The first time I was stumped by the terrifying question of whether or not humans had free will was when I picked up “Willful Machines” by Tim Floreen. The back cover of the book had words on it that almost gave me an existential crisis – in a bookstore, at noon. Although, Floreen’s futuristic fiction does not revolve around the idea of free will, it explores it in a very intriguing way. The excerpt was as follows:
“My question is this…’How are human beings any different from machines? My dad’s always saying humans have free will and that makes us unique. But aren’t our choices determined by our programming too? Our genes and our environment and all that? Aren’t we basically just robots ourselves?’ Dr. Singh sat back from her desk and regarded me with a faint smile. ‘You know something? That reminds me of an old joke. The first guy asks the second guy, ‘Do you believe in free will?’ The second guy answers, ‘I have no choice.’”
The philosophical question regarding whether or not humans possess the power to do as they please or if their actions are dictated by outside forces, of which they are not aware, has long been argued throughout history. Its origin dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans but to this day, there is no hard evidence on either side of the argument, that may be the tipping point towards what is the truth. The idea that each individual has free will, in their lives and in their actions, is criticized by philosophers and scientists that argue for determinism – the belief that each and every event, including your decisions, are certain and occur as a result of every little thought, occurrence, and circumstance that came before it. This condemnation of the feeling of choice or will, most people think they have, is further supported by the fact that your brain, a collection of atoms, dictates what you do. It is a biological feature and therefore, it is possible that your choices can be scientifically explained and reasonably predicted. Other critics, most prominently those who follow a religion, believe in the idea of fate and that everything you are, everything you think, everything you do has been decided for you. It has been written who you are and where you will go in life. The story of Oedipus is a popular example of how fate is inescapable. Oedipus is left abandoned, to die, by his father when it is prophesized that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Instead of dying, he is adopted by another family, who stumbles across him – through what most would argue is fate. Once he comes of age, he discovers his prophecy and to prevent this from occurring, he leaves what he believes is his “real family”. On his journey, away from his adoptive parents, he encounters a man who he kills. He then proceeds to marry this man’s wife. The man turns out to be his biological father and the man’s wife – Oedipus’ biological mother. The tale demonstrates that Oedipus’ fate was inevitable. It did not matter how Oedipus or his father tried to escape their destiny because as much as they might have believed they had free will and therefore, did not have to submit to this horrible occurrence, they never truly had a choice about the outcome of their lives. Many of our decisions are based on how our parents raise us, how much schooling we have, where we live, our government, the laws we must abide by and how we are biologically prone to certain illnesses, emotions, and physical features. Could it be that we think we have choices but because of both internal and external features we will always act in a certain way, just as everything else in the universe? Just as Oedipus could not escape his fate, just as the day turns to night, as a dog will always choose more food over less, and as countless chemical reactions occur in our brains every second, are our decisions all fate and science? Or should we believe what we feel – that we are free and no one and nothing controls us?