This is an article almost 18 months in the making, spurred on from 2017 by a friend’s inebriated snap with the caption “lol free will doesn’t exist.” Almost instantly, the image and its statement were seared directly into my brain. How can you even claim something as complex as that in one short sentence? And to preface it with an “lol” no less? Needless to say that night still haunts me.
My reaction was an oblong and awkward defense, claiming that even if we didn’t have free will, I couldn’t possibly function under some hopeless assumption that we don’t have any control. So why does it matter? That still doesn’t answer the question, or at the very least fails to determine where I stand on the issue, most importantly.
My stance only solidified this semester, with a rather peculiar start to a philosophy course. The class — a Topics in Philosophy course on existentialism — began by reading the selection “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean-Paul Sartre. The piece began with explaining how human existence itself should be the highest priority, not religion or the state or reason. In this, he concludes that a given person should be judged entirely on the results of their actions, not considering things like circumstance, aptitude, or unrealized potential. Granted, he does frame this with the explanation that, without any absolutely set morals or codes, who are we to call any given life good or bad? Or better or worse than another? However, I absolutely recoiled at the notion of casting circumstances aside.
The situations that somebody is born into and their genetics are going to play a monumental role in determining how their life turns out and absolutely cannot be ignored, I concluded. With this, I realized just how Deterministic my biological and sociological worldviews were and — much to my disgust— how much I agreed with that haunting snap from 2017.
Volumes of dissertation after dissertation have been written about all of my reasonings, so I’ll try to keep my explanations short.
First of all, as a biomedical engineering major, modern science has yet to discover anything concrete that makes life “life-y.” On a basic level, the cells that make up our body function as machines. Their processes, complex as they may be, will always have causation. The cell cannot act with consciousness. Then, we are just a large collection of smaller machines, a big machine only functioning on an impossibly more complex web of causations — but with causations nonetheless.
Further, familial and genetic predispositions for alcoholism, depression, incredible athleticism, or an almost infinite number of traits can have monumental impacts on lives. With the genome’s ability to biologically determine what you can or can’t do — winning an Olympic race or struggling to get out of bed, the two not mutually exclusive — the true freedom of a given life is limited.
Sociologically, the circumstances of your birth and the environment you are born into also have an ultra-significant impact on life. Being born into poverty has much greater implications than “needing to work with a little more grit and bootstrap-pulling,” setting many obstacles in the way of opportunities or self-fulfillment. This line of thinking doesn’t abandon the possibility of free will in the course of life, but it definitely places one's environment and happenstances above any real personal impact.
Maybe the take-away from this should be that determining factors give life more of a “Free Will - On Rails” guided experience than anything, or that the conception of “life” that free will would determine is hardly even existent at all. Maybe, still, it doesn’t even matter if free will exists or not, so long as you keep on living your life the way that you have.
I may not have the same level of confidence to get my ideas out as that 2017 Cursed SnapchatTM, but at least I have definitely made up my mind some 18 months later. Most definitely, after much deliberation, that image of traditional, unbridled free will is a farce.