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Free will is the focus of one of the longest-running debates in the history of human thought. This debate is shaped by two main questions: Are people's decisions and actions independent from any circumstances? Are people's decisions and actions predetermined? On this page, I present the debate about free will and discuss how it is related to my exploration of power. For a more thorough overview of the free will debate (i.e., different schools of thought, positions of specific scholars) see the sources at the bottom of the page.
It is important to keep in mind that the debate about free will belongs to the realm of philosophy. That is, we cannot declare with absolute certainty whether free will exists or whether it is a myth. It is possible that answers to the debate's questions elude us due to the limitations of the human mind. Another possibility is that the main dilemma of free will is formulated incorrectly. In other words, it might be pointless to argue whether people are absolutely free in their choices or whether their actions are completely predetermined, since both of these options are neither true nor false.
Why might we assume that people are free in their decisions and actions?
This is what our intuition is telling us. Just to clarify, I am not talking about enslaved individuals, but about an average person living in a democratic country. If you ask such a person if their decisions and actions are free most of the time, they will probably say yes. Or this person might tell you that their decisions and actions are not always free because they often have to do things that they are expected to do (by their family, community, organization they work for). But they will also probably tell you that they know when they are making a free choice vs. when they do something because they have to do it. In other words, they will tell you that they can use their free will sometimes and that they know when they use it.
If after reading this page, you want to test how you yourself feel about your own ability to make free decisions and take free actions, you can pay attention for a few hours or a day to things you do, including the smallest actions throughout your day. You will probably notice that many if not most of these actions appear to be a result of your free will. In other words, you will feel that you do them because you want to do them. (In fact, if you feel that most of your actions are a result of somebody forcing you, that might be a symptom of a serious problem, either related to your mental state or to your relationships with people around you.)
Why might it be a problem to assume that people are free in their decisions and actions?
If you feel that most of your decisions and actions are free, you will most probably assume that other people's decisions and actions are free most of the time as well (we are talking about free people living in a free country). The problem with this assumption is that it can lead to negative emotions directed at other people or to the reluctance to help people experiencing problems. For example, you might say that people who are poor are to blame for their economic situation. Or that people who have achieved less in life than what you have achieved are just lazy; they could have made different choices and become more successful, but they chose not to. As a result, you will be less willing to support people who are struggling. You will feel superior towards people who, you will feel, have achieved less in life than you did.
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Believing in free will might be unhelpful also because it can create unrealistic expectations about willpower. For example, we can beat ourselves up for our inability to break a loop of a habit (e.g., smoking or overeating). We will expect ourselves to control our impulses just by deciding to do so and by formulating logical arguments why we should not do something that harms us. As a result of this self-judgement and pressure, we will not be able to find effective ways of breaking out of our habits (this idea is discussed in the book Unwinding Anxiety).
Why might we assume that people's decisions and actions are predetermined?
On the other hand, we might want to take into consideration various circumstances influencing our decisions. We are born into the world of social interactions shaped by spoken and unspoken rules. Our actions need to be aligned with ideas that we did not create and often do not fully comprehend. Our actions are determined by our perceptions. But where do our perceptions come from? Anaïs Nin famously said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” To that, I can add that the way we are is in many ways shaped by the way the social world around us is (see also Socialization and Power).
One might assume that our desires are free: I want something because I want it, not because somebody told me to. So actions based on desires are also free. But our desires are in many ways biologically and culturally determined. Think, for example, about desires based on survival needs (both individual and the species), which shape our decisions about looking for and keeping a sexual partner or about foods we crave (e.g., the fact that most people like sugary and fatty foods is related to older parts of these brain that associate these foods with survival). Although our needs are not only related to survival (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), the "higher" needs often reflect the social world around us. For example, to fulfill the self-actualization need ("desire to become the most that one can be") one has to have some understanding of what this "most" can look like; this understanding often comes from the larger society and communities that one feels a part of.
It is nice to think that, as the famous protest song goes, "Die Gedanken sind frei" - which means "Thoughts are free". But how free are they, really, if they reflect cultural meanings that we did not create? How free are our thoughts if they are shaped by biological needs that all representatives of Homo Sapiens species share? How free are really our thoughts, if they are influenced by emotions that we find so hard to control?
Image credit: Abhinav Goswami
Why might it be a problem to assume that people's decisions and actions are predetermined?
If we accept the idea that our actions and their results are predetermined, we might be less willing to change our lives or challenge ourselves. We might think: "If whatever I do leads to the result that I have no control over, why bother?" This assumption might spell doom both for individual and for social development.
