Are you really Free? Determinism in a Free World

“Why do events—the record of which we call history—occur as they do? Is all chaos and accident? Or is there some single, central vision, some unifying principle, which can explain the immense variety of human actions on a battlefield, or in the history of a nation?”

– Isaiah Berlin


Van Inwagen defines determinism very simply. “Determinism is quite simply the thesis that the past determines a unique future.” (Essay on Free Will, p.2)


Determinism simply states that our present actions are mere reactions to past actions and events which might be ours or anyone elses. Even though we might think that we are making a free choice but that fact that we live in a deterministic world has led us into a situation where our action is only a consequence. Let us explore various things that can determine our decision without us actually recognizing them consciously. These might include (not exhaustively):


  1. The family one is born into: for eg, a businessman’s son maybe more likely to be a businessman
  2. Actions of other around us: for eg, if you see everyone around opting for a certain college, one is more likely to aspire for the same college.
  3. World events: for eg, globalisation and exposure to new knowledge is likely to inspire more people to travel
  4. Surrounding climate: Research shows that in autumn/winters, people tend to be less optimistic and are hence likely to take lesser risks


It is not just events that occur outside that affect us even events within us that are not in control can determine our actions for example, change in hormones can lead one to make a different decision, mood swings can also impact decision making.


A classic case in point is the state of sexual arousal. It can be involuntary and can significantly affect the decisions that one makes.


The Consequences

Now, that we have established the existence of determinism i.e. our actions are determined by the past. Let us explore the implications.


Doubting an individual’s free will may absolve them on any responsibility for their actions and it may also be used as an excuse to behave as one likes. That is people are more likely to exploit loopholes and take shortcuts when exposed to arguments against free will. This can be understood by listening to common excuses people make to justify illegal acts. For example, child marriage is sometimes justified by the excuse ‘this is our culture’, corruption is justified by ‘this is how it works in this country’ or rape is justified by ‘boys will be boys’. All these excuses can be looked at as the individual attributing the problem to something that is much bigger and beyond them. In other words, something that is predetermined and not in their control. There are actual lab experiments to substantiate the argument like (The Value of Believing in Free Will by Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler) etc which are added in references. This understanding may lead to people becoming slack and even nihilistic in some cases.


This throws up an important question. Does the moral responsibility of an individual’s action rest with them? or since, it is already pre determined therefore, they are absolved of any responsibility.


The Revelation


“Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

-Arthur Schopenhauer


Free will and Determinism do not seem like a natural fit. How can a choice that has already be made free. But this compatibilism exists and it takes a paradigm shift in our perspective to be able to see it. Let me use a poker analogy to illustrate the argument. An individual cannot choose the hand that they are dealt with, but they can choose how they play that hand.


We can and we do make choices, even though these choices maybe be determined by past choices and events. The choice has to be made and as humans we have the ability to make a conscious decision but at the same we do live in a deterministic world, hence our ability to choose is limited. This begets a bigger question, is Free will really free in that case?


The answer in my opinion is yes. Like the Poker game, we can not choose the choices before us. Those are predetermined but we can choose what we make of those choices i.e. we can choose the choice that we want and hence, we are responsible for it.


Free will exists but it is enclosed in a box that is created by the deterministic nature of the world. Within that box, it is truly free but not so much outside it. Perhaps, it would be right to say that there is no such thing as universal free will.


Free will

We are born free but the ways of the world enslave us. For any success to be achieved at the individual level and then subsequently at the collective level, this freedom to make choices must be attained and earned. Most successful people are the ones who made things happens because success can not predetermined. We need these believers in free will, to succeed as a civilization because the rest will only accept while they will create.


The journey to freedom is a journey of self-awareness, it is a journey of exploration and a journey of growth. It involved critical thinking, opening oneself to knowledge and to not take life personally. The path is far away from the space of rights and wrongs, and prejudices and stereotypes. The path requires patience, persistence and openness.
Most people will live their lives under the illusion that they are free but some of them will really stop to introspect. These individuals are the ones who end up changing the world; because they will think. Mostly different.