Man can do what he wants. But he can’t will what he wills.Arthur Schopenhauer
Do you have any say in reading this article? Can you decide to read it till the end? Can you follow through with this intention? In general most people believe they have the ability to choose. But do we? Does this freewill really exist?
Freewill is assumed by default
- Our language uses framing like “subject” “verb” “subject”.
- While it is a description it presumes an actor taking an action.
- Our religion and legal systems assume freewill. We find people guilty of their crimes and punish them to deter them. Our religions tell us we’ll be asked to account for our actions.
What determines events in the natural world?
- A river carves out a canyon.
- A thunderstorm pulls out trees.
- Events seem to be caused by other events in the natural world.
- Our actions can be influenced by these events: A sudden gust of wind makes us pull our umbrella in closer.
But do we control everything we do?
- One way to see the world is events occurring but we are an independent actor choosing what we want to do.
- But as we look closer we see gaps in this understanding. We can’t quite control our heartbeat. We seem to choose to exercise causing our heart rate to increase. But a lot of biochemical reactions that caused the increase and the subsequent return to normal appear to be beyond our control.
What influences what we choose?
- Are there factors that influence our choices? Seemingly so. If I have a genetic predisposition to perspire then I might make choices to take actions to make myself comfortable.
- There seem to be genetic factors that influence what we crave and when that combines with the environment certain actions seem to take place.
Perhaps we have autonomy over a small but significant area?
- We feel like we have the ability to choose what we do in some areas. Sure we are influenced by our genes and our environment but that’s the magic of freewill. We can exert our will to counter all of these forces. After all this is the narrative of many of our great stories – man exercising his will to overcome the vicissitudes of life.
- It seems that if the physical world has limitations on what we can do we might be able to reign in the mental world. After all, we’ve spent many an afternoon in a daydream that seemed to be of our choosing. When asked to think of an elephant. I can conjure about an elephant and see it in my mind’s eye.
- Our mental capacity also seems to be a function of genes and the environment. Perhaps our genes predispose us to better mathematical function but it was the chance assignment of a fifth grade math teacher that brought this ability to the front. That awoke the desire and interest in mathematics.