Featured image: If freedom was an illusion, society as we know it would completely unravel. As unfree products of our environments, not agents in charge of our wills, we could never be reasonably bound to any motivations. As such, it would make no sense to punish people who were never free to create their own motives; constructs like guilt ought to be banished from popular thought.

To claim humans possess free will is to claim we are autonomous agents capable of exerting true control over our actions. Universally, across almost all cultures, we operate under this postulation. We do so for society to function in its current form.

Such freedom is seen as a requirement for rationality, creativity, cooperation, and the value of friendship and love, underpinning endless arrays of the kinds of decisions we make every day. If, for example, someone committed a crime or if a friend let you down again, you would not think twice to say they were ultimately responsible for their actions somewhere along the line.

But if the concept of free will was eroded, society as we know it would unravel. We could hope for and encourage change in the criminal or our fickle friend, because we are disappointed in their character, but we could never hold their acts against them.

Such a view would have profound consequences on our personal relationships with people and on how we view people criminally and socio-politically.

Free will

Our allure to the concept of free will can be attributed to the fact that freedom underpins everything about our realities: without it every decision we thought we made in past, everything we think we deserve praise for, everything we regret, everything we thought we made for ourselves, could be founded on one big lie.

Nature, we might assume, is ruled by physical laws: events caused by other events, which we can examine and use to make predictions about the future with. So why is our decision-making divisible from every other causal chain out there in the world just because we process information consciously in our minds? We could just be mere observers to the events unfolding around us in the Universe without free will.

The idea of freedom, like the stars, has viscerally enthralled us for millennia. Deep questions on its nature have emanated from human curiosity in recorded form since the birth of Western philosophy: the roots of human understanding sought foundation for even greater ideas to emerge later.

Star gazing
Are we just witnesses of a play directed by and starring the Universe, incapable of causing anything? Non-possessors of free will; observers; self-aware organisms (hopefully) enjoying the ride. Isn't it kind of cool to feel so small? (CHAINFOTO24/Shutterstock)

And, still, the debate rages on today—not just in the dry rigour of academic philosophy but in the arts, inspiring people to think about ‘the big questions’. Take film. From Groundhog Day (1993) and Bruce Almighty (2003), to Donnie Darko (2001) and Vanilla Sky (2001), to The Matrix (1999—2003) and almost any story on artificial intelligence ever (can robots be free?), we are often asked to ponder lives unequipped with true freedom and bear witness to the consequences on our realities.

What enhances our fascination with this topic is the fact that the fundamental questions remain unresolved. (That’s philosophy for you). If we do have access to true freedom, what does it look like? Convince me. You might be a living entity capable of performing actions—but how exactly do you qualify as an autonomous, self-determining agent who holds ownership of their will? What makes you you? What makes your actions yours?

You are continually presented with choices in your head; but this doesn’t mean that these choices were ever yours to begin with. You might not be the true source of them, their origin. However free and complex they might seem to you, you could just be consciously aware of what is determined by the Universe. No matter how intricate and unique life may seem to you, as watches were to 17th-century philosophers and nature was to them prior to the emergence of evolutionary theory, there is nothing intrinsic to the complexity of thought which constitutes your free will.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018). If free will can be found in choosing from multiple options, who or what determined those options in the first place? (Netflix)

Moral responsibility

The topic of free will is inherently tied to the concept of moral responsibility. It is through the assumption that you decide to perform an action that you are held responsible for carrying it out. Society is underpinned by such intuitions.

This common-sense thinking is ubiquitous throughout the world: human beings, rational agents with apparent notions of right and wrong, are held morally responsible for many of their actions, be they good, bad, or neutral in their given contexts. As such, you would likely be praised for helping a blind man cross the street and you would likely be blamed for negligence for leaving your dog in the car on a sweltering day to go shopping. In each case we take it that you made a decision: that you could have carried on walking to work, ignoring the blind man crossing the street, and that you could have gone shopping another time but chose not to.

Free will does not have to be totally applicable to every single act. You can be manipulated into an act (e.g. by an abusive partner or culture), for example, and you can be coerced into performing an act that would ordinarily be punishable (e.g. with a gun). The point is: you only need to prove that we can be free to be morally responsible for there to be such a thing as ‘free’.

Still, while a comment on someone’s moral character or their actions might reflect how we feel about them, it does not delineate a free, responsible agent. Yet through the various institutions of a legal system you can be arrested and charged with a crime, while in personal relationships you can be held liable to negative moral assessments, like by a friend if she discovered you had lied to her.

Being arrested for a sense of justice which is unfit in a world where we can only be unfree: can such a decision ever really be attributed to someone?

Normative judgements of how ‘you’ chose to act could just be unfair descriptions of how ‘your’ bundles of cells happened to interact with your environment. Of the high and mighty who preach from their pulpits, who act like they shine more righteously than others, their success could be viewed as the favourable culmination of a cold series of events. So if they, too, are not the true source of their thoughts, they cannot be held positively responsible (i.e. praiseworthy) for their actions.

Crime and punishment

People often emotionally respond to our actions: sentiments such as guilt or shame or pride can be elicited inside of us when they deliver their moral assessments of us. But these reactions inside of us do not logically entail that we are morally responsible; only that we irrationally feel a certain way.

Instead of holding people accountable to some actions we could adopt a different stance here. Perpetrators of injustice and lawbreakers could be viewed by justice systems as total products, or victims, of their environments. In such a case we would only intervene to prevent further crimes, through deterrents and rehabilitation programmes. Relevant institutions would be controversial in the eyes of many, who seek justice and retribution as a matter of punishment, but they would be justifiable on the premise that no one ever really chose to commit a crime at the fundamental level of their cognition.

When previously debating an issue like this you might have heard the argument: ‘How would you feel if it was a member of your family?’ But this is an attempt to compartmentalise the debate to see free will in terms of your emotional, reactive side, not a true challenge to what is the right way to frame the debate for society’s benefit.

An eerie future

Such an approach to crime would have to logically entail future events as well as past events. Departments like the PreCrime police in The Minority Report (2002) would be compelled to target criminals like would-be murderers and imprison them in their happy virtual realities until it was safe to release them—that is, if the Universe exhibited enough certainty and we possessed sufficient resources to make reliable predictions. So much for ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

We would still hold and display reactive emotions, of course; we shouldn’t suppress them. Furthermore, we would remain committed to moral improvement across the board. This time, however, we’d be devoted to a more-progressive notion of fairness.

How would such a society operate? In better form, we would reorient how we approached problems to moral responsibility by constructing a society which functioned less on retribution and more on forward-thinking prevention. When ‘unfortunate’ events did arise guilt and repentance would give way to sadness and regret; gratitude would be replaced by joy and thankfulness; and love, having never required responsibility, would remain stoically unaffected.