The Illusion Of Free Will

My life, who(se) rules?

Swaminathan
Nov 27, 2020 · 4 min read

Free will vs. determinism has been one of the long-standing topics of debate in philosophy. The crux of the argument is: Are our decisions and actions independent of our past, or are they completely predetermined, as the proponents of determinism say? There are two significant views to the argument — the libertarian free will and ‘determinism.’

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Source: Daniel Miessler

According to libertarianism, an action can be caused by an abstract thought that isn’t necessarily the result of a previous event. But of course, the everyday tangible, physical events that we observe don’t align with this idea. If a ball is flying in the air, it must have been hit or dropped by someone. If a book is found on a table, it must have been kept there by someone. All such physical events can be assumed to be caused by a combination of preceding physical events. To make a clear distinction, libertarians have divided their reasoning into two; event causation and agent causation.

Event causation states that “all physical events are a result of an amalgamation of preceding physical events”.

In contrast, agent causation states, “an agent, impelled by a mind, can kickstart a new chain of events unfettered by any previous chain.”

But determinists disagree with this logic, and ask, “Where do these so-called independent chains originate?” Even the abstract thoughts are essentially biological states. These biological states are fundamentally physical. Hence, what applies to physical events must all hold for abstract ones.

Determinists believe that all our thoughts and the resulting actions are inevitable results of one long, unbroken chain.

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Source: BBC

Free will involves options, while determinism does not. According to determinism, your actions at any given point in time are constrained by your past experiences, desires, and temperament.

Are all our actions the predestined outcome of an ever-changing function? Are they just a result of some algorithm? To address these questions, we need to explore the root causes of our actions. From where does a decision arise? Let’s delve into some basic math to understand this. If we consider f to be the ‘decision function’ and x to be any experience in our lives, then f(x)=y is the interpretation of the said experience. The decision function ‘f’ depends on our temperament, our inherent predispositions, our emotions, our analytical and logical abilities and a myriad of other internal, psychological factors at the moment the event happens. The crucial aspect here is that the interpretation ‘y’ influences the decision function f in a specific manner, changing the internal factors that augment the function ‘f’. The implications of this are profound.

If we go through an event ‘x1’, our interpretation of ‘x1’ is f(x1)=y1 and y1 in turn influences f. The modified f governs the way we view a following event ‘x2’. So, in essence, y1 influences y2. And since all our actions result from our interpretations of situations/events, genuine, unadulterated ‘free will’ is impossible. Any action that we take is the upshot of a complex confluence of our past experiences. But does that mean we have to embrace the concept of ‘determinism’? Well, not exactly.

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Did this man decide to jump after exercising his volition? Source: The Conversation

Determinism states that any action that we take is the only possible option in front of us at that moment. We have no choice, and everything we do is part of a continuous, single chain. This is where the decision function comes in handy again. The function depends not only on our predispositions, cognitive abilities and our emotions but also on the memory that we draw upon to juxtapose with the present situation. Human memory is one of the most unpredictable, mysterious aspects of life, and even after generations of dedicated research, we still can’t fully understand what memories remain available for recollection and what memories fade away. We now have to incorporate choice into our discussion. A person can choose among the residual memories to take a relevant decision for the situation at hand.

Determinism, though, doesn’t allow for these choices. According to that, there is just one possible memory he can hark back to, and only one predetermined interpretation he can make from that recollection.

So what’s the conclusion?

In debates and discussions like this, the journey itself is the destination.

Human psychology is complex and is subject to factors beyond our understanding, but the complexities only spur us more to analyze and discover any underlying patterns governing its functioning. Both libertarian free will and absolute, hard determinism seem to disagree with what we observe in our lives, and the answer appears to lie somewhere between these two. Or there is no answer at all, and any pursuit eventually leads us nowhere, ending in futility.

Either way, our choices, our actions and the decisions and interpretations regulating them will continue to intrigue and stupefy humankind for centuries to come.

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