Disclaimer: I retain the right to use terrible (or amazing, depending on how cool you are. I’ll let you decide which means what) puns at my discretion, and will bear no responsibility for any offense caused as a result of consuming the title of this blog with your eyes.
We all go through every day of our lives making choices. Whether it be the choice to read this next word, or the choice to look up into the corner of the room and try to remember whether you have any milk left in the fridge. Some things seem more automatic than others, such as scratching your neck if it’s itching, or twiddling your feet whilst you’re sat down, whereas others seem far more thought-out and well-considered, such as which movie we want to watch later, or which university we want to study at. Whilst we believe that we have choice when it comes to our actions, we typically agree that there are some things that we cannot control, or rather have very little control over, such as traffic, or the weather (unless we emit millions of tons of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere over hundreds of years). But I would argue that we actually have no control over anything, and we never have, and I mean literally anything. I don’t mean that our choices don’t make a difference and that we’ll always arrive at the same fate, regardless of what we do, like Final Destination or the Adjustment Bureau, and nor do I believe that this is the case because there is a God that has set out a path for us to follow, and that he is controlling everything – although the implication of what I’m about to argue is that life, when judging it by the criterion of pre-ordained/innate meaning, is, well, meaningless. I believe this because it’s the only logical conclusion at which I can arrive based on our available knowledge.
One of the essential features of the idea of free will is choice. In order for free will to mean anything we must have choice, otherwise free will would be a concept that wouldn’t exist because it would refer to a reality that didn’t exist. But, in our lives, we seemingly have options and various paths that we can follow, with each choice we make carving the trajectory of our life a little bit further, each choice accumulating to represent the sum of our choices, which amounts, essentially, to our idea of who we are: our identities. After all, what are we but the sum of our choices?
But where do choices come from? Or where does our ability to choose come from? It doesn’t just appear spontaneously out of nowhere. This theory boils down to the classic debate regarding what makes us us, that of nature vs nurture. These are the only two factors that contribute towards our decision-making processes, and therefore the only two things that make up our identity. If you’re still not convinced, think about it: when you make a decision, how do you think that that decision is made? You have hardware that you inherited from your parents and from billions of years of evolution, which is the foundation of your identity. You then have the software, which is the ever-growing bank of experiences that you have accumulated throughout your life, both consciously and subconsciously. The way that you interpret those experiences and stimuli is determined by your genetic make-up, but the way that you express your biological make-up can also be filtered by your experiences. Regardless, your choices have only two parents: your genetic code and your experiences. Every decision that you have ever made has been the product of a practically infinite chain of events that occurred long before you were born or conceived, long before your parents were born, long before human being evolved into existence, long before life existed on Earth, long before the Earth existed, and as far back as the beginning of time. Whenever the universe, and whatever came before it, if anything, came into existence, it set in motion the chain of events that would play out for the rest of time, and play out in a specific way. We know that our fate has been determined for the simple fact that there is only one reality (as far as can prove definitively with our powers of observation), and even if there wasn’t, even if there were an infinite number of universes in which every single possibility for a different reality was played out, our reality would still always be the same that it was always going to be, the condition of which is out of our hands. The version of ourselves that exists in this reality, in this multiverse theory, was always going to be this way.
The concept of free will and the ability of us to make choices independent of our DNA and our experiences is actually an absurd one when scrutinised under even the dimmest light. Even if we were given a soul by a god, we would have come into the world with certain characteristics, as well as lacking an ability to make conscious choices, completely dependent on others to look after us and to socialise us, which sets the ball of our ever-evolving identity rolling, free-falling down the hill of fate. Even “God”, if it exists, doesn’t have free will, because it can’t have existed forever, and it can’t have chosen how it wanted to be when it came into existence. We, or our choices, are a product and expression of billions of years (at least) of time and physical reality. We are simply vehicles of evolutionary expression.
Although, the implications of the conclusion that I have presented (by no means an original conclusion, obviously) may appear quite bleak, I believe that there is in fact large scope for optimism. No, I don’t believe that life has any inherent meaning, I believe that the meaning of life can be projected upon the individual lives of each individual perceiver, i.e. you determine your own meaning. And though I believe that free will is an illusion, what is not an illusion is our ability to experience joy from our the stimuli that we are subject to throughout life, and I believe that the illusion is sophisticated enough to allow us to forget for the vast majority of the day that it exists. Life is far too distracting to keep your mind on the fact that free will is an illusion. The necessity to respond to various situations and to make decisions (even if those decisions are, in reality, out of your control) in itself distracts you from the fact. We’ve evolved so as not to become permanently frozen in a state of navel-gazing, so I wouldn’t worry too much about the potential implications for your future motivation that being convinced of this will have. I mean, not that you have a choice in the matter. But whatever gets you to sleep at night, right?