Is Free Will an Illusion?

Posted on January 14, 2012


So I have an a-level philosophy exam in eleven days. One of the topics on the curriculum is free will and determinism, which I find fascinating, but simultaneously, equally as frightening. It’s one of the big questions that I think everyone will have found themselves asking at some point in life. Do we have freedom?

My thoughts on this question seem to be slowly leaning towards the answer – no. Multiple times, especially lately, I have found myself doing things which I know are wrong, which I know is only going to hurt myself, which I know I really shouldn’t, but I do it anyway. Now, I don’t know if that’s just a personal trait I have, or if this is something other people find happening a little too often too. But these experiences scream at me that I am controlled by external forces. I am determined.
In the realm of free will and determinism, the main questions involved are, what is freedom? Most people would define freedom as being able to do anything we want, as having ‘alternate possibilities’, being able to do something different if we were put in exactly the same situation again. This doctrine is labelled the liberty of indifference. Cognitively, we like to believe that this is true, and it makes sense that this is true. But when you really think about it, those doubts come creeping in. When we do something, we do it in harmony with our beliefs and our emotions. But, originally where did these beliefs and emotions come from? Beliefs are something we believe to be right, but didn’t these beliefs stem from parental influences, or social influences? Emotions are our feelings on a particular subject, what this subject provokes internally. But aren’t emotions a chemical result, which in turn may be pinned down to biology, genetics or psychology?

The analysis of cause and effect is vital when considering whether we have freedom. When we observe objects, we see that any movement or ‘effect’ was predetermined by something else. When I drop a ball on the ground, it falls because of the law of gravity. The cause is gravity, and the effect is that it falls. When looking from this perspective it seems logical to make the assumption that the same applies to us. But, are our observations of the world reliable evidence? Immanuel Kant would say no. He believed that we see the world through concepts, and these concepts structure what we see and in turn what we think. Phenomena is what we see, and noumena is reality in itself. We see causation in the world, but in reality, causation is false.

Another scholar, Sartre believed that ‘to be free is to be condemned to be free’. He was a libertarian and one of the biggest existentialist philosophers in philosophical history. He devised the belief that the world is meaningless. It is so meaningless and pointless that we force meaning onto things. We create social roles, like the teacher and the policeman, which he labelled Bad Faith. Sartre thought this was wrong, as we are not behaving freely by creating these social conventions. We are so free that it scares us, but he said that whatever we do, it doesn’t matter, as long as we do it freely.

Although this is an extremely pessimistic outlook on life, it seems plausible. There have been times where I’ve been terrified at how free I am. I’ve stood at a train station before and looked down at the rails and thought that I could jump in front of a train if I wanted to. There’s nothing stopping me. But on the other hand, I don’t do it, purely due to the excruciating thought of it. So, one might argue that maybe I’m not as free as I think. Although it feels like I could jump onto the tracks, I don’t because of the fear – and that fear controls my action.

We are a slave to our emotions. We trick ourselves into the notion of freedom. Freedom is an illusion. If we really want to do something, or we really don’t, we won’t, unless we have a very strong ability of going against our desires. And that’s something not many of us have.