Who am I? I can say that I am a human. I can also say with relative certainty that I have green eyes and messy brown hair; that I have an above average height of 5’9 and a shoe size is 10.5. I can pinpoint the sensations my worldly vesicle is experiencing: some sadness mixed with a bit of stress, but also excitement peeking behind the corners of my mind. This collection of atoms under the label of Katherine is….me? But how can a group of atoms following the laws of physics in the way, in which they interact, reproduce, and contribute to my existence, create my unique human experience? Can I even be sure that my physical body is real or that some metaphysical consciousness within me has some control over the actions of each tiny particle constituting me? What if, since the big bang, atoms went down their deterministic course, and I am the result of the actions of the billions of atoms that were destined to lead to my creation? Does that mean free will is us breaking the laws of science? Or, does that mean free will does not exist, and that we are all just cogs in a machine doing what we are all destined to do?
The problem of free will came up with the philosopher René Descartes, as he was contemplating the question of consciousness. He concluded that the physical world was indeed made out of particles and did run like a machine to the extent of controlling our human reflexes, which are pre-programmed motor or cognitive responses that do not require any thinking in advance. But what can be classified as a reflex? And at what point does this kind of classification begin to infringe on the notion of free will? To solve (or maybe avoid) this question, Descartes proposed that, although the human body was governed by physical laws, humans also had a non-mechanistic and nonphysical rational soul that was responsible for our voluntary decisions and therefore our ability to think. From this mind-body dualism idea arose Descartes famous creed of “I think therefore I am:” the essential idea behind this is that we can doubt the existence of everything, even of our physical bodies, but we cannot doubt the fact that we are thinking, and the fact that we can think means that we exist. From this arise the implication that, because our existence is not determined by the physical world, then neither are our actions fully dependent upon it. So does that mean we do have free will?
Humans have the ability to think coherently and linearly, for the most part. This means that the path of our thinking follows a cause and effect pattern: a physical stimulus promoted us to think of something, or one thought has a natural association with another one. Thoughts do not appear out of nowhere: we don’t randomly think about purple elephants, but now you are because you were stimulated by a collections of letters on this screen. And do we really have control over the thoughts in heads, and can we really know how they appeared there in the first place? For example, I am now thinking about potato chips. I did not create this thought, it just appeared in my head. And I can hypothesize that it was a result of my being hungry, but it could also be because I saw a yellow car through my window. Additionally, if I ask you to think of any random book, and you pick, for example, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, how do you know that you had the ability to choose any other book? If we do not know where our thoughts come from, nor could be control what we think, does this mean that our consciousness is not the creator of these thoughts but simply an observer of them? For example, neuroscientists concluded that we only become aware of a decision full seconds after the neurological makeup of our brains indicates the creation of said decision. So does that mean we make decisions or an organ in our skulls does? Do the biological states of the neurons in our brain, influenced by all the previous causes and effects leading up to this moment, decide our actions? But what about our emotions and desires? Are those also purely a result of physical laws? Are we just another link in the unbroken chain of events that is human life?
The existence of free will has some implications in the areas of personal and moral responsibility. Does the lack of free will mean we should give up and just see where the chain of causes and effects take us? Personally, I find it very difficult to wrap my head around this concept. I’d like to believe that I have at least some control over my life. Ultimately, I think that all this stems from the question of consciousness. Since we don’t really know in what regard consciousness is responsible for our human experience and where the metaphysical entity of it comes from, solid claims about free will should not be made, yet. Hopefully, a scientific law on free will won’t come anytime soon, because I rather like living in a confused and blissful ignorance.