The idea of free will is one that can be hard to let go of. We experience making our own choices, so to say that we don’t actually have any control over them can be uncomfortable. Most people may not be able to articulate what free will truly means, but understanding free will in a consistently defined way is necessary to understand its societal ramifications. Is free will really possible? To understand what free will means through traditional definitions, we must first understand the opposing theory: determinism.

Determinism is a philosophy that was formed in opposition to the concept of free will. There are several variations to the theory, but at its core, determinism states that because everything is causally linked, the nature of the past dictates the nature of the future. This means that the decisions we make are a result of the conditions and environment in our past. Everything exists as it does now because there was only one possible course of events that the past could have taken, and the state of things now will continue to affect the future; everything is ultimately caused by everything before it.

I talked to Daniel Boime, a random senior here at Franklin who I’ve previously had very interesting conversations with on this subject. When I initially asked him how he defined free will, he gave an answer that was essentially the opposite of determinism, exactly what philosophers have traditionally done. “Free will is our capacity to act out of our own volition—that is—to act based on only ourselves, or no external forces, whether they be based on your genetics or social circumstances. It’s purely your own desire,” Biome says.

The problem is, if determinism and free will are contrary to one another, what actually is free will? To say that we make choices without any influence from the outside world is just blatantly incorrect, so our choices are at least partly deterministic. But even if they aren’t entirely, the only other factor that could really be playing a part is randomness, which doesn’t sound like free will any more than determinism does. 

When I asked Daniel whether he believed we had free will, his initial response was that we do, simply by virtue of being. Yet when asked what the alternative to determinism was, and if that was randomness, he described a belief contrary to his original claim of free will. “In the end, everything random came from a certain point, like a leaf randomly falling off a tree came from the fact that the tree grew, and was planted, etc[…] So I don’t think there’s such a thing as pure randomness. I think there’s always some history or past to everything.”

I asked how that fit with his definition of free will, and he deliberated for a while, and then, upon further thought, concluded, “No, I guess we don’t [have free will]. I guess since everything in the past has led to me being here[…] then no, we don’t have this. I didn’t really choose this.” It doesn’t take much for our idea of free will to crumble upon closer inspection. Either we need to redefine it, or we need to do away with the concept of actions without the influence of other factors. There may be some value in ultimately redefining it, but even if we do, the concept as we think of it now is kind of meaningless.

I think that a part of the reason we’re often so adverse to letting go of free will is that a great many of our intuitions about morality really need free will to function. The idea of blame, for example, requires actions to be choices for which we, as individuals, can be attributed credit. Our justice system relies on the idea that people choose to do the things that they do, and that they can and should be held responsible for those things. Justice at its core is the idea of people receiving the treatment they deserve for the choices they have made. If we accept free will as false, we can’t hold people wholly responsible for their actions. When I brought up this idea to Daniel, he made an interesting point that holds true via the same reasoning, which is that you can also flip it in a way. “If somebody is very successful, we can’t say they did that on their own. […] Just as you can’t blame somebody for what they’ve done, you can’t credit somebody,” he states. Upon reaching this point in the conversation, we realized that basically any idea that says people deserve things based on their actions is meaningless without free will. For example, capitalism is inherently based on ideas of individual success from individual actions. It needs free will to at all justify its existence.

If we accept a lack of free will, we need a solution for all the things that it breaks. The conclusion that Daniel ultimately landed on was that “[free will] does not exist[…] but everything in society relies on it. So in practice I think we have to accept free will as a real thing or our civilization wouldn’t work.”

The conclusion that I ended up landing on was slightly different. The lack of free will doesn’t interfere with my existing stance on morality, in fact, it more or less supports it. I’ve long believed that morality is a quality of actions rather than character, and while character might be indicative of actions, it doesn’t inherently mean people should deserve different things because of their past actions. Punishment should only ever be for the prevention of future harm, never purely for punishment’s sake. We shouldn’t accept how things are so that our future course of actions can be easier at the expense of others for misguided notions. For even more pervasive societal ideas, I don’t really know what the solution is. But if we can understand our mistakes and the motivations behind them, we can slowly move towards something better.

There’s one final point I want to address here, and that’s the way that determinism often gets used as an excuse for apathy, or apathy gets used as an argument against determinism; often people will hear that nothing they do matters, and that the outcome of their actions will be the same no matter what, which causes them to think, why do anything then? If nothing we do matters, why bother trying? That particular way of thinking makes the same mistake that free will makes, which is removing ourselves from the causal chain that determinism establishes. In the last paragraph, I was writing about how we should proceed as though we do have a choice. That was intentional. If we ran the same thing a million times, we might make the same choice every time, yet we couldn’t know what the outcome would be until we made that choice. So what we decide to do still matters. If I were to redefine free will, that is the distinction that I would make. It isn’t about the choice that we make, but rather, the experience of choosing.