Why Are You Reading This Right Now?
Why are you reading this right now? Did you choose to open up your laptop, type “Academy 4 Social Change” into your search bar, and click a series of links that led to this lesson? You could have freely chosen to click on a different lesson, typed “funny cat pictures” into your search bar, or gone for a jog instead of opening your laptop. Or could you? Maybe you’re on your laptop because it’s raining outside. Maybe you typed “Academy 4 Social Change” and clicked those links only because the neural impulses from your brain told your fingers to do so. You did not make it rain outside. You did not consciously perform the chemical reactions in your brain that created the actions you have taken up to this point. These things happened naturally; they were beyond your control. So, did you choose to be here right now? Or did a cascade of purely physical events propel you to this exact moment?
The answers to the previous questions are the subject of a centuries-old debate. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, physicists, and many other scholars have long tried to determine whether humans control their actions with their consciences, or the physical laws of the universe dictate the way events occur. The latter explanation is intertwined with religion in that if God created the universe and its laws, He has ultimate control over human thought and behavior. In other words, they struggle to say definitively whether human thought and behavior are governed by free will or are predetermined by external, uncontrollable factors.
Free will is the idea that we have control over our actions, that we choose when to act and what actions to perform. We act on our own volition and are free to choose our behaviors. Free will is tied to the notion that we have a conscience and it undeniably feels like we are free to choose what we do. Free will only works according to what philosophers call the “principle of alternate possibilities.” The principle states that “an action is only free if the agent could have done otherwise.” In other words, an action is truly free if there were other options to take in that situation. The fact that an agent chose one option over another indicates free will over their thoughts and behavior.
Determinism, on the other hand, states that all actions are part of a cause-and-effect sequence, down to the atomic level. We do not govern our actions; rather, they are the results of physical or other external forces over which we have no control. Hard determinism contends that everything in the universe is part of a causal chain, such that there is ostensibly no other possible way for events to turn out. According to hard determinists, even the thoughts we think are the product of neural reactions that occur only in response to events that preceded them. Those events are the result of prior events, and so on from the beginning of time. Religious determinists contend that God created the universe and its laws, so the fated nature of human existence stems from His power.
Soft determinism offers a middle ground between true free will and hard determinism. This school of thought proposes that we have some semblance of free will in our actions, but our choices are still constrained by factors beyond our control. Such factors include the environment or the socioeconomic status we are born into. For example, an impoverished family may choose to eat a microwave dinner over boxed cereal, but they could not have chosen to eat caviar because they cannot afford it.
Determinism offers a compelling argument for why things are the way that they are. It has more credibility from a scientific standpoint than free will does. Objectively, hard determinism can be explained in purely scientific terms. But, it is subjectively uncomfortable to relinquish control of our thoughts and actions to external forces. On the other hand, free will subjectively feels right—it feels better to think that we have control over our thoughts and actions. Free will is harder to explain on a scientific level, though, so the camp remains split on which theory is correct.
Regardless of which ideology is correct, each has important implications for how people behave as effectual citizens. Hard determinists sometimes take a defeatist stance on life. They think, “If everything is predetermined and I have no power to change the outcome, what is the point of trying to affect change in my life or the lives of others?” This decreases productivity and pleasure one may find in life, which is harmful not only to the individual, but to all of society if that belief is widespread. Alternatively, a belief in free will confers a belief that one can take control over their life. They can set goals and use their aspirations to create positive change for themselves and the people around them. Whether free will or determinism is the correct interpretation of human behavior may be impossible to say for certain, but whichever you conform to can inform your role in affecting change in your community.