One of the longest running debates concerning human nature is whether or not people possess freewill. Though I have previously written concerning whether freewill and foreknowledge are mutually exclusive, until this point I have not written any sort of essay concerning whether people actually possess freewill, which is obviously an important issue. Are peoples' actions determined or predetermined by some external cause, such that people have no true control over their lives, or do people have the capacity to make real choices, and through those choices exert real control over various aspects of their lives and the world around them? That is the central question of this essay. Before we begin our analysis let us define the terms "determinism" and "freewill," let us establish a criteria for what qualifies as an acceptable answer to our inquiry, and let us set boundaries on the scope of the question.
Fundamentally, both freewill and determinism are philosophies that declare the ultimate determinant of human action. In that sense, both freewill and determinism recognize that there may be a large numbers of factors that influence any given human action. However, at some point, any action is taken or decision made (including a conscious or subconscious decision to refrain from acting) based on one final criteria. This is where freewill and determinism diverge. Determinism states that after all the factors have been taken into account, all human actions finally result from something external to a person. Freewill states that considering all factors, all human actions ultimately result from the basis of an internal, freely chosen decision. By "freely chosen," I simply mean that a person has the ability to choose to act or not act in any particular way. For a more in-depth analysis on which definitions of "free" seem to relate to human freewill, please read my sister's blog post on the topic.
Having defined both freewill and determinism, I also want to add a couple of brief clarifying notes. First, due to their definitions, freewill and determinism, in their pure forms, are mutually exclusive. That is, if human actions are internally determined, then they cannot simultaneously be externally determined. Likewise, if human actions are externally determined, then they cannot simultaneously be internally determined. Therefore, if freewill exists, determinism cannot be true. Alternately, if determinism is true, then freewill does not exist. Second, there is a third possible answer to our question. Though pure freewill and pure determinism are mutually exclusive, there is the theoretical possibility that a hybrid exists, such that people have freewill at certain times or regarding certain events, but that some actions are externally determined. A thorough analysis must consider this possibility. Third, there are many different sorts of determinism. Some people postulate divine determinism, where God controls the human soul and chooses peoples' choices for them, leaving them with no final volition. Some postulate biological determinism, where genetic code determines both biological traits and the choices that a person will choose to make. Some postulate forms of sociocultural determinism, where people's values, opinions and choices are determined by the sociocultural influences that shaped them during formative years. I am certain that there are other such forms of determinism. However, because the various types of determinism vary in quality, but not in effect, it is reasonable to place them all in the same overarching category, since all forms of determinism hold firmly to the tenet that human actions are externally determined.
Next, we must establish a clear criteria for what constitutes an acceptable answer to our inquiry. For any philosophy to be true and consistent with the real world, it must meet two criteria. First, it must fit the evidence. Second, it must be practically applicable. That is the criteria that will be used to decide whether people actually possess freewill, whether determinism reigns supreme, or whether there exists some hybrid of the two.
I hesitate to add a section solely to preempt those who will point out the obvious exceptions and extenuating circumstances that would cast my conclusion in a dubious light, but given the prevalence of those who would swiftly contribute irrelevant anecdotes and hypothetical situations rather than debate my thesis on a rational, evidential basis, it seems to be a practical necessity. When contemplating the question of whether humans possess freewill, we will limit the scope of the inquiry to normal, non-altered human capacity. As such, this inquiry is not concerned with whether physically or mentally impaired people are capable of making genuine choices, nor does it take into account those who are in physically, psychologically or spiritually altered states. Instead, for clarity's sake, our fundamental question is, "Do normal humans, operating in normal conditions, internally choose their own actions, or are their actions externally determined?"
The first criteria leads us to weigh the evidence for determinism and freewill. Since, volition is a very personal thing, which cannot be directly observed externally, let us first consider practical human experience. Whenever I take actions, I have the distinct impression that my actions are chosen by me, and are not externally compelled. Right now, I am convinced that I am writing this blog because I chose to. If I were to become bored, hungry or decide that my argument was weak, I am convinced that I could choose to cease typing and do something more entertaining, munch on a snack or take a break to clear my mind. There are no actions that I recall taking which seem to me to have been externally determined in any way. Supposing that this constitutes as evidence, all of my personal experience serves as evidence that freewill does in fact exist and that none of my actions are externally determined.
