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Between Determinism and Free Will: Are you Free to Choose?

Maybe humans are free to choose between alternatives presented to them. Maybe we are not as free as we think we are but not as doomed either. Is free will free from influence? Is everything determined by past events? Does this even matter? Take a journey from free will, strongly supported by metaphysical libertarianism, to the idea of hard determinism, and all in between.

Freedom and choice have constantly been loaded with different concepts. Humans have alternated between open individualism to authoritarian societies throughout time, and thinkers have always asked ‘how free is man?’, if at all he is. The constraint of humanness has been a question of antiquity. One such problem considers if the linkage of our action is with our choice or a previous cause. Simply put, ‘are we free to choose?

This debate oscillates between determinism and free will. Determinism, in philosophy, claims that every event, including our choices, is completely determined by previously existing causes. Just as Omar Khayyam has written in his quatrain Rubäiyyāt:

“And the first Morning of Creation wrote

WHAT the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read”

Hard determinism claims that determinism is true and that it is incompatible with and precludes free will because it entails that humans cannot act otherwise than they do. Although this gives rise to some problems, like that of moral responsibility – the problem of reconciling the belief that people are morally responsible for what they do even when their actions are causally determined. When everything is determined, people can claim they had no free will in a crime they committed. Another question that arises from determinism is ‘who is the determiner?‘ If there isn’t one, it would give rise to an infinite regress with no beginning or an initial cause.

Free will, on the other hand, claims that we can choose between different alternatives and possible courses of action. Libertarianism, in philosophical metaphysics, sternly advocates for free will and states that since we have free will, determinism must be false. Arguments for free will are mostly based on the vague, first-person subjective experience of freedom much like the claim for the existence of consciousness that cannot be proven but seems to exist. It also thrives on the universal supposition of personal responsibility that forms the foundation of our rules and laws. These notions are laid believing that the decisions people make are the result of their decisions and desires. But the fact that desires can be influenced by someone’s circumstances, past experiences, personality traits, and other factors that are outside an individual’s control, dents the actual idea and weakens the common notion of free will.

A third strand claims that the two philosophical positions discussed above, are compatible. Compatibilism is the view that the existence of free will is consistent with the idea of determinism. British philosopher John Stuart Mill, a major influential thinker and a compatibilist of the 19th century, proposed that a person is free when “his habits or his temptations are not his masters, but he theirs,” while an unfree person is the one who obeys his desires unconditionally even when he clearly shouldn’t.

With the rise in the human understanding of physical nature, the philosophical debate of free will and determinism seeped into the domain of physics. A claim states that if all the variables of the universe are quantified, the future can be predicted, and hence everything is determined. However, with the recent knowledge of the unpredictability of the position of particles in quantum mechanics, a probabilistic model of the universe is more probable.

Although the discussion of free will and determinism is years old and still goes on, it doesn’t necessarily entail a practical action because, in the real world, we do have to answer for our choices and actions. Moreover, divulging deep in this discussion does not solve much other than our curiosity. Yet, a trick to use both ends of the spectrum of this debate is as follows: if our past was tragic and much cannot be done, think of it as being determined and try to move on. With determinism, the past can hurt less. And if we are wary of the future, it should be kept in mind that we might hold the power of free will and hence, of a hopeful change.

Farzan Ghani is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Reda Aamna

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Written by Farzan Ghani

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