Do we inherently have free will, or is it only an illusion? Are the meaning and purpose of our lives predestined or do we get to decide for ourselves? I have been thinking about these kind of questions over and over, but unfortunately I do not have a clear answer for you. In this post I will only write about what I have learned so far on this topic and my own opinion.
While I may lean more towards determinism, existentialism also has its own charm and appeal that I can’t ignore. You may ask why I am opposing determinism with existentialism, and not indeterminism? In fact, I probably should, but I think they are quite similar in ways. Based on my understanding, indeterminism advocates for random chance and probability, that is, given one action, there could be several possible consequences with various probabilities, you can think of it like quantum mechanics. But it doesn’t have any implications for the discussion of the free will of human beings. Existentialism on the other hand, believes that we do have free will and that our futures can unfold in many different ways depending on what we decide to do.
Determinism is comforting to me, in a way. Much of physics, with the exception of quantum mechanics and some of thermodynamics, is rooted in determinism. Given a set of initial conditions, one can always calculate the state of the system at a later time. On a philosophical level, the Stoicism school of thought also firmly believed in this. Having read the works of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, I found comfort in knowing that everything I do, and everything that happens to me is predestined. It keeps me grounded and not let the external things impact my emotional state too much. It is also helpful for decision making: it doesn’t have to be an agonizing process because whatever I choose to do is in alignment with nature, hence it can’t be a bad choice. However, I have to note a downside of this line of thinking, which is that it can lead to some kind of withdrawn, and a feeling of disconnectedness in everyday life.
Existentialism counterbalances determinism. On this front, I have read books by Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and Franz Kafka. Some of their works may also be categorized as Absurdism, meaning that life is intrinsically absurd and meaningless, only we humans try to assign meaning to things to make ourselves feel better. The idea of existentialism can be really liberating: we are born as blank canvases, we get to choose our own destiny and strive to become whomever we dream of, the sky’s the limit! We have free will and complete control of our lives, and we are fully responsible for our actions. This is certainly a very appealing approach to life. Though on the flip side, you are more prone to be full of yourself when you achieve success, and feel more defeated when things fail, since you are the only reason why things did or did not work out. In the case of decision making, I envision that it can be daunting since you are putting your entire future at stake with each decision you make.
It’s unsatisfying that there is not a scientific way (yet) to put an end to this debate. And after writing all this, I still don’t have a clear sense of my original question: do we have free will? But maybe like most things in life, our approach doesn’t have to be entirely binary. Maybe it is possible to reconcile the two schools of thought discussed above, and form a hybrid. Allow yourself to believe that you have full control of your destiny and strive to reach for the stars, while at the same time, do not get too attached to the consequences, be it good or bad. Maybe this sounds like nonsense, but it is the best I can come up with for now. There is still a lot for me to learn and experience in life, so maybe I will write an update if I have any new findings.
One thought on “Do we have free will?”
I am not sure if freedom is a state, a condition or a perpetual ongoing dream.
When the borders of my mind prohibit me to go further, I prefer to go back to the roots, the etymology of the words.
From Middle English free, fre, freo, from Old English frēo (“free”), comes from Proto-West Germanic *frī, from Proto-Germanic *frijaz (“beloved, not in bondage”), from Proto-Indo-European *priHós (“dear, beloved”), from *preyH- (“to love, please”).
So can we be beloved but not in bondage?