Now, the use of my personal experience as solid evidence is predicated on the assumption that my impressions and memories are correct and that my brain is functioning properly. It is entirely possible that I am deceived, uninformed or mistaken concerning the choices that I think I have made. If it can be conclusively determined that I am deceived, uninformed or mistaken concerning the choices that I think I have made, then my personal experience cannot be counted as sound evidence, and should be discounted. In fact, it is entirely possible that if determinism is true, I would be the final determinant of none of my actions and yet simultaneously be convinced that I do possess freewill. Supposing this hypothetical case were true, then it would quite impossible for me ever to know which of my actions are internally chosen and which are externally determined. Because of this, supposing this case were true, I would be incapable to find any evidence for it. If I am unable to find any evidence that both my actions are externally determined and that I am deceived into thinking that I maintain internal locus of control, then this hypothetical situation can be reasonably discounted under criteria #1, since there necessarily is a complete absence of evidence for such a case.
Therefore, having considered the alternate case, it is rational to assume that, given the present absence of evidence to the contrary, my personal experience can be counted as acceptable evidence since it stems from a sound mind. Similarly, I would like to submit your personal experience as evidence in favor of freewill, since I am convinced that you are consciously capable of making decisions to take actions, since you are consciously capable of refraining from such actions, and since in the normal course of life you are not aware of having taken any actions which were not also chosen by you. As I did for myself, I will also consider you to be of sound mind, and include your personal experience as acceptable evidence. If, for some reason, you consider your own mental state to be compromised, or your perceptions to be inaccurate, feel free to exclude your experiences from the evidence in favor of freewill.
Having examined the personal experience evidence for determinism and freewill, let us now consider the various sorts of external evidence. When observing the behavior of others, no one can directly ascertain whether actions taken by another person are done of their own volition or because of some external sort of determination. As such, when considering the actions of others, we can only hear their testimony concerning whether or not their actions are freely taken or externally determined. As such, any ordinary observation of the behavior of others will result in evidence of the same sort as the first category. Therefore, there are no new additions to our list of evidence from ordinary observations of the behavior of other people.
Concerning hard scientific evidence for determinism, some scientists have suggested that neuroscience provides clear evidence that a person does not ultimately have control over their own actions, but that instead, the biology of the brain means that the final determinant of human actions is the brain, which is formed by genetics and operates under the laws of biochemistry. There are numerous intellectuals and scientists who postulate that the discoveries made by neuroscience research serves as solid evidence that we live in a world of biological determinism, which would categorically disprove human possession of freewill. Joshua Greene, Jonathan Cohen, Daniel Dennett, Daniel Wegner, and many others hold the stance that freewill is an illusion based on the evidence of biology. However, there are several major problems with such arguments. First, as Lucretius of the Mises Institute points out in his brilliant essay concerning neuroscience and freewill, proponents of biological determinism mistakenly create a false dichotomy by suggesting that a person and a person's brain are separate entities. Second, even concerning what the evidence of neuroscience shows, there is no consensus about what it actually shows. For this reason there are a great many books which have been written in the past few years and many more which are being written. As neuroscience is a fairly new branch of science, it will be quite some time before there is a large enough body of research and enough scientific saturation to reach any sort of scientific consensus. Third, because neuroscience and indeed, all science, is categorically limited to the study of that which is empirical, all arguments in favor of biological determinism necessarily rest upon the premise that their exists no non-physical component of a person. Because of this inherent limitation, no neurological research can possibly establish or disprove the existence of freewill or a state of determinism so long as there may exist such a thing as a human soul or spirit. And, indeed, since there can be no empirical evidence supporting or refuting the existence of a human soul, the validity of any scientific evidence on the matter necessarily rests upon philosophical evidence or non-physical evidence of some sort. As such, there can be no conclusive evidence of biological determinism that is self-supporting. We see then, concerning any form of scientific evidence for or against freewill or determinism, none is self-contained, and therefore no acceptable scientific evidence has yet been discovered nor can ever be discovered concerning the existence of freewill. Because of the logically flawed nature of the present arguments in favor of biodeterminism, the lack of scientific consensus on the matter and the intrinsic limitations of the scope of neuroscience, no valid evidence for our inquiry can be admitted from the hard sciences.
