Not so free after all?

Can I or can’t I?

Every moment in our lives, the idea of freewill matters. If freewill doesn’t exist, the feelings we express and the our actions lose some of their fundamental meaning. Doing good or bad deeds is no longer a decision we make. Instead, we are pushed to make that decision not by our freewill, but because of our circumstances and our background. Like Kant said, ‘there is no “ought” without a “can”’, we cannot say that a person ‘should’ have helped another because he/she does not have the ability to make that choice. Although we would all like to assume that we have freewill, there are strong arguments against it.

In science, we can often observe patterns in ourselves and the world around us, such as Hook’s law for the extension of springs. Some think that the causal accounts in science points towards the nonexistence of freewill. As humans, we think and choose a course of action with our brains, and thus our choice of action must have a prior brain event linked to it. Though it is true that the sub-atomic world, quantum, is found to work in a random way, this is not conclusive proof for the existence of freewill. Not only that it may be incomplete, it only applies to the sub-atomic stage. Moreover, as Kant said, freewill does not mean pure randomness. An act of freewill cannot be the outcome of pure chance.

Freud’s ideas also give strong support for the lack of freewill. Freud believes that the influence of childhood underpins the actions of human beings. For example, a boy who was cruelly treated at school might make him less trusting when he has grown up. In a broader sense, there is a wide contrast between the way people brought up in a rich background and those brought up in a poor background act. Growing up in a subsidised housing estate with both father and mother hard at work from morning until night is more likely to lead to the child being studious than those born in a rich background, whereas growing up in a bad area could also lead to a child’s involvement in gangs and crime. It is undoubtedly true that our childhood has a huge, though subconscious, effect on our actions.

The nonexistence of freewill is strongly supported by two important experiments. In Skinner’s experiment on birds and rats, it has been proved that a creature would be more likely to act in a way that brought about a prize. In the experiment using rats, the rats had to endure pain to get to the prize. The idea of Skinner’s experiment is close to that of Pavlov’s dog. More importantly, Libet’s experiment shows that humans think they have chosen a course of action after the brain has made a choice. In the experiment, people have a choice of choosing X or Y and they have to record the time they think they have made their choice. After the experiment, it is found that the brain has made the choice faster than people think they have. Although Libet’s experiment is restricted to the choice of X or Y instead of the hard choices we make in our lives, which involves many factors, it does give a strong proof for the nonexistence of freewill.

But even if we don’t have freewill, should we deceive ourselves that we do? The attitude we have towards freewill is crucial to our present and future. Locke said yes. He described men as people trapped in a locked room. Whilst a man is asleep, he is moved into a locked room. He wakes up and he makes the choice not to leave the room. He believes he could leave the room by opening the door and going out. In actual fact, the man cannot leave the room because it is locked. Locke, knowing that he is trapped in a locked room, thinks that is is fine to live behind the pretense of freewill. In my opinion, it is not about being content or not to live inside the locked room, it is more that we don’t actually have a choice. The world can still function if we pretend that we have freewill. Even though the nonexistence of freewill might be the truth, it is a truth that we cannot bear to admit in our actions.

Moreover, the nonexistence of freewill makes the whole structure of the world around us fall apart, with laws being a clear example, Laws are important in the functioning of the world. But is it right to put people in jail when what they have done is caused? Recently, there has been an investigation on the brains of those who did extremely violent actions. It has been found that a group has injuries in their prefrontal cortex, which makes them immature and prone to violent actions. If prefrontal dysfunction is combined with a bad childhood environment of abuse and perhaps, cruel treatment by those around them when they have grown up, it makes it likely for them to carry out a violent act. Since their actions are caused by prior brain events, is it right for them to be in jail? Yes, we cannot let people prone to violence out of jail for the sake of safety, but if we ignore that for a while, is it actually right? After all, his/her actions were caused and free choice played no part in it. The nonexistence of freewill casts grave doubts on right and wrong and asks the question: is it right for us to put people in jail?

From these examples, it is clear that the consequences of the lack of belief in freewill is horrifying. Not only does it question the foundations of social structure, it devalues the meaning of humanity itself. However, are we allowing our fear for the consequences of the lack of freewill to hinder our search for the truth? Or, perhaps, the happiest and most fulfilling life is to live in ignorance? Without philosophy, maybe we can find a truer self within us, a self that is not polluted by false and over-complicated ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.