It’s very likely that most people think that we’re free in what we want, what we want to do, what we want to think or say, or where we want to go. Depending on how you view free will, that’s true. Or not.
There are a few philosophical positions on the matter of free will. I will discuss the two main positions: “libertarianism” and “determinism”.
Let’s start with determinism first, shall we?
The theory of determinism suggests that every type of event (including human cognition) has been determined by previous events. Those two events would have a “causal” relationship.
Last week*, I heard a certain song on tv. Instantly, I got a huge craving for a certain type of cookies. What I didn’t know at that moment, is that that song is used in a commercial for those cookies. I craved those cookies so badly! So badly I asked my boyfriend to go pick up some of the cookies if he passed a store on his way home.
This would suggest that I was not free in the choice I made – wanting and buying those cookies. I was influenced by an external stimulus: the song used in the commercial.
(* This is a hypothetical situation to show you the argument of a determinist.)
You could say that this would be an example of good marketing, but I’d say those marketeers are just really well aware of how conditioning works. The essence of commercials is to repeat something as often as possible so that it becomes ingrained in the minds of countless people. Like me, all those people would be triggered subconsciously to go buy their cookies.
This counts for (nearly?) every event. Especially the hard determinists would agree with me on that. The hard determinist believes that there is no free will whatsoever – everything we do (or think, or want) has a cause, and we have been influenced by prior events to do as we do. Whether it is conditioning through commercials, your genetic makeup, or subconsciously wanting to be accepted by a certain group of people.
Libertarianism of metaphysics should not be confused with the political libertarianism. I did this myself initially (and to make at least a little excuse for myself… We don’t have a political libertarian party or group in The Netherlands). Political libertarians believe that every person has rights to their own body and (rightly) acquired property.
Philosophical libertarians believe in free will. They think that everyone has the ability to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances. They believe that nothing is determined.
Let’s take the example of the cookies again.
What if I thought about why I was craving those cookies, before acting on the craving? I could tell myself “I don’t want those cookies, I don’t even like them”. That means that I would have made my choice, in free will, based on reason.
Fate and coincidence
Topics of much discussion that are essentially about free will are fate and coincidence.
Fate is a very (hard) determinist way of seeing things. Everything would be predestined, or perhaps it would be as they often said in Battlestar Galactica, and I quote: “all this has happened before, and will happen again” (the concept of “eternal return”). If all of what the characters in BSG were doing had already happened before, and would happen again, they didn’t have much of a free will in what they were doing.
What if not even conditioning had anything to do with me craving those cookies? What if that was “meant to be”? (Perhaps “meant to be” is a big term to throw at some cookies…)
Coincidence, on the other hand, is an extreme libertarian concept. In a coincidence, there are no causal relationships. What if everything was a coincidence? Perhaps me first seeing the cookies commercial on tv was a coincidence, then hearing the song separately was a coincidence, and then me craving the cookies was a coincidence? Perhaps my mind hadn’t even made the connection between the commercial and the song and the cookies? Maybe I just thought of it that way, that I was being triggered by the commercial, because I just read an article on conditioning – by coincidence.
I don’t think fate or coincidence exist (okay maybe coincidence does exist… but only a little!). I personally prefer the determinist way of thinking. I think that’s partially to blame on my knowledge of the neuroscience behind decisionmaking, which I will elaborate on next Tuesday.
Do you prefer to see thing the libertarian way or the determinist way? Has your idea on this philosophy been influenced by other ideas on this matter, in for instance religion or stories?