Understanding Free Will

The subject of free will has fascinated me for a long time. I have wanted to learn about the subject for a number of reasons. The first time the subject drew my serious attention has a rather boring description. But the event was that a few acquaintances had broached up the topic and were trying to explain to each other what it means for a person to have free will. I had to remain quiet because I had no concrete explanation of the subject in my mind. However, that was the first time the subject drew my serious attention. Ever since then I have been interested in studying about various other reasons too. Why do people behave in one way or the other? Why do siblings fight with each other whereas they could be affectionate with each other at the very same time. Similarly, why should we be jealous of a friend or cousin when he/she tells us about his/her recent achievement, whereas we could have felt happier and could have had a congratulatory appearance at the same time?

Why should we prefer to choose one thing over the other? Are we free to make our choices and act on them? And what are the consequences of acting upon our choices, no matter how good or bad they are? Why does a good person end up in a jail and a person who is perceived to be mean by people become a member of the parliament? These and many other questions inspired me to read and understand about the subject of free will. This article is a summary of my understanding that I developed after reading articles from various writers. I must mention that the explanations I have found most lucid about this subject are those of Sam Harris.

On a very coarse level free will can be defined as the ability to make choices under certain constraints. This means that a person is both free to choose and also act upon his/her choices while not violating the constraints which define boundaries for his/her actions. A more refined definition of free will is the ability to choose. The ability to act is called as volition. Another term that is associated with free will is determinism. The theory of determinism suggests that everything we do or choose to do is already predetermined and that we are not free either in making choices or in acting upon them. Between free will and determinism there is a spectrum of positions that vary between soft and hard determinism. However, to keep the discourse simple, for me at least, I will stick only to the presence or absence of free will. The position that free will does not exist can be explained with the help of the following example.

Assuming that you have read this article up to this point this can be done fairly easily. Assume that now I ask you to judge this article on a scale between 1– 5 for its quality of content. Depending upon whether you are a casual or a seasoned internet user you may find this task absolutely boring or quite interesting. You may also have a mixture of feelings. On one hand you may feel like totally abandoning this article as crap and doing something else instead. At the same time you may think that it may be an interesting thing to rate an article for its content. You might think that it may hone your skills as a reader and a reviewer. At the same time you think that it is absolutely trivial and useless both to write and read about something as monotonous as free will. But then you think to give it a try. You may get motivated by thinking that you may grasp a few nice ideas for writing something more interesting. At the same time you are aware that you have to attend to the eggs that you have put on the stove to boil. You feel like leaving this computer of your’s and going to the kitchen. But then you decide to hang on for a few moments till the time you reach the end of this paragraph.

If I have portrayed your thought process to some degree of accuracy while you were reading the above paragraph then indeed you have had a stampede of thoughts. A midst all of those thoughts, ideas and feelings you have managed to read this blog post to this point. You don’t know exactly why you are reading it. But your eyes are slipping through line after line and you think that it is worth reading it. Indeed, if you have read it through to this point, you are pretty much engaged with this article by now. You do not know exactly why you are reading this or whether you like it or not. You even do not know exactly why you opened this article in the first place and started reading it and kept on doing so, whereas you had other tasks to complete too. Bingo! You have finished reading another paragraph.

If you are a neuroscientist, or you know someone closely who is a neuroscientist, you may get an explanation from the point of view of electrical activity in your brain. You may be told, or you may have learnt, that your choices are governed by complex electrical activity in your brain that take place on the level of synapses and neurons. You may argue that it is actually the chemical reactions in your brain that govern your behavior in the present moment. Let’s call it the electrochemistry of your brain for the sake of simplicity. You may even believe that you are not consciously choosing to read these words as they slip before your eyes. Instead you may believe that the decision to keep on reading through moment by moment has already been made by the temporal lobe of your brain a few microseconds (or milliseconds) in advance of what you are currently reading. This kind of reasoning is brought forward by the opponents of the existence of free will camp to argue that it does not exist. Irrespective of whether you are a proponent of this line of reasoning or not interested in it at all, it might be altogether mysterious to you as to why you have read this article through to another paragraph.

In the same way as I have tried to explain my understanding of the non-existence of free will, anyone can try to explain its existence. Consider now to look at things from my vantage point. In the same way as you may be baffled about why at all have you read this article, I might be confused on as to why I have written it in the first place. Is it all about electrical impulses, auroral charges, and whims of the mind through which I have grown out to write this. Among a myriad of things on my to-do-list for today why did I write this article at all? Indeed I thought about writing about free will a few months ago. This has al most been a year that I thought that I should write my thoughts about the subject of free will. The reason is that I find the subject both fascinating and challenging. Indeed, one of the most challenging things in the world is to satiate the intellectual curiosity of a philosopher. And free will is a subject that very much falls under the umbrella of philosophy.

In as much as I wanted to write about free will, I kept on postponing it. I have listed the reasons why I wanted to write about it above. But what are the reasons due to which I have been postponing it to this point. Well, there are quite a few reasons indeed. One of them is procrastination. Another is the fear that I may end up writing something stupid. The underlying guilt that I want to gain attention is another reason for holding back for so long. Another reason is that it sounds all the more pretentious to be publishing one’s thoughts in the public domain. It is a blog post that I am writing after all!

But no matter what the reasons may be, I have at last chosen to write about this subject. This, out of the choices I had (i.e. to write or not to write about free will), and irrespective of all the reasons for writing or not writing about this topic, I have at last chosen to consciously write about it. And as you have reached the end of this article I would conclude it by saying that this ability of humans to make deliberate choices suggests that we do indeed have free will. May Allah help us in using it well.

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