Free Will: Is this the real life… Is this just fantasy?

“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.”
― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

When you were getting ready in the morning, did you choose the colour of the shirt you would wear today? Do you arbitrarily choose what dish you want to order at a restaurant? Did you voluntarily choose the subject of your undergraduate degree?

All these questions refer to the choice we have, while making decisions in life. The ability to make that choice is what we call free will. Free will is the ability of an agent to select an option (a behavior, an object, a course etc.) from a set of alternatives (Mick, 2008) .

Most people believe that they have free will, and they control their decisions. However, many psychologists and philosophers refute the idea of free will with the idea of determinism. Philosophy defines determinism as a notion that every event or state of affairs, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable and necessary consequence of the antecedent states of affairs. Putting it in simpler terms- all our actions are pre-determined, and we do not really have the freedom of ‘choosing what we want to do’. Daniel Wegner, in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002), states that free will is just an illusion, and we attribute it to be the cause of events, whose actual causes we don’t really understand.

To test whether people really have free will, Benjamin Libet (1982) conducted an experiment, where he measured cerebral activity, and found out that freely, voluntary acts were preceded by a specific electrical change (readiness potential ‘RP’)  in the brain that began about 550 ms before the act. Human subjects became aware of the intention to act 350–400 ms after the RP began, but 200 ms before the motor act. He therefore concluded that the volitional process was initiated unconsciously (through a set of neurological functions), but the conscious function could still control the outcome. Hence, even though his experiments indicated that the choice made by people was not random, but predetermined, the existence of free will could not be completely eliminated.

Furthermore, even in the field of criminology, there is a long standing argument that we do not have free will; therefore, a person’s criminal behavior is determined by environmental, biological and social factors. Many have used this argument in the court of law to justify transgressions. But arguments of this nature haven’t found many takers in the legal system. For instance, American courts are not likely to warm up to the idea of genetic causes behind crime, and tend to stress on the fact the people have the free will to choose between right and wrong (Jones, 2003). Hence, even within the justice system, there is no clear acceptance or rejection of free will.

But what if we do indeed make choices consciously, and only come to know about them much later? Does that mean free will really exists, but we all have misinterpreted how it exactly  happens?  Holton (2004), in his review Wegner’s book The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002) stated that precursor events might be genuinely mental events of which the subject is not aware about until later. This leads to a whole different set of ideas about how free will operates.

People have argued strongly for and against free will, but none seem to have reached a consensus about it. One of the oldest questions to plague the field of psychology still remains unresolved. When I decided to write about this topic, was it my freedom of choice or was it some predetermined set of biological and neurological functions?

Sampada Karandikar