Is there such a thing as free will and are we really our own person, able to choose our path, or are we just non-linear highly complex and undecipherable vessels of inherited and acquired things playing out through us, which end up looking as actions of free will?
Do you have any idea why you chose some things over others, why you’re attracted to some people or foods, why you are dating or have married a specific person, why you like how their head smells, why you prefer order to chaos or vice versa, why you put on this shirt, why you even care about what shirt you wear or go just by the laundry availability, why you’re liberal or conservative, why you’re composed or short tempered…? In old polytheistic religions there were gods associated with different moods and impetus to action in various life circumstances. In a way, we were not beings creating our life by our own free choices but a backdrop for god wars, as if our whole personhood and life trajectory was their battle ground. Sometimes a good of war and anger would win, other times the goddess of beauty or wisdom, or we were creative because the muses graced us with their presence… we were pretty much given our lines to read and the responsibility for good and evil was outsourced to an extent.
Then we build a whole new civilisation on the notion of free will. There is right and wrong and we were free to pick who to be and create ourselves, but under the threat of having to answer for all we did in the end. The gods were removed from direct meddling into lives, got detached and were now just watching and judging from somewhere up there. Here we were not bound and compelled to do things any more. Free will became the cornerstone of legislation and criminal responsibility and the only ones acquitted of this responsibility are those who have a diagnosis of something which could interfere with the free will such as a debilitating mental illness or state. But what if, for the sake of argument, there is no way to make (a completely) free choice and we’re all impaired in some way by our biology and the things that happened all the way from in utero to what happened seconds before a bad “decision”. The difference between two actions may be a higher sensitivity to provocation because your mom was stressed when pregnant, a blood sugar imbalance due to what you ate, a bad smell a few minutes ago that put you in a foul mood, a hormonal imbalance triggered by drinking bottled water that got heated in the car… We have no idea what makes us do the things we do, but experiments show that people’s actions can be easily manipulated by subtly manipulating the environment and they’ll make a completely different choice. Well, look at marketing. If it were to your own free will you’d never buy this MSG soaked semblance of food, but a susceptible sleepy brain that’s begun to shut down watching TV at 1 AM may find it the greatest idea ever, having just watched a commercial of people having fun and crunching. So you come back with crisps from the store tomorrow afternoon, having no idea why you’re craving this.
What are the implications of having no free will or it being far weaker than we give it credit for? Who is guilty of their crime? What role does anger play if someone didn’t choose to be a jerk but couldn’t help it? What role does forgiveness play – infinitely larger or none at all if there is nothing to forgive ? In a world of no free will our constructs break down and we have no orientation how to handle the world and life itself. Is it somehow defeating to think of ourselves just as a final printout of something going on in the black box filled with eons of priming and circumstance inside, or is it freeing? Some things seem to remain as factual either way: Pain – as undoubtedly real – so a good goal (free will or not) would be to aim to alleviate it, and purpose- because no matter if you’re just a vessel, that in purely biological evolutionary stance just wants to make copies of itself and live, it’s still a purpose.
An animal has no religion, moral torments of its own free will and purpose and yet is more attuned to enjoying being here in the now than we are most of the time. Maybe we invented free will to distinguish ourselves from the rest, as hubris of the most evolved, maybe it is truly there and not of this body, maybe there’s nothing there but biology and a brain advanced enough to be tortured by it… in either case of this mystery that may be left inconclusive forever ,while finding solace in all sorts of philosophies, the facts that seem worth focusing on are the ones that are not affected by either thing being true: Try and diminish pain where you can and work for continuation of life, in any form you (or your bio chemistry) see fit.