Google describes free will as “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion”. But what does “at one’s own discretion” mean exactly? It’s a difficult thing to articulate well. But I take it to mean that during the process of making a choice, the person had equal opportunity to choose something else.
A lot of discussion around this topic often gets tangled up in what’s happening in the brain or if the decision is being made in the brain at all. I will focus on free will or choice at the most abstract level of logic to explore the possibility of the concept of free will. Following this line of thinking, it won’t matter if the decision is actually being made in the brain or in the soul.
The mechanics of a decision
Let’s imagine a conundrum we have to face in everyday life: vanilla or chocolate. Imagine a person going to an ice-cream shop and it has only two flavors: vanilla and chocolate (outrageous, I know, but consider it for a moment). How can a decision like this be made?
Any decision process has three parts: the parameters, the mechanism or logic, and the decision. The parameters are anything and everything that can influence the decision. In the previous example, it can be the time of the day, the lighting in the store, the season, or anything else that can influence the decision. The mechanism or logic is the system that takes those parameters into account and produces a decision. It could be a software-based logic, a mechanical system, or a biological system.
At the most fundamental level, one of the following logic or mechanisms is required to make a decision:
Based on previous experience
A mixture of the above
This one is pretty simple. The choice does not depend on the parameters at all. The decision is made randomly every time. I’m skeptical that “true random” actually exists since most of the things people thought at first were random have actually turned out to be not so. And the only random things we know at the moment are subatomic items and their behaviors. But the sake of the argument, let’s just consider the possibility. Every time a person goes to buy some ice cream, they just pick a flavor at random.
This is simple as well. Consider this a mathematical function. A fixed mechanism is defined to produce a decision based on parameters. For the same parameters, the results will always be the same. In the real world, this could look like a choice based on parameters such as time of day or day of the week. If it’s Monday, the person will always choose vanilla, chocolate if it’s Friday. You can find examples of this in things like mechanical calculators or similar devices.
This is just an augmentation of the previous example, in my opinion. You have a mechanism to produce a decision but the logic of that mechanism changes each time a decision is made. The change could be based on parameters including external factors or the decision. It’s like you’ve had chocolate for the past 4 days, now you want to try something different. Your logic was influenced by your previous decisions. Or you have some kind of bad experience with chocolate and you’re forever disgusted by it (🥲).
A bit of everything
I would say that human decisions most likely fall into this category. There is always a bit of random since our brains are based on physical atoms and molecules. And the brains also have wiring of mechanisms in the form of neurons and conditioning/positioning of other cells. This wiring is initially based on your genes and how the body develops as an embryo and changes based on all the stimuli you’re subjected to. This includes all of your senses but also all of the thoughts and biological operations that are constantly going on.
Where is the free will?
In all of the scenarios above, you can see that it was not really possible to choose otherwise. Of course, a different choice was available but it was never reachable. Try to simulate how a decision could be made, you will find that it will always be one of these ways. But surely there must be other ways a free will could exist, you say. Okay, what are those other ways?
A freewill that comes from the soul
The concept of the decision coming from the soul does seem to solve this problem on the surface. If a free decision is not possible in the physical realm, maybe the metaphysical doesn’t have the same constraints. Let’s say that the soul is responsible make decisions. How will the soul make those decisions? Does the soul have a fixed personality? If so, that would fall into the “fixed logic” category. Or does the soul change over time? Then the “experience-based decisions” category would apply. The mechanisms I’ve stated above apply to any decision being made at the most fundamental level, be it a brain or a soul.
So what now?
Nothing, just be kind to people. Now that you know that people are constrained to do what they do, I hope that your decision-making logic is altered as a result, and you’d try to be kinder to yourself and others.
Also, if you’ve spotted any flaw in my reasoning, I’d be grateful if you let me know!