For long, we have been taking for granted that free will is something inherent at birth. It is so commonsensical to believe that we are making decisions at every single moment: What to have for breakfast? What clothes to wear? Which friend to meet up with? Walking or biking? Social or study? Even indecision is indeed a decision itself. The feeling of ‘I could have done otherwise’ convinces us that we are completely free and there are always possibilities and opportunities at hand. But is it really the case? On the other side of the coin, the theory of determinism attempts to reveal to us that free will is just an illusion – a fantasy construction of human beings.
Determinists believe that, given a certain set of conditions, all human decisions and actions are bound to happen as an inevitable consequence. The path of life is pretty much one-way only. No crossroad, no turning point. The determinist theory might sound quite counter-intuitive, but it is not new to us at all and many of our ancestors are indeed firm believers of determinism.
Predestination, or theological determinism, is considered to be one of the earliest types of determinism. Originating from a Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, the theological doctrine of predestination states that God has already determined all future events, and our paths of life are no exception. Just as the Bible states: ‘He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.’ (Ephesians 1:5) To make it simple, this is can be loosely equated to the idea of fate or destiny.
In today’s world, nevertheless, theological determinism is no longer in vogue and is often seen as superstition by nonbelievers. Yet, still, the determinist idea does not fade out, it has gained an even stronger position by leaning on the scientific theory of cause and effect. The underpinning idea of physical determinism is that everything in the universe operates within a causal chain. No event emerges from nowhere; no action is carried out by a sheer act of will. In fact, whatever choice you make is a direct consequence of a set of causes, ranging from physical and biological cause to mental cause and even social force. To exemplify this: Say, you typically ‘choose’ to have a cup of coffee to start off a day. A determinist would interpret your choice as an inevitable consequence of all conditions given in that specific situation: biologically, your genes make you a coffee lover; physically, you feel sleepy and genuinely crave for caffeine; mentally, you are so accustomed to drinking coffee and already made it your daily routine – all these causes combined, you bound to ‘choose’ drinking coffee. But how to explain that undeniable sense of free will? It’s a mere illusion, answered determinists, the belief in free will is indeed a result of ignorance – being unaware of all the causes and effects that take place at the very moment when you carry out the action. So far, the physical determinist argument sounds quite coherent in theory, but it’s hard to imagine its implication in practice.
Eventually, all theoretical disputes boil down into a practical question – why bothered? You might not have noticed how the question of free will underpins many aspects of our life. In this tag war – between free will and determinism – lies almost everything that human beings concern themselves with: morality and virtue, law and justice, faith and religion, and the list goes on. Despite the convincing argument given by determinists, it is still rational for us to believe in free will, especially when taking into account moral implication – if we are not capable of free choice and everything is somehow predetermined, then on what basis we are held responsible for our conducts?
Is free will an illusion? This has been, and will continue to be, a recurring question in human society. What do you think of it?