How Free Is our Free Will?

Materialism – which is the dominant (philosophical) position held within the sciences – claims that the only entities that exist are matter and energy. This implies that there is no place for supernatural powers – or any other “powers” besides those of matter and energy. And since these are two “natural” components, they should in principle be able to be captured in terms of natural laws. But how could natural laws – that are capable of fully predicting the trajectory of natural phenomena given that certain initial conditions are known – ever be able to capture the free will of us human beings? Isn’t free will by definition something that is unable to be caught in terms of rigid laws? But, if that would be true, wouldn’t that imply that free will is something “unnatural” – something different from both matter and energy? In order to get an answer to this question, we should start by looking at what the “options” for bringing about our sense of free will are; starting out with the purely materialistic ones:

The first “option” is that our free will is something we human beings are “simply” born with. In other words, our free will has come about through nature. In other words: somewhere in our genetic structure is encoded our ability to act “autonomously”. However, given that our free will would be programmed by strings of DNA, wouldn’t follow from this that every part of what we consider to be our free will has in fact been codified – and thus determined – by nature? And wouldn’t this result in all of our actions – although they might seem to come about through free will – in fact being determined by nature? And given that this would be the case, would this imply that our future behaviors are already encapsulated somewhere within our genetic code? That our lives could be fully predicted if only we would know what situations we would come to be faced with in our future lives?

However, in order for us to be able to respond, we need something to respond to. And you could (reasonably) say that this “something” could be our environment, and that our environment is part of nature as well, and thus, in principle, fully predictable by means of natural laws. After all, if all the information for what it means to be a human being can be captured in terms of DNA,  why wouldn’t this also be possible for the rest of nature? And if this would indeed be possible, wouldn’t this mean that, by taking together (1) our predetermined genetic structures and (2) the environmental predetermined structures, our free will would be fully predictable, determined and – therefore – nonexistent?

You might believe that this story is incomplete; that there’s some “entity” missing. Materialism holds that – next to matter (which we’ve looked at above) –  everything that is is energy. That would imply that, given that we’ve just established that it is unlikely for our “freely” free will to be encoded in our materialistic genetic structure, energy must be the factor responsible for our “free will”. However, once again, we have to face the question of how it would be possible for us to control this energy given that our control wouldn’t be fully scripted and captured by our biological make-up. That is, how can energy be encapsulated within our material bodies in such a way that it would be able to non-deterministically steer our minds and bodies? And how did this seemingly “magical spark” come about?

Maybe we should set aside our current scientific lexicon and look for other, yet unknown, explanations of free-will. What about our free will being a consequence of a not-yet discovered particle? A particle that is so fundamental to the existence of our consciousness that the discovery of it would shed light on all sorts of deeply philosophical questions like: what is the mind? What is the connection between subjects and objects? Is there a mind-independent world? And if so, what would this world look like?

Or we might turn to a new mixture of natural forces and particles we already know exist, like electromagnetism. Or maybe there is some kind of parallel universe in which our consciousness resides. A universe that is fundamentally detached from our material bodies but that, via some yet inexplicable connection, is able to influence our bodily behaviors. The latter option seems to come very close to religion and its claim that there is a deity that has blessed our bodies with an immortal soul that might pass on to the afterlife whenever our bodies turn to dust.

One thing is for sure: we better come up with a damn good explanation, or else the idea of free will might turn out to be nothing more than a fairytale; an illusion that, although we are under the impression that we are in control of our lives, reduces us to nothing more than puppets. But, in case the latter would be true, would knowing this make our lives different in any way from the lives we’re living today? Wouldn’t we still feel like we are in charge of our lives, even if we’d know we aren’t? These are interesting questions longing for an answer.

What do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

2 thoughts on “How Free Is our Free Will?

  1. The concept of free will and science co-exist only when there is a presence of higher level thinking. Because in all actuality, do you really believe you’ll be free if you just continually think the same day in and day out. The world is changing around you and you just do not know it because you are being blinded by media. Science brings the idea to mind that you can be free and choose your own choices based on your intellectual ideals but that only becomes the case when you are exposed to the information that allows you to do so.

    • Interesting. So your claim is that we are not free, for in order to be free, we should have access to complete information, which we don’t due to the media. I think you are right in saying that, in order to behave fully rationally, we should have access too all the information; only then can we come to a belief that is based on all the relevant information available; to a conduct or belief that takes all information into account.

      But that does not touch upon the concept of free-will versus determinism as put forward in the article. What are your views on that? Do you think that there is some autonomous power that – despite the stimuli and behavioural responses to it – can active influence one’s conduct?

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