Every day, from the moment we wake up, we make choices. Ranging from what to have for breakfast to how much effort we want to put into our courses. Our lives basically consist of the choices that we make. They’re like building blocks: for every decision that we make, the structure of our lives starts to take shape. It seems to us like we’re the ones in control of this structure. We often have a variety of choices, and it is through deliberation that we decide how to act. When we choose to study in Edinburgh instead of Manchester, we feel like we could have decided otherwise. The road not taken was a genuine possibility.
Yet, we’ve all felt at times like victims of fate, destiny, or whatever you want to call it. We feel like everything that happens is a result of something else, that our actions are the result of some other force. And, most importantly, we feel like we don’t have control over whatever that force is. We couldn’t have chosen to study in Manchester unless whatever drove us to do so had been different, and the cause of that thing had been different, and so on. From this perspective, our choices and actions seem to be mere links in a causal chain that is entirely out of our control.
The question of whether we have free will stems from an innate tension between these two general features of our worldview. Having free will is a matter of having at least some kind of control over our actions. The matter, then, lies in what kind of control over our actions is free will supposed to be? Is it moral accountability? Having the ability to do otherwise? Or choosing in the right way?
Many philosophers have held many different views. Descartes argued that we are most free when we act in light of the strongest possible reasons. These are the actions that are most free and most under our control, he argued, even though it seems we couldn’t act otherwise. Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, believed that human freedom is anguish in the face of having the ability to do otherwise. I find myself on either side of this spectrum.
For another player comes into play at this point in the debate: determinism. Determinism is the theory that everything in the world was already fixed by the initial state of the universe in such a way that the fate of the universe is already determined. Basically, free will is an illusion that makes us believe we have the power to make decisions, but in reality, we are puppets of natural law.
Which one is it, then? I don’t have the answer. The matter of whether we have any sort of freedom over ourselves or our actions will probably remain unanswered during our lifetimes. We have little to do but accept our fate, buckle up, and ride this wave through.
I am of the philosophy, however, that all that we can do—all that truly matters, ultimately—is our experience on this Earth. Whether there’s an afterlife or not, we don’t know. So, we should make the most of our time alive. And it is in that “making the most of” where, I believe, lies the key to the matter of our free will. We’ve already established that there’s little we can do to find out the truth of our existence—however, we can just simply do our best. Perhaps we’ll never know if doing our best was written in the stars or if it was our conscious choice. But it’s still the best we can do.
Take control of your life. Know your objectives, whatever they are, and strive to make them come true. At the end of the day, all we can be sure of is our relationship to ourselves. All we can do is strive to lay our heads on our pillows at the end of the day and be satisfied with what we’ve done. We are the ones that create the principles and values that rule our life. It doesn’t matter where we take them from—be it religion, philosophy, feminism or socialism. The important thing is that we take responsibility for our choices and actions.
Let our human, intrinsic belief in free will rule your conscience. We may end up being cogs in a machine, but, for now, we decide our future. It is within reach—you just have to take it.
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