Does free will exist? Are human beings masters of our own destiny, or are we somehow unwilling subjects of external machinations? This question of whether or not we are subjects of external machinations, is often posed in relation to the influence of a Supreme Something (divine something, like a god or God; physical something, like a celestial object) that guides the course of a person’s life. This has been a primary preoccupation of cultures for a very long time, being the subject of much (often tedious) theological speculation and artistic and scientific endeavor.
But I feel that this question of free will — the heart of it being a rumination on the constraints to human action, no matter what the context of the inquiry is (theological, philosophical, scientific etc.) — is wrongly posed. Its subject matter, and more so, it’s framing, is focused on a particular audience, often the academic and the theological. It could certainly provide for some exhilarating fodder for a graduate philosophy seminar or a Sunday church service.
If however the bend of your mind is less conducive to taking divine somethings or celestial somethings too seriously (like mine is), this framing has no relevance whatsoever to your everyday life. I guess in choosing not to take these things too seriously or with any urgency, I am in fact exercising free will. How’s that for irony? But I digress.
I believe the question of free will is highly political in nature and this aspect deserves much attention. By political, I do not mean necessarily that the way you pose the question of free will and the answer that you arrive at reveals your political biases. That too, perhaps. But that is not my concern.
My concern really is about free will and human institutions. How do different arrangements of human institutions impact free will, and place constraints on human action? What are the ideal forms of human institutions that place less constraints and allow human beings to flourish free from coercive influence? How do we design such institutions? What kind of political organization do we need to accomplish this? I am intrigued by the horizontal Anarchist political organization and agglomerations of federated communities and the promise this kind of politics hold for this kind of project. I don’t have definitive answers (not even close), but I do intend to find out by learning from other people.
But I do think I know one thing: that the current political arrangements are diametrically opposed to the project of engendering human free will. In fact they are designed specifically to destroy even a semblance of free will in human beings. Hence my disregard for divine somethings or celestial somethings or even academic somethings, for they have no significance whatsoever to people’s everyday lives. To be preoccupied with them is to miss the blatantly obvious, the thing that’s right in front of your face.
What kind of pathetic, anaemic free will can one exercise when all aspects of human life are controlled by a hideous apparatus of national and transnational institutions that exist solely to extract every bit of “value” from the earth, from its soil, from its water, in search of quarterly profits? What free will can a Palestinian child exercise living under the buzz of drones, or when she hears that fateful tap-tap on the roof? What free will can a child on the streets of Manila exercise when she’s told she won’t be poor anymore if she’d only go to school, study harder, work harder and become competitive in the market only to find that the only free will she will ever exercise is to literally place her body in the Free Market? What free will did Mike Brown exercise? Or Eric Garner? What free will can one have when the global health system is run by a profiteer like Bill Gates, or people like him?
So to exercise free will, one should exercise one’s politics. It’s primarily a political project, not a theological or academic one. The constraints to human action is not a factor of celestial somethings or divine somethings, but rather a human something. And that something has a pronounced institutional aspect.
So fuck your academic seminar.