The question of free will is one that has troubled me for as long as I can remember. Part of my reasoning behind choosing to study Philosophy was to pursue an answer to this question. If I may refer you to the Wikipedia page about free will you will note that the question has been the topic of debate for as long as history and at least hundreds of serious attempts have been made to address what might be called the problem of free will during that time. The problem, in simple terms is that if everything around us appears to conform to basic rules of cause and effect, causality, then why shouldn’t we? Why do we perceive a difference between the laws that govern Nature and the “laws” that govern our own behaviour? Surely, if we are effectively biological, physiological machines, then our cogs and wheels are subject to the same causal relationships as those in a car or a printing press?
So the “problem”, if you read through the very large entry on the topic, seems to boil down to how much we are prepared to accept that our lives are determined by causality. If our lives are completely determined by causality then free will is simply an illusion, and all of us are just acting upon the universe as some small element within it, the course of our lives already set according to the myriad causal circumstances that brought us into being.
If our lives aren’t entirely determined by causality then how is it possible to figure out by how much? Do I have enough free will to go down to the shops for a pie, or only enough to decide that I like pies?
It’s questions like this that philosophy was invented to address, and indeed it’s questions like this that only seem to find a simple (acceptable) answer through a belief in spirituality. I don’t know how the atheists get on, but I suspect it’s much like everyone else: in a state of uncertainty. With spirituality it’s possible to address uncertainty with faith. In an atheist world view I suppose it’s possible to address uncertainty with either a fierce adherence to the argument that best suits your needs (hard determinism is a compellingly simple option, yet it does make things a little sticky, ethically speaking) or I guess there are other ways to distract oneself… Look! A shiny thing!
Having just witnessed the great, globulous mass, festooned with tinsel and bunting that is the United States elections, I ask myself how the question of free will is any different when applied to political will? Is there really such a thing as a “free” election, or do voters go to the polls as pre-determined elements in a larger, pre-determined sequence of causality? Can people really be persuaded by the arguments of one politician over another? Taken on a broader view like this, it seems easier to think that political “movements” have purpose and will of their own, but when you reduce the concept down to its composite parts you have to accept that such things are but a macrocosm to our individual microcosm. It does make for rather a hollow victory, does it not?
So, what to do? I think, on measure, most people take the most pragmatic path, which is to simply not give the idea any thought and get on with things as though it weren’t there. I won’t say I’m not still troubled by the question but within my personal world view I see a necessity for control of one’s will, even if it’s not strictly, one-hundred percent “free”. That fits in with my spiritual beliefs, which demand responsibility for one’s actions. In fact, the actions of my will are fundamental to my world view, and I think the way to get around the whole causality thing is to consider the nature of time. What if it’s just because we’re really only equipped to comprehend time in this linear way? What if there were other ways to conceive of reality that didn’t require this sequence of cause and effect? Surely if some deity created the universe then they also created time, and so therefore they must exist outside of time? That might work, at least for the deists. If time is really actually linked to the way in which space and gravity interact, then what of these other dimensions some scientists are suggesting might exist? In other dimensions there may be no reference points from which to observe time! Maybe in those dimensions time doesn’t exist as we understand it at all! Zounds!
I suspect that it’s not just my limited understanding of science that’s the problem. I think it’s the fact that reality is subjective, and if, at the end of the day I have come to accept a kind of reality that differs from another, then it’s no big deal. If other people share that same view, then all the better. Really, I’m happy to accept that I can assert my will to create change, because I have found that in my reality (and apparently in some others’) that has been shown to happen. I suppose it’s a kind of casual causality. It might even look good in corduroy slacks.