I believe in free will. I believe the things we do are not predetermined, and that human actions are more than mere links in a long chain of causes and effects. I believe we have real choices to make in life.
I have no evidence to support my belief. Physics tells us the universe is deterministic on all but the smallest levels. Event A causes Event B, which causes Event C, and so on throughout eternity. Every molecule of our being is under the control of the same physical laws that govern the motion of the planets and stars. If the mind is a product of the brain, as it seems to be, and our brain is a physical thing, as it surely is, then our thoughts, beliefs, and actions are ultimately controlled by these laws too. We may not be able to predict them, due to their complexity, but they nevertheless seem fixed, just as the break in a game of billiards is fixed at the moment the cue strikes the cue ball.
The apparent randomness that quantum mechanics introduces offers little hope for free will either. Why should a choice be any freer simply because it includes an element of randomness? We wouldn’t call someone “free” who made all his or her decisions by flipping a coin. No, it seems that science leaves little room for free will.
Yet I believe in it all the same. It is my supreme act of faith. My belief that human action transcends the normal chains of cause and effect allows me to find meaning in my actions, to see my choices as important, and to conceive of myself as something greater than a cog in the vast, complicated machinery of the universe. On some deep level, I believe that human consciousness is special. We are different from the other things in the world in that we are not regulated by nature’s strict determinism. We are all prime movers.
William James, upon making this same leap of faith at the age of 28 and thereby lifting himself out of a deep funk, announced that his first act of free will would be to believe in free will. A similar leap is required of us all if we are to live as human beings in the world. Even the most committed atheist or materialist must subscribe to the doctrine of free will on some level. Without it, we face despair.
Indeed, free will is the basis upon which all meaning in life is built. The debate over whether it exists is moot, for there can be but one answer.
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