Next, we must consider the evidence from sociology and psychology that pertains to our inquiry. There are some that argue that the choices people make are based on the social and cultural conditioning a person undergoes as part of growing up and functioning in a society. They argue that since one's decisions are, to a large extent, based on the results of past decisions, which often stem from the reaction of other people and the environment to one's choices, then all of one's decisions are not made freely, but are determined by the sociocultural environment that one lives in, which psychologically conditions people to behave and think in certain ways. Whether nature or nurture most dictates a person's potential and realization of such potential, sociological determinism suggests that all of a person's actions are ultimately based on their own prior choices and the response of their physical and social environments in response to such choices, which means that ultimately all of a person's choices are finally a result of operant conditioning, similar to Pavlov's dog. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx are notable advocates of such theories, believing that people are ultimately slaves to their upbringing or their economic class, respectively. However, these sorts of theories, while interesting and even plausible, lack sufficient evidence to be considered conclusive. Though it is certainly possible that people are inescapably products of their own culture and that all human actions are determined by psychological and sociological forces, it has not been established that this is the case. While testing on animals has shown the power of operant conditioning, humans are very different sorts of creatures and are not as functionally limited, due to their established possession of higher-reasoning capabilities. For that reason, even people who have been psychologically conditioned to act certain ways because of their past, are capable of breaking the cycle and learning new patterns of behavior, either on their own or with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy. Given that there is much documented evidence of the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy, it is clear that while humans may learn certain patterns of behavior, they are also capable of unlearning them. Additionally, given the nature of sociology and psychology, though it is quite clear that social and cultural forces influence behavior, there is no evidence that people's decisions are completely determined by them. The existence of people who are non-conformers in all groups, regarding many aspects of life, even to their own detriment, would provide evidence that people are not solely molded and shaped by cultural and social forces. If it is granted that people's actions are not simply the result of social and psychological forces, then it cannot be clearly established that all people lack freewill, nor that all human decisions are sociologically or psychologically determined. If there is a case for sociological or psychological determinism of some form, it has not been sufficiently established. Additionally, due to the fact that humans are extremely complex beings, whose behavior often does not fit the predictive models of sociology or psychology, while it is reasonable to utilize such models to attempt to predict or explain human behavior, there is clear consensus that no one model in either category is empirically solid enough to make strong claims of any sort. For this reason, both sociology and psychology are considered soft sciences. As we are seeking only to admit solid evidence into our inquiry into freewill and determinism, no evidence from psychology or sociology can be considered acceptable.
Lastly, let us consider philosophical arguments that relate to the question of human freewill. Of these, there are more arguments for and against freewill than can be examined in detail in this paper. Though there are countless books, papers and resources written on the subject of philosophical arguments supporting or opposing determining, here is one by Norman Swartz that summarizes and analyzes a number of the most popular arguments on the subject. Among these are logical arguments in support of determinism, epistemic arguments in support of determinism, and causal arguments in support of determinism (which include the sorts of determinism that we examined in the last two paragraphs). Even in the realm of theology, there are countless proponents and opponents of divine determinism. These arguments rest either on the alleged incompatibility of freewill and foreknowledge (an epistemic argument), or on various unscriptural and illogical doctrines of God's sovereignty. The philosophical debate concerning determinism and freewill has been going on for over two thousand years and probably will not end anytime soon. However, given that suitable rebuttals have been written for every philosophical argument laid forth in favor of determinism, and also given that it is likely that a consensus will never be reached, we may either consider there to be a complete absence of evidence for determinism, or we may consider there to be a complete absence of evidence in support of both freewill and determinism. Since I am not presently aware of any arguments positively establishing the existence of human freewill, only of arguments showing that that there may be freewill, then we will consider there to be no evidence for or against determinism or freewill. As such, no sound philosophical evidence will be admitted pertaining to our inquiry.
Therefore, in conclusion to our examination of the evidence for freewill and determinism, we find that the only admissible evidence is personal experience, which provides support for the case of freewill, and offers no support for determinism. Though this is only one sort of evidence, it still is evidence, nonetheless. Any sound answer to our inquiry must properly explain why people think they have and seem to have freewill regarding their actions. An examination of the evidence leads us to the conclusion that our final answer must be one of the following:
1 - Human beings actually possess freewill and an awareness of their ability to exert control over their own lives
2 - All human actions are externally determined, including a determination that humans will have the illusion of freewill
3 - Human beings sometimes possess freewill and sometimes do not, and when they do not they still think they do
Having examined the evidence, we will next consider the case of freewill and determinism in regards to practical living. As stated above, the second criteria for an acceptable answer to our inquiry is that it must be practically applicable. We will now examine the practical implications of each of the three possible answers.
In the first case, if one believes that human beings possess freewill and an awareness of their ability to exert control over their own lives and the the world around them, then there are a good number of practical implications. First, we may trust our own brains and senses, since the information our brains provide (thinking that we choose our own actions) is trustworthy. This also means that, for the most part, we can trust our brains to provide us with mostly accurate information regarding ourselves and our world. Though our thinking may be wrong in some ways, at least the raw data that we process may be reasonable and acceptable. Second, since each person chooses their own actions, each person is capable of shaping their own life and is responsible for who they are, how they act, where they live, how happy they are and so forth. Additionally, if a person is unhappy with their life, they have the capacity to improve it by taking practical steps to increase their well-being. In psychology, this is referred to as "internal locus of control," and is a sign of mental health. Third, because each person is capable of impacting the world and other people, they also are personally and morally responsible for the impacts of their actions. This means that people can reasonably be held accountable for their actions and rewarded or punished based on what they do, how they impact the world and how they treat people. These are the primary and most important practical implications if people actually do possess freewill.
