Are we as free as we think we are?
The problem of Free Will is inextricably linked with a scientific belief. This belief is in itself perhaps older than formal science but nonetheless it acquired great force with the birth and development of the scientific enterprise. It can be stated thus:
Everything in the present is the direct result of the configuration of the past.
Nothing is without a cause. Thus, whatever we encounter in a present state can be explained or understood by its former state and the natural laws involved. If this belief is to be adopted thoroughly, if nothing can escape causality, then anything we experience has a direct cause in the past.
When we bring this kind of reasoning to the debate of Free Will, we can conclude in the following manner:
Psychic phenomena all have a cause regulated and governed by natural biological laws that at present we cannot name them all. Whatever we experience in the present is inextricably linked to a past state of affairs.
We understand Free Will as the ability to make an act or decision independently of any necessity compelling us to choose one thing over another. Stated this way it seems that the act of choosing has escaped the law of causality. But if this is to be rejected by our common scientific understanding of the world, we arrive at a different conclusion. Any decision-making process is only possible when the individual is in a particular situation where (s)he reacts to the evidence or stimuli presented for making a decision or act. This stimulus is the psychic content, patent or latent, that takes part of the decision-making moment. To pick an apple over a banana is the result of the apparition in the individual’s consciousness of past experience with these fruits, past reactions to these that make one fruit preferable over the other. A decision cannot be achieved without the pre-existent conditions for making a decision; that is to say: desire in the individual for eating (something that is quite involuntary), the past experience with the objects and objectives of the decision or act. Bound to memory, expectation, desire, and many other, the decision-making process is dependent on psychic phenomena that arises in the mind without a conscious or voluntary action. When an act of “Free Will” has taken place we remember the act, and the possibility of choosing otherwise, but we forget the requirements for us to arrive at the chosen action. The action was conditioned by involuntary psychic phenomena, something which we do not control and therefore acted out of a necessity towards this stimuli that was presented to us: Desire, Aversion, Memory, Imagination, Etc.
In such a way the problem of Free Will can be reconciled with the idea of causality. And with this knowledge now in mind the upcoming decisions will be influenced by this new awareness. We may doubt at the moment of decision-making in order to prove our putative freedom, but we are still only reactions to involuntary psychic phenomena that permit the processes we call free and voluntary.
However, to understand the laws of the human psyche at the present seems unlikely because of the complexity involved; the apparent arbitrariness or spontaneity of the stimuli that allow our decisions to take place is sufficient to permit our current morality – based on the supposition that we are free agents making responsible decisions – to remain established.
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The main idea behind this short inquiry is to reconcile two basic assumptions we have about the world.
1. Everything is the effect of a cause. Therefore all effects can potentially be explained or understood by their causes. (A general accepted supposition in our contemporary scientific culture)
2. We are free agents, making decisions independently of any external necessity obligating us to make a certain choice.
These two assumptions we all have in the back of our minds are in stark contradiction. How can we be free if everything in the world is determined by natural laws and follow an unchangeable course? We then would be part of the immutable course of things and all our actions are predetermined since the beginning of time.
If we follow the suggestions of logic, we will conclude that we are nothing but puppets manipulated by the general course of nature’s laws. However, we don’t feel this to be the case. We feel we ARE free and independent.
The above paragraphs attempt to show that we may be deceived by our belief in Free Will. Simply stated, our decisions are not made by an omnipotent-omniscient ego that at each moment can decide what it wills. Our decisions are based and chained to mental phenomena that arise involuntarily into our consciousness (that is to say it appears quite without our consent, as a cloud would appear suddenly in an open sky). This involuntary phenomena (desire, aversion, fear, tribulation, excitement, anxiety, and countless others) determine the choices we make. Our choices have natural causes that do not depend on us. With this explanation we can find causes for our decision-making lives and discover that we are not as commonly believed: free creators of our destinies.
However, if we can find reason to doubt the first assumption: everything has a cause by which we can know the effect, then Free Will may be conceived without logical contradiction. And it is wise to reassess our dogmatic belief in science and the principles of casuality, which may be in the end altogether mistaken.