Why I believe in free will

Posted Sep 1, 2003
Last Updated Oct 31, 2011

As a person who generally shudders when considering anything that can be shelved under the name Metaphysics, I have often been forced to struggle with my a priori belief in free will. Any of my critics can easily throw this back at me when I often declare that I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.

Well I guess that I don’t believe in most things I can’t prove. Free will is something that I have found necessary to back up many of my tenets on life… and it’s hard to defend any of the notions that humanity cherishes without it.

Free will, as I define it, is the ability to act according to your own desires or decisions. Such a definition is not too hard to believe. But the issue gets tricky when you try to push the meaning further up the rope of theory into the fluffy clouds of metaphysics and say that free will is a unique spiritual entity that hovers somewhere outside our physical bodies; that free will, as defined by classical theology, is a gift from God.

Classical philosophers constantly struggled with this concept because it rubbed uncomfortably close to the rear-end of God’s omnipotence. If men could act on their own volition, in a manner that is not pre-determined, then God could not know all things to come. Alas, the contradiction bothered many people throughout history.

For my discussion it’s fairly irrelevant that free will challenges God’s omnipotence because I don’t care to discuss that. My concern has been to keep the concept of free will in an age of science and mechanics.

Dealing with the first half of free will (acting according to your own desires) immediately challenges us. We each have a set of desires that compels us to act and behave in certain ways. But just because we have these desires, we have to wonder how these desires are "unique” and "individual”. We all seem to have them. And acting according to innate desires and instincts seems more apt to support a world of predestination than metaphysical freedom. Most animals, who we have always denied the property of free will, act almost entirely on instinctive patterns and predictable behavior.

Humans, who are capable of pondering their own existence, wonder about themselves a lot. We have the ability to roll problems and issues over inside our heads, analyze, think critically. These facilities, which are intimately tied to our consciousness, seem very much controlled by each person’s mind. As such, it seems natural to feel that we have the freedom to control our outcome. This is the side of free will (acting according to our decisions) that seems to support free will.

But perhaps free will is merely a name we’ve given to a tool that has developed for our survival. We are creatures that can advance quickly, meet extreme challenges because we are designed to look at a situation and "solve” problems. When we have solved a problem, we act accordingly… and it seems like a tremendously personal behavior. So we call it "free will”.

Maybe this view of free will isn’t as grand as the mysterious view taken by mystics… but it’s at least plausible. I defend my belief in free will despite the fact that I can’t prove its existence. But through defining it as a survival mechanism it does not seem as far-fetched and contradictory to my general view on beliefs.

We are all influenced by our surroundings, from political environment to parental examples. Understanding and valuing this free will is important because it implores us to take responsibility for our actions and fate. While it is more mechanical than commonly perceived, it demands us to not fall prey to apathy … which is the enemy of successful survival. We must teach our kids to believe in the importance of wise decision-making and prudent actions. We must encourage them to seek excellence and to excel at everything they do. If you don’t believe in free will then you can’t honestly implore them to get any better because you believe that their course has already been set.

Besides, if there is no free will, and everything is predetermined… I had no choice in my belief in free will to begin with. I had to believe it.

Apathy and Entropy

Essays dealing with cultural and personal apathy.

  1. The nature of apathy
  2. Why I believe in free will
  3. The MTV Generation
  4. The MySpace Generation

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