In the second case, if one believes in determinism and holds to the ideas both that all human actions are externally determined and that people maintain the illusion of freewill, there are also quite a number of practical implications. First, the fact that a person is being deceived by their own brain into thinking that they possesses freewill, when they do not, must lead to the conclusion that one's mind is not reliable and therefore no mental or sensory data can be rationally accepted. In such a case, your brain and all your thoughts are demonstrably untrustworthy, and therefore should be completely discredited. Second, since no person has any control over their own actions, every person is completely incapable of shaping their own life or the world in any way. Each person's actions, personality, living accommodations, and happiness are completely out of their control. If your life sucks, there is absolutely nothing that you can do about it. In psychology, this sort of thinking is referred to as "external locus of control," and is a sign of poor mental health. It is nearly identical to learned helplessness. Third, because each person is incapable of controlling their impact on the world or their treatment of others, there can be no personal or moral responsibility. All crimes that are committed could not have been prevented or avoided in any way, neither by the volition of the criminal nor by the choices of third parties, since no person has any control over their own actions. This means that all morality, laws and heuristics are ultimately powerless, unnecessary and ineffective. Nothing could occur any way other than how it does, and no person is capable of acting differently than they do, nor of volitionally changing in the future. Everything proceeds exactly how it must. Fourth, because of those previous implications, not only is freewill an illusion, but nearly everything about human existence is an illusion. Personality, relationship, thought, discovery, love, adventure and emotion are all ultimately vacuous. There can be no such thing as rationality. In this sense, the deception of determinism is even more profound and pervasive than simply being massively deluded beings, as depicted in The Matrix, for at least in such a case the deception may not be permanent, and even though the brain is deceived, there still exists real people, real choices and the potential for real impact in one's world. In the deterministic case, even the concept of personality is a delusion, for not only is the world illusory, but people do not exist as they seem to. This is the necessary and inescapable practical implication of believing in both determinism and the human possession of the illusion of freewill.
In the third case, if one believes that sometimes people possess freewill and sometimes their actions are externally determined, but that even when actions are externally determined, people still think they possess freewill, one is led to similar conclusions as in the case of pure determinism. So long as there are more externally determined actions than internally determined ones, then one cannot trust one's own brain regarding physical or cognitive information about oneself or the universe. Similarly, since for any given action you are more likely to lack control than have control, a majority of your actions, thoughts, situations and personality are not under your control. This leaves you in a similar psychological position, where most of your life you are helpless to change or alter. Not only will this leave a person with learned helplessness, but also there is the constant doubt and confusion over whether this is one of the times where one has freewill or whether this is one of the times where one's actions are externally determined. The case for moral and personal responsibility is the same as in the previous example, for no-one can be certain whether they or others are acting under their own volition or are externally controlled, which makes it impossible to establish reasonable culpability of any sort. In summary, a belief that more actions are externally determined than not must lead to a practical belief that most of life is an illusion and that when it isn't, the illusion is indistinguishable from truth. Practical living in accordance with this philosophy inevitably leads to a perpetual confusion, and a denial of personal and moral responsibility for one's life and the impact of one's actions.
Finally, we have concluded the analysis of determinism and freewill in regards to both of the established criteria. The final answer to our inquiry must be one that is both consistent with reality and practically applicable. In the category of evidence, we find that there is no solid evidence for determinism and their is one type of evidence that strongly supports the existence of freewill. The personal experience of each and every normal living person supports the hypothesis that people do possess freewill, since all are convinced that their actions are freely taken. Concerning practical applicability, there is no incompatibility between a belief in unfettered freewill and a real participation in human living, in every aspect of life. There is clear incompatibility between any form of belief in determinism and practical living, for a belief in determinism means that one cannot trust their own brain or sensory experience. Also, a logically consistent belief in pure determinism necessitates a belief that all of life is ultimately an illusion, and that no thoughts, people or choices exist, in any real sense of those words. Alternately, a belief in partial determinism necessarily entails a perpetual state of confusion about oneself, the actions of others and the resulting state of the universe. Partial determinism is, in many ways, even more mentally deadly than pure determinism since it entails a perpetual belief that the universe and the self is being tossed about by invisible entropic forces. Therefore, based on the evidence, the only rational conclusion to reach is that freewill exists. Similarly, concerning practical applicability, no human can logically and consistently live with a belief in any sort of determinism. On this basis, the only rational and consistent stance to take is that humans do possess unfettered freewill, and that they are aware of it. Normal people, under normal circumstances are in control of their lives, since they choose each and every action that they take.