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How Free is “Free Will”

by Brian T. Lynch

This is purely my opinion, but my understanding of “Free Will” is very narrow compared to most people I talk to about it. I see it as something that emerges gradually along a continuum from actions that are totally coercive to purely rational and independent. It isn’t an all or nothing phenomenon, as some see it. I exclude all impulsive actions taken due to internal urges from my definition since urges aren’t rational and follow from completely different pathways in the brain. Also, actions that spring from emotions may or may not involve free will in my view. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident. 

When ever we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish “free will” from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice.. That is why people don’t even know they are addicted to something until they discover they can’t simply choose to stop. Addiction in insidious that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.

The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can’t know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are “acting on our emotions” to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can’t help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.

That said, what about free will in circumstances when our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.

How we define “free will” has enormous social and political implications because it thereby defines how responsible individuals are for their actions. It is here we see the continuum of emerging free will run its course. Some folks believe everyone is 100% responsible for their actions. They might then blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick (live style choices) and would probably not accept an insanity defense for crimes committed by the insane. Speaking of justice, we see the role “free will” plays in our action played being calculated in criminal sentencing hearings when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are used to determine appropriate punishment. We punish people for criminal intent but not acquit them, or lighten their punishment if they were not in control of their actions.

These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn’t born out in our every day experience.

Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.

It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells…

SLATE.COM

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2 Comments

  1. avwalters says:

    I think that brain research has revealed that all decisions are emotional. That may change how you want to characterize emotionality in its role in both free will and decisionmaking.

    • DataHeart says:

      It is true that we can’t rid ourselves of emotions day or night, awake or asleep. But unlike other species a little lower on the evolutionary scale, we are able to modulate or control them to an extent. That is the principle function or the cerebral cortex, or rational brain. Most of the sorting and weighing of emotions happens in the background away from conscious thought. But occasionally we have to actually, consciously, make choices, some of which are actually based on reason and not just sorting out how we feel. Our “voluntary actions” are never freer than when they overcome emotions and urges. That’s why I see free will as being more like a light on a rheostat than one on an on/off switch.

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