Belief in determinism might also lead to denial of responsibility for any actions. How can we expect anybody to be accountable for anything if we believe that nobody can act differently from how they act (due to biology, socialization, and personal experiences outside of our control)? This point of view might lead to passivity in the face of any injustices and inequalities.
If all our actions are predetermined, we cannot either request accountability or give people credit for any accomplishments. No matter whether we see the result of a certain action as "good" or "bad", we might need to acknowledge that this action was taken not because somebody made a decision to take it. According to determinism, the real reason behind any action is a chain of events outside of any individual's control, set in motion in the beginning of the universe.
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The debate about free will is going to remain purely philosophical unless we find a way to scientifically test if our desires and actions are fully predetermined or not. To test this idea even for a seemingly simple action, like you reading this page right now, we would need to take account everything that has happened in the universe from the beginning of time and see if all of these events lead with absolute inevitability to the the action in question, or if there is a wiggle room for free will undetermined by the circumstances of the past and present. At best, we can only have logically-grounded but untestable opinions about free will.
In my opinion, we should assume, for practical purposes, that both absolute free will and absolute determinism do not exist. I believe that our actions are shaped by some amount of what can be called "determinism" and some amount of what can be called "free will". In other words, it is hard (in my opinion) to deny all the circumstances that shape our actions. We are not absolutely free to make any possible decision, we are not even absolutely free to envision or desire any possible decision. In terms of my exploration of power, we can say that everybody is to some extent powerless in the face of numerous circumstances outside of our control.
On the other hand, I believe that there is wiggle room in our actions where we can make choices that affect our life and lives of people around us. Free will happens only within the wiggle room because our choices are not entirely free. We can choose from a range of options, but we do not choose the range of options that we need to choose from. The options we have depend on many factors and circumstances outside of our control.
Now, some might point out that it's unclear how we make the choice between these limited options. Perhaps even this choice is somehow predetermined? Some thinkers draw parallels between mysteries of free will and the quantum world. On the quantum scale of reality, a particle cannot appear anywhere, it has limited options, and there is probability involved. But the particle is not making a choice where to appear. Perhaps our choices are determined by probability rather than free will?
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Here is where I have to acknowledge that my opinion about free will is based on faith (not in the religious sense) rather than on facts. I believe in the importance of making an effort to make ourselves better and make the world around us better (this idea is known in philosophy as "meliorism"). I believe that our power lies in making this effort. We use our personal power by making choices that challenge ourselves, rather than letting ourselves follow the predetermined path or go with the flow.
I believe that everybody has some wiggle room where free will can be exercised. In this sense, everybody is powerful, at least to some extent. Each free choice we make determines the range of choices in the next instant, both for ourselves and for others. It's kind of like playing a multiplayer multilevel game: on each stage we have a limited range of options to choose from, and every choice we make opens up new options or closes old options for ourselves and others. I believe that, guided by this view of free will, we can strive to do and be our best under the circumstances.
To sum it up: in my opinion, powerlessness and power are always mixed in a way that makes it difficult to say with absolute certainty where power ends and powerlessness begins. Another way to put it: there is no absolute power or absolute powerlessness. That said, it is essential to emphasize that relative amounts of power and powerlessness change from individual to individual and even from action to action taken by a specific individual. So, in specific circumstances, some individuals do have more power than others (which is a concern of scholars studying inequalities).
I believe that accepting that we have a certain amount of free will will lead to our empowerment: we will be able to use our power to impact the way things are. On the other hand, I believe that if we acknowledge our limitations and limitations of others (powerlessness caused by determinism), this attitude will foster empathy for ourselves and other, curiosity about all the factors behind people's actions, and humility in the form of acknowledging that no individual can know everything about the way the world works.
My position free will calls for alertness. We cannot decide that one person always has more power than the other person and stop there. We cannot say that we know for sure what actions are predetermined and what actions are a result of free choice. Because there are no simple ultimate answers, we need to be flexible in our conclusions and judgements. Alertness in this sense means always wondering what amount of determination (powerlessness) vs. free will (power) there is in any action, in any situation.
Brewer, J. (2021). Unwinding anxiety. Avery.
Encyclopedia Britannica. (last updated July 28, 2023). Free will.
People Who Read People. (January 9, 2021). How does not believing in free will affect one’s life? [Podcast]. (also see the list of sources on the podcast page)
Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. (last updated November 3, 2022). Free will.
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