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On The Question of Free Will

The people of Ancient Greece, in an effort to explain the world and man’s experience, fabricated thousands of sacred tales commonly known as myths. To explain the decisions, actions, and destiny of man, one myth was created termed the The Three Fates. The Fates would use magic yarn and weave all mortals’ fates, decisions, actions, deaths, and births, from start to finish. The myth of the Fates would explain why humans did what they did. Thousands of years later, we retrospectively look back upon these tales of destiny and fate as obvious nonsense.

However, the fundamental question of what the Greeks explained in the Sisters of Fate still persists today: what does dictate the actions and decisions of human beings?

Today, it is generally agreed that humans have free will when it comes to our actions and thoughts, in that when presented with more than one option the outcome of our decision is ultimately self-determined and ‘free’. We feel free, and always feel that we make decisions of our own accord. However this certainty becomes more vague as a deeper analysis shows.

Imagine that you are in a room presented with a choice between two options, and you come up with a response. If we do it again, and you are placed in an identical situation with an identical state of mind, there is not much to indicate that you would make a different decision. In another thought experiment similar to the last, imagine that you are exactly physically replicated. Take a clone for example. If you and your clone have identical mental states and are put into two identical scenarios, your decision would presumably be the same as your clone’s. Thus, if our actions are merely the result of our state of mind and the scenario we are in, do humans really have free will?

The answer is no, it is not certain that humans really have free will, just as it is not certain that humans do not have free will. Two central schools of thought collide when it comes to the question of human action and free will: hard determinism and libertarian free will. Libertarian free will is the viewpoint that humans are fully capable of entirely free actions. In contrast, hard determinism is the view that every effect has a cause and that every present happening is the necessary result of events that occurred in the past.

A free will libertarian holds that an agent’s actions are free as long as they are presented with more than one option, while a hard determinist holds that an agent could never have done anything other than what they did, leaving no room for options. For example, your decision in the previous thought experiment was the only decision you were going to make in that particular scenario, or according to the libertarian viewpoint you could have freely chosen the other option.

A libertarian would hold that your decision in said experiment was not caused by anything before it, that it was a result of your thoughts at that specific moment. Since this defies our knowledge of the physical world and of cause and effect, libertarians account for this inconsistency in what is called event causation and agent causation. Event causation is conceded by libertarians to say that no physical event can occur without having been caused by a previously occurring event, such as a ball flying through the air being caused by a bat to hit it. Agent causation holds that an agent, or human, propelled by a mind and consciousness, would be able to construct their own causality and make their own decisions not caused by anything else.

This raises further questions, such as what would compel an agent to make one decision and not another? Are decisions random according to this viewpoint? These questions provide little clarity and only further confuse a possible answer to free will.

A hard determinist would hold that no actions are free, and everything currently unfolding now is an inevitable result of events which happened before it, including our own actions. Think back to the thought experiment; assuming it is true that our mental states determine our decisions, this would support a deterministic and causal view of human decision. Since actions rely on mental states, which are brain states, which are biological states, which is physical in nature and thus determined by previous events, then our actions are therefore based on previous events.

This is of course an ongoing debate with no definite answer.

Many thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Baron d’Hollbach, and Alexander of Aphrodisias, an Ancient Greek himself, were all deterministic who dismissed free will as an easily refutable concept.

And just as those Greeks under the subjection of the Fates had no say in their actions, decisions, or thoughts, we, under the subjection of hard determinism, have no say in our actions, decisions, or thoughts.

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