Most of us are fairly sure that we have free will. We have the free will to choose what college to go to, the free will to choose whether to have Froot Loops or Cheetos for breakfast, and the free will to angrily text the person that’s been ignoring your texts for a week now.
Free will seems, to most, to be such a given that it doesn’t need to be proven or questioned at all. But as we explore this subject more, you’ll find that this isn’t as clear cut a case as you would think.
Philosophers have debated about free will for centuries at this point. Great thinkers from Aristotle to Thomas of Aquinas to basically every major thinker in the modern period. How could it not be? Philosophers love to question the nature of people and reality.
First of all let’s define free will. Free will is the ability for someone to do something of their own volition. Pretty simple, but this doesn’t coincide with how we understand the universe and reality. Let me explain.
An Oversimplified Summary Of Causal Determinism
Our problem begins with the philosophical belief of determinism, more specifically, causal determinism. Determinism simply says that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes. What does this mean exactly? Well, it means that everything has a cause, and that cause determines what happens. Pretty obvious. But it gets more interesting.
Think of it this way. Say that we’ve cracked the code of physics. We’ve discovered everything there is to know about it. Now, what if we make a machine that can predict what happens in the future by considering the fundamental laws of physics and using those laws, predict what every single atom in the universe will do. Now, say the machine predicts that a girl will buy an ice cream cone. Does the girl really have a choice on whether or not to buy the ice cream cone? Or was it simply the necessary and logical effect of a chain of events.
Look at it another way. Let’s say that you see a ball fly through the air. Now logic would dictate that something or someone threw it into the air. All things obviously have a reason for why they happen, and those reasons themselves must also have reasons for occurring and so on and so forth all the way back to the beginning of the universe. So wouldn’t it mean that there is only one possible future since there is only one chain of events?
Let’s have another example, let’s say you decide to go to a coffee shop. Is it really your decision? Could you have done otherwise? Most people would say yes but the problem is that you only decided that because of your interests, and your interests were decided by your environment, and your environment was made by your society, and your society was decided by the very first humans, and the actions of the very first humans were decided by evolution, and evolution was caused by the fundamental laws of physics, it was never your choice, it was decided for you. All those things converged into that one moment. Everything leads you to that coffee shop.
In simple words. People have no free will because if there were, there would be things happening without causes. If a person does something that does not continue the chain of causes and effects then they would be creating an event that doesn’t have a cause to exist.
It’s hard to understand at first, you might even think that I’m just spewing nonsense. But trust me, this realization can change how you see the world, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.
Implications of there being no free will
Now at this point, you might be asking yourself, “Why does this even matter?” Well, my dear reader, this is important because this can decide whether or not there even is morality.
How so? you might ask. Remember that if determinism is true then it would mean that we have no free will, and if we have no free will then we didn’t really decide to do anything, which would mean that we aren’t responsible for anything since responsibility requires you to have the choice to do otherwise, but if everything is determined then there is no responsibility.
This is a scary thought. Think about it, if the common understanding of morality, along with causal determinism holds true. A person could commit genocide and they technically did nothing wrong since they didn’t choose to do it, it was simply the logical outcome of their environment and hereditary traits. In the same way, Adolf Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong, his genocide of millions of Jews was not his fault. That is not a comfortable thought to hold inside of your head. And for the record, I don’t support any of the things he did, what he did was disgusting. I’m just pointing out the uncomfortable truth.
Sometimes realizations are uncomfortable, I can’t help you with that. Some things just feel better to be ignored. After all, ignorance is bliss. But if I were you I would thicken my skin and face the truth.