Do humans have free will?
- The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines ‘free will’ as “the power or capacity of a human being for self-direction. The function of the will is to be inclined or disposed toward an idea or action. The concept of free will thus suggests that inclinations, dispositions, thoughts, and actions are not determined entirely by forces over which people have no independent directing influence”.
- The philosophy of free will is opposed by the philosophical theory of determinism, which asserts that “acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.”
- In a 2021 Pew Research Center Survey, 8% of US adults cited free will as the reason “terrible things happen to people through no apparent fault of their own.”
- From Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant, debates surrounding the topic of free will “have been taken up in every period of Western philosophy and by many of the most important philosophical figures.
- In theology, “the existence of free will must be reconciled with God’s omniscience and goodness (in allowing people to choose badly) and with divine grace, which allegedly is necessary for any meritorious act.”
The notion of free will can be refuted with a clear fact—anything that happens in the world, ever, must have been the result of things that happened before it. And those things would have been the result of things that happened before them. Everything invariably follows these predictable laws of nature, so why would an individual's actions be any different? Neural activity in the brain, which is what happens when a person makes decisions, cannot be exempted from the laws of physics.
Though it may appear that people are free to make their own decisions, experts believe that a person's intentions tend to reflect the experiences they've been through. After all, people cannot choose their upbringings and have no control whatsoever over the development of their brain. Brains, therefore, work by making choices on the basis of beliefs that were hammered into it over a lifetime. This argument can also be demonstrated by how effective social media algorithms have become. The more data platforms like Facebook or Instagram receive about users, the better they get at predicting what users are most likely to engage with. This would prove that their users do not have free will.
Research has also proven that our brain makes choices before we even become conscious of them. In one recent study, direct recordings from the brain's motor cortex found that the activity of just 256 neurons is enough to predict a person's decisions 700 milliseconds before they become aware of it. This shows, therefore, that individuals are only mere witnesses to decisions that, deep in our brains, have already been made.
Rene Descartes famously remarked, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Human beings think about a lot of things. This ability to think proves how humans have and exercise free will. A likewise universally acknowledged truth is how “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.” People tend to change their minds all the time. Even when taking personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs, people often get different results after taking the test multiple times. Reason being, our choices change, thereby affecting our test results. And how often have we bailed out a family member or friend from a bad situation, only to have them do it again? Love (and bad behavior) seems to take over cold hard logic.
A robot or machine is limited by the extent of its programming. According to Sir Roger Penrose, machines can’t develop a consciousness or act out of pre-programmed choices. An AI cannot step outside of its confines nor generate data by thinking unintentionally or knowingly as humans do. It could only take free will to have a human snap out of ‘doing the same thing over and over.’
That being said, there is a difference between thinking you can fly vs. having the ability to do so. But throughout history, we have observed human beings inventing new tools and technologies and solving problems with creative thinking. We can fly because Leonardo Da Vinci thought that we would. If humans did not have free will, they might have remained cavemen to this day. Free will also mean owning your good deeds as well as the bad. Morality is only valid if humans have the freedom to choose and act otherwise.