All too often I feel that formal philosophy presents arguments based on the assumption that two different viewpoints are necessarily opposed to each other. The idea whether human action is based on free will or determinism is presented as a binary set, with the thinking being that it must be one or the other. I know I’m not alone in saying this, but I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Life isn’t black or white, or a set of absolutes dictating what we know to be true. There are shades of grey. The right answer is not always apparent. As we learn more about science we peel back another layer to get a closer look at reality. As we delve deeper we uncover even more mysteries and more unanswered questions. I think that’s exciting, the proposition that there is still so much to learn about the natural world. Back to the question: are we free to control our actions as we wish, or are our actions a product of deterministic forces in a universe completely beyond our control? I believe it’s too simplistic to say either or, I believe both arguments are partially correct.
It appears that we make choices. Decisions and choices are pretty much what life revolves around. As I experience my own conscious mind on a daily basis I feel I am presented with a set of choices in each encounter with the world that I’m involved in. The notion that I have free will is a very strong one, personally, because I feel it gives me agency. Yet as more scientific discoveries about the body and brain are made, the argument for determinism grows stronger, casting doubt on the concept of free will. The idea that we are largely influenced in our lives by our genetics has only really come about in the last 70 years. The concept that in many scenarios the brain triggers a reaction before we can even consciously process it is an even newer discovery. Is it arrogant to think we have free will? I don’t think so. I still believe we have free will, even if we somehow know physically before we consciously make a choice. That physical knowing that takes place in the brain is a product of our upbringing, our life experience, our personality makeup and our genes. Even though we still have a choice, we are largely unaware of all the forces that drive us into a circumstance where we are forced to make that choice.
Determinism also raises a host of legal issues as well. If it can be proven we really aren’t in control of our choices, how can we legally convict someone for murder if we can scientifically prove they are technically not responsible for their actions? It’s clear that the notion of free will is actually rather integral to most of modern society. The entire market economy relies on individuals making choices about how they are going to spend their resources. The entirety of criminal law rests on the principle that individuals must be held responsible for the choices they make. Interestingly, some nations make an exception in the case of insanity, and refer people to treatment rather than prison as a result. If it could be proven that no one is truly responsible for their actions in the free will sense, what happens to criminal law? I think as a practical matter, we must look at human action through the lens of free will.