Sometimes in life, you think ‘how the hell did I end up here?’
Free will is a sexy topic in both popular and academic philosophy – and it’s easy to see why
You look around and don’t fully recognise the landscape around you.
It is easy to feel overcome by the circumstances of our lives. Decisions we made in the past, or indeed decisions made by those around us, can snowball, dragging us off with them down a steep slope. When the momentum slows or stops, there is a stocktaking that occurs.
You look around and don’t fully recognise the landscape around you or your place in it. You might observe your life as though outside it, and think, “How the hell did I end up here?” You probably don’t have to look all that hard to find the instances that make you feel robbed of full control over your own fate.
The abusive parent, the dishonest spouse, the loss of someone, the person who harmed or failed you, the freak event or accident that was nobody’s fault. Add to all these the fact that sometimes we make choices that eventually derail us, because we lack foresight or think we don’t deserve better. We do this of our own volition, or so we think.
Unfettered free will
Free will is a sexy topic in both popular and academic philosophy, and it isn’t difficult to see why. As we learn more about the human mind (and the human brain, through fields such as neuroscience), it looks less and less likely that human beings possess unfettered free will in the way that we traditionally believe we do. We think of ourselves as conscious agents with mastery over our decisions and actions, though there isn’t significant evidence to support this idea. However, all of our social and political systems are constructed in such a way as to presuppose that humans do have free will. If we were to encounter incontrovertible evidence that our actions are in fact determined in some way, we’d find ourselves with some very tricky questions to answer.
A punitive justice system would be monstrous, for example. Criminals could not be treated as fully responsible for their crimes. They would still have to go to prison, but it would be like locking up a rogue bear who went up Dawson Street indiscriminately mauling people. They would be institutionalised for the safety of all, but there would be no purpose to feeling angry with them, or thinking they “deserve” punishment. Concepts such as “justice” would instantly look very different.
A man who robbed an orphanage would be entitled to the most enriching quality of life during his imprisonment. Rehabilitating recidivists would be a waste of time. On a more personal level, you might argue that your life would feel less like your own, that you might become demotivated to act well, and that you might wonder what the point of a determined life would be. That in itself is interesting – why would we feel less ownership over our lives if we knew our decisions were partially or entirely predetermined?
If you’re interested in free will questions, and whether there is still room within a determined universe for forms of human freedom and agency, Daniel Dennett’s book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting is a good read, and also somewhat comforting, since we seem naturally inclined to want to believe in free will. The topic is a rabbit hole down which you can spend a lifetime, and many philosophers have done precisely that. What I see as the most fascinating aspect of the free will debate, however, is that we should embrace free will whether we have it or not.
Accountable to ourselves
On an individual level, we must remain accountable to ourselves. We cannot accept that anything or anyone is responsible for our lives but we ourselves. We must behave as though human beings have free will, because the alternative is to abdicate responsibility. William Ernest Henley’s Poem, Invictus, beloved by Nelson Mandela, and once a schoolboy staple, gestures at this. No matter how trapped we can feel, there is freedom in taking ownership. We must believe that we have the power to make change in our lives, or it will indeed be impossible. The final verse of the poem is a hard shove in the gut: ‘It matters not how strait the gait,/How charged with punishments the scroll,/ I am the master of my fate,/I am the captain of my soul.’