Should We Redefine Free Will?

A Strange Note in Awril*

It is often thought that we are in control of our lives because we possess the gift of choice, a belief found in statements like ‘author of our destiny’ and ‘everyone is responsible for their actions.’ Through such statements, the concept of free will – described as our ability to be in control of our choices – levitates over our societal concepts of morality and permeates rulings within our justice systems. But, essentially, everything we do is influenced by something, be it an external or internal force.


Our involuntary actions are a communication between our external world and neuronal activities. When, for instance, we come in contact with a hot surface, our protective response of pulling away from it is influenced by the contact of that hot surface with neurons that notify the brain of our exposure to danger. In this way, the sensory system is the influence behind our actions.


Additionally, our long term memories act as influences for our responses to future events: our knowledge of other people’s experiences and timeless information of historical activities influence our choices of business and designs of social cultures and governmental systems.


Beliefs shape choices and our beliefs are influenced by a gallery of information in our (local and global) environment – which encompasses the people, inanimate objects, and thoughts within it. So, do we truly have free will if every action we take is driven by certain elements? 


Artwork by Alexis Tsegba

Ancestral Manifestations by Alexis Tsegba


Free will, as argued by most questioners, is a great illusion. Arguments against free will spring forth from determinism – a philosophical stand proposing that every event in nature is determined by prior/coexisting events and is thus predictable – and fatalism, a belief which holds that the natural world causes events in human life but is not itself influenced by human will or behaviour. 


Within these pockets of disbelief – toward our possession of free will – lie several threads of explanations for why free will is but an illusion, chiefly that our intentions and decisions -whether voluntary or involuntary – are influenced by communication between our external world and neuronal activities in the human body. In this way, no one possesses free will.


‘The contemporary scientific image of human behaviour,’ Stephen Cave registers in The Atlantic, ‘is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond.’


This role of neuroscience in explaining why one may not possess free will has been exemplified in the story of 25-year-old Charles Whitman who, in 1966, killed his mother and wife by stabbing, and 12 other people in an outshoot. Following brain examination, it was revealed that Whitman had a brain tumour in his amygdala, the portion of the brain responsible for fight and flight.


As Oliver Burkeman explains in The Guardian, Whitman, prior to his actions, had made notes stating thus; “I don’t quite understand what compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts [which] constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks … After my death, I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”


Burkeman notes that ‘it doesn’t make the killings any less horrific. Nor does it mean the police weren’t justified in killing him. But it does make his rampage start to seem less like the evil actions of an evil man, and more like the terrible symptom of a disorder, with Whitman among its victims.’


Some questioners who agree with determinism argue that we are all components of nature, (like the weather, birds, and other elements within it) and the actions of humans should be regarded as one bending to the wills of nature. When the weather does something to hurt us (like a hurricane, for example), we don’t arrest it because we understand that it is merely a component of nature, acting by nature’s rule. People, therefore, should be spared of their misgivings because, as a component of nature, we are but controlled by the interests of nature.


This belief calls for several questions: can we truly liken natural elements, like the weather, to human existence which bears a level of consciousness that is incomprehensible to other elements? Are we not, through the presence of our consciousness, granted the ability to choose rationally between this and that? This brings us to arguments for free will. 


We’re said to have free will because we all have individual preferences that cannot be controlled by external forces and enable us to make free choices. Bernardo Kastrup explains within the digital pages of Scientific America that ‘we have free will if our choices are determined by that which we experientially identify with. I identify with my tastes and preferences—as consciously felt by me—in the sense that I regard them as expressions of myself. My choices are thus free insofar as they are determined by these felt tastes and preferences.’ 


The problem with this position, though, is that free will is both the perception and act of choosing. Perception is a component of beliefs, which are influenced by several components of our (local and global) external environment and our degree of exposure within this environment. Perception drives our preferences, which further determine the choices we make. In this way, our individual preferences are influenced by something – running through the pipeline of belief – perception – preference – choice – behaviour.


Additionally, as stated earlier, it is largely believed – and propelled by the advancement of neuroscience – that our sensory system has an inevitable influence on our actions. However, another argument for free will – and indeed worth pondering – is the possibility that, rather than being controlled by neuronal activities, it is our ability to choose that determines these neuronal firings in the brain. 


Now, seeing as the evidence against free will supersedes that for its existence, why do we believe so much in free will?


The answer to this question might be found in our inability to deal with the truth about how much we can’t control as humans. We hate lies, but we are also uncomfortable with the truth. So, it’s easier to live in a lie than face the truth, despite our likeness for honesty. Thus, it is worth noting that if free will is a lie, our belief in it contradicts our likeness for truth. With this inconsistency in our behaviour and the abundant evidