not even create them in the first place! All this leaves a big problem for the religious believer, and to this day I have never heard an argument against this point. Everytime I raise this concern the religious believer ignores it. Even when I press my religious friend on the issue, side-stepping and red herrings run rampant.
But what does this all mean? Does this mean that we are to let criminals go because they are mere victims of biology? Does this mean our judicial system should crumble and we should all resort to a sort of moral relativism? Absolutely not. Even if we know that the sociopathic serial killer is merely suffering from a bio-chemical deficiency we will still have to segregate him from the larger population. We still need to take steps to deter and punish criminals. We are not completely determined puppets, we do have choices, no matter how slim those choices are. Using my presidential analogy, you can still choose between Obama and Santorum and be held responsible for that choice, even if you had no control over who became a candidate in the first place. If these facts about free will urge us to do anything in our judicial system it is to tune the goals of our criminal justice system more towards rehabilitation then punishment. If these facts about free will urge us to anything about our morality, it is to tune the content of our morality towards compassion for others (criminals specifically) instead of vindictive rage (easier said then done, to be sure). Most of what we humans do is not in accordance with nature or the universe anyway. We have a realm of culture in which we live that, in some essential ways, has taken us out of nature and dropped us into a domain of our own creation. It is our job to understand the human brain as best as we can so we can adapt our culture, morality and mind sets to the facts and thus create a more harmonious and understanding society for all of us to exist in.
In conclusion, we are not free, but then again we are. The way most of feel when we ‘feel free’ will not change, and we still have a virtually infinite amount of decisions to make each day. If we can become more aware of the way our brains are constructed and the way they operate, we can gain even more control over ourselves and thus increase our freedom; in the same way that we understand logical fallacies and biases and create structures and checks and balances to protect ourselves against them. We will not be able to have complete freedom; in fact the notion of complete freedom is nonsensical anyways. What would it mean to have complete freedom? Have control over our universe, our brains, and the very nature of cause and effect? The concept is not even comprehensible. The truth is we have what we have, and how we use what we have is what matters. The choices we do have, although severely limited, are still ours to make, and in the end this is where our freedom lies.