I have a long history with the concept of Free Will, from my earliest philosophical notions as a child, through my school years and finally with prolonged focus during my philosophy degree. Whilst I am quite comfortable with my position on the issue, we’ll engage in a little Hegelian dialectic in order to show both sides of this story.

The concept of Free Will suggests that as humans, we are to an extent “free agents” – we can create our own pathway through life, largely free from external influences. Many put this freedom down to our seemingly unique level of consciousness when compared to animals, plants or inanimate objects. Others put it down to a divine gift from God which mankind has been bestowed with.

The antithesis of this view is termed Determinism. Determinists believe causality is the fundamental reality of the universe, including human actions. Whilst there are varying flavours and strengths of Determinism, a Strong Determinist disagrees entirely with the position of advocates of Free Will – they say that everything we perceive in the universe proceeds down causal pathways, with effects leading to causes, and that human agency is no different; we should not prioritise human experience over everything else we can observe in the universe.

In approaching a synthesis of these ideas, I can understand why humans would like to describe their experience of reality as “free”. As humans, we can’t always understand why we act in certain ways, or why others behave in certain ways. At the same time, we can almost always reach some kind of understanding of why we act in certain ways: even if I know eating the cake is going to make me fat, I still do it because my pleasure in eating cake is more important to me in that moment than my future waistline.

My personal view is that not only do we not possess “free will”, but that the very concept of a “free choice” is flawed. I grew from a few cells into a human inside my mother, was born, raised and come to where I am today down a certain path. This path was influenced by many things, from the predispositions of my DNA to the state and physical laws of the universe around me. The lives of all other humans as well as other animals influenced me to coming to the position I’m in now. The memories, aversions and preferences I have all have their root in something or other, none are simply arbitrary if understood to a sufficient degree. As such, every decision or “choice” that I make, every action I take, is from a certain basis. Perhaps the basis is hugely flawed; for example, eating the cake, but it is at least reasoned from somewhere. If I understood my brain, my current physical state and the state of the rest of the universe to a sufficient degree, I could predict my decisions ahead of time. This may sound controversial, but let’s consider the alternative.

What would a “free choice” look like? To be truly free, it must be to some extent independent of external or predictable causes. So for instance, perhaps I hate cats, and then one day I decide to buy a cat. Have I freely chosen to do this seemingly illogical act? Where has this crazy idea come from? Perhaps the answer is just that – my brain has malfunctioned in such a way as to persuade me to buy a cat. What causes such a malfunction? Let’s say it’s physical in nature, a particular pattern of neurons firing in a certain way which is the opposite of what normally happens, because I banged my head or ate a dodgy bagel or didn’t sleep for fifty hours straight browsing TotJO. Again, if I had understood the affect of this leading to the (mis)firing of my neurons, I could’ve predicted my purchase of a cat.

And even then, is this a “choice”? Could anything be meaningfully described as a choice if it’s not based on my previously-held preferences or desires or experiences (etc)? Can I “choose” to act against the position my actions arise from, any more than I can “choose” to fly? Our actions are constrained by patterns, of thought and belief and behaviour, and the physical nature of reality. A “free” action can only meaningfully describe a random event, which is by definition not “chosen”. Therefore we can’t possess free will.

So where does this pervasive notion of freedom come from? It’s a simple trick of the ego. Is it reassuring to believe our destiny is laid out before us? For some, yes, but for others this seems a horrible trap which they can never escape, so there’s every reason for them to fabricate some version of reality in which they don’t need to face the reality of the situation. But do we observe anywhere else in all reality non-causal events, in which “causes” just pop into being and start new chains of effects, in the way “free will” describes? People make appeals to chaos, the “butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane”. The fact is, chaos is not a real thing. A system may seem chaotic from a limited perspective of understanding, but understood properly, from the tiny gusts of butterflies wings to the evaporation and tidal forces of every ocean in the world, a hurricane could be predicted.

Humans don’t like to accept that their understanding is incomplete; it seems weak. Some advocates of a weak Free Will position suggest that because there is no functional difference between a system with free will and a deterministic system we simply can’t understand to a sufficient degree, we “might as well” call the unpredictability of human actions free will, a position which reminds me of a quote by Arthur C. Clarke:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

Thus, because we don’t sufficiently understand the causal system, let’s just call this particular part of it something special. As Jedi, we recognise we will never understand everything and focus on understanding what is most useful. We recognise the system has “rules”, even if we don’t know what they are. But we also recognise that causes have effects. We discard comfortable or egoistic delusions others use to ignore the reality of the situation and move from a position of ignorance to one of wisdom. We value truth. As such, we must reject notions of free will.

So what are the implications of this rejection? Should we release murderers from prison, because they “couldn’t have avoided” killing someone in what is essentially a pre-destined system? Well, that depends on your beliefs over the nature of imprisonment. As we have an imperfect understanding of the overarching structure of reality, we can’t guarantee the murderer once freed wouldn’t kill again, so there’s a good reason to keep them locked up. Also, we can’t guarantee that during their period of penance they won’t “find God” or achieve some higher understanding of their actions which could lead to other positive factors. Unfortunately we also can’t guarantee they’re not going to get shanked and bleed to death in the showers, although we can do whatever possible to avoid that. The fact is there is no functional difference in a world in which free will exists, and one in which it doesn’t, unless we have a significant understanding of the overarching system allowing us to predict human behaviour.

And, to some extent, we do have this. We know human tendencies and common patterns in human behaviour, leading to advances in psychology and many other things. If humans were entirely free, could this be possible? If humans have predispositions at all, doesn’t that discount any notion of true freedom? We have an understanding of human consciousness to the point where there is simply “a little wiggle room” in human behaviour. With a better understanding on both a micro and macro level, we could reduce this wiggle room further. We’ll probably never reach a Minority Report-style understanding which would allow us to stop murders before they happen (although police do this now to an extent, using patterns of behaviour to detect would-be killers before they can carry out their intent) because the system is so complex, and our capacity to understand it so limited – but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the reality of the situation and pretend humans have some “special power” we don’t see anywhere else in the universe. We are Jedi and we value truth, and the truth is reality is causal in nature.

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