Free Will by Subhadra Jayaraman

What do you want to choose? Science or Math? Hindi or Sanskrit? Purple or green? City or the countryside? Family or career? Medicine or engineering? Strawberry or vanilla? Peace or war?

This article is about the concept of free will – the power of acting without the constraints of necessity or fate. Hence, by definition, free will cannot be determined for each individual because the way they think or react is unpredictable, as it lies beyond the realms of pre-determined destiny. Free will is anchored in self-determination. Enter neuroscience – it defines the brain as any other physical entity that functions in chemically and electrically finite ways. So theoretically, if we can unravel anyone’s brain chemistry and function, we could predict their response to any stimulus or situation with alarming accuracy. ‘Free will’ then becomes an insignificant notion.

Most of us are often deceived by the craziness the concept infers rather than its underlying meaning. I want to dress up as Batman and parade down Times Square or even Ranganathan Street – it would be received differently, but I can still totally do it and come out of it a freak or a celebrity or perhaps just be ignored. If I then conclude that I have free will, that would be absurd. But free will is more complicated than whims and fancies. As hard as it is to comprehend, the very fact that one doesn’t believe in free will, is found to be a measure of their social behavior.

Can your abstract psychological belief on free will determine your social behavior? One study by Kathleen Vohs in the University of Utah found that people who do not subscribe to free will were more inclined to cheat in tests and pilfer money when given the opportunity. It seemed that when people didn’t believe that they were free agents, they were quick to renounce responsibility for their actions. Another one of the same group’s studies measured work performance of laborers after categorizing them into believers and non-believers of ‘free will’. They found that those who believed they were free agents turned up on time to work and won more appraisals than those who didn’t.

Multiple other studies have corroborated this notion that belief in free will makes people more responsible for their actions and consequently more creative, productive, and effective. And those who don’t believe in it are less willing to correct their mistakes or help others.

If we believe in determinism, then we would not need to take any blame or responsibility for our actions. But the other side to that story is that we would also receive no praise for anything we do – if there was no free will and we just did what was anyway predetermined, then who are we to claim fame or blame? This would make our heroes less heroic, villains less evil, and everything less emotional.

Functionally, these are my thoughts – the supposed ability to act as freely as the human mind will allow is not determined by human imagination, but human boundaries. The only way this illusion works is by capitalizing on people’s limited imaginations. ‘You can do whatever you want’ works because there is hardly anything your limited mind could want that hasn’t already been proposed. But should we allow ourselves to believe in this illusion or at least be agnostic about it because if not for the impression of free will, why do we do anything we do?

So now what do you want to choose? To believe or not to believe?

2 comments

  1. Of course, there is freewill. I am compelled to exercise it all the time.

    Freewill means choosing.

    “Your tendency, your proclivities, your inclination, your social background, religion – all that pushes you in a certain direction, and you say you are choosing”. (J. Krishnamurti).

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  2. I don’t think we can call free will an “illusion”. A man walks into a restaurant, browses the menu, calls the waiter over, and says “I will have a cup of coffee and the French Toast, please”. The waiter brings him the meal and later brings him the bill, holding him responsible for his deliberate act.

    As we watch this happen, are WE having an illusion? I don’t think so. Free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, while free of coercion and other forms of undue influence. We just saw it happen, right there in front of us.

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