Freewill: We Cannot Be Fully Human Without Freewill
Editor’s Note: FāVS has launched a new series on Freewill. For the past several weeks our columnists have answer edquestions on the topic, including: What is free will? Do human beings have it? Is it possible to have some form of free will in one or more areas of life and not in others? What role, if any, does God play? If it exists, does it bring a sense of security, if it doesn’t exist does it lead to complacency? How does your view impact concepts of justice and accountability?
By Jody Cramsie
Which of you has made a decision? Any decision.
What should I eat? Should I have a relationship with that person? Should I move for a better job? Should I steal food because I am hungry? Should I have children? What school choice is best for me? What am I going to do about my loved one’s serious illness? Should I buy gas or medicine? Should I be a whistleblower? For whom should I vote? Should I even get out of bed today?
If you are a sentient human being, it is a virtual certainty that you have made countless decisions in your life. You may have even suffered over the choices facing you. Or, perhaps, you were simply mistaken that you were deciding anything at all, and the so-called choices were nothing but illusions.
That is the crux of the matter. Either we have freewill and are really making choices that have the potential to change the future, or we are living in a magical snow globe, completely ignorant of the actual circumstances of our existence.
Thinkers (philosophers, theologians, biologists, physicists) across the millennia have debated this issue. Certainly, determinism is in ascendance. Rather than discuss it in detail, I offer the following online discussions that do a much better job of that, from both sides: Scientific American, the blog by Bernard Kastrup (“Yes, free will exists“); The Atlantic (“There’s no such thing as free will”); and Scientific American (“Free will is real“, an interview with philosopher Christian List).
I am not persuaded by an unnuanced determinism that is carried to its logical end – that we are but automatons, biophysical machines, only doing what we are programmed and required to do. If that’s true, everything in human life we hold dear is but a deception. All outcomes are inescapable, which removes any sense of true accomplishment, striving, love, joy, suffering or redemption. From what would we need to be redeemed? Machines don’t need redemption from their operating systems – they do what they do because they can do no other. It is what it is.
My argument in favor of freewill is based on the primacy of reason/logic and human experience. The full weight of human history and experience goes against the notion that we have no freewill. There is no corner of our existence that does not presuppose human freewill (intentional agency, alternative possibilities, and causal control). The institutions of our life – the justice system, religion, political decisions and accountability, relationships, fairness – are all structured and based on the premise that humans have freewill.
If there is no freewill, why did I lay awake at night agonizing over a difficult decision? Why was I brought to tears by a mistake I made that caused injury? Why have I ever apologized, or demanded an apology from others? Why do we have a judicial system premised on accountability? Why does religion demand repentance or the making of amends or penance? For what, if I am only doing that which I cannot help but do?
Without freewill, the institutions of our lives must be radically reconstructed or dropped entirely in the service of intellectual honesty and logical and internal coherence of our thinking. Who among us is willing to take that step?
We assume we are free. It is the fundamental basis upon which we live our lives and make our way through the world and our relationships. Everything we value is premised on the freedom to choose. To deny this is to deny the basic confidence that our lives have meaning. It is only through actual choice that we create the meaning in our lives that sustains us.
Without the freedom to choose, how could we move forward with any sense of purpose? How could we have hope? (“Hope Is An Action Verb“) How could we view the world’s circumstances with anything other than resignation and then sit back and do nothing? Capitol Riot; “Welcome To Ordinary Time“; “Now Is The Time To Find Our Courage And Engage” Why would we worry about voting? (“Should We Be Voting Based On the Golden Rule?“) Why concern ourselves with the wellbeing of our fellow humans? (“Allocating Scarce Resources“) I mean, whatever. It is what it is.
Lack of freewill fosters a sense of inevitability that renders human action and agency superfluous. Why bother doing anything when the pre-ordained plan will arrive with certainty and immutability? I can’t see how this leads to anything other than fatal pessimism and suicidal despair. For many it would portend an existential crisis beyond any previously imaginable. It is literally no way to live.
Jody Cramsie has a background in history, theology, ethics and law. In her free, time she enjoys music, reading and hosting dinner parties for family and friends. She lives in Spokane but prefers to be on the Olympic Peninsula or in the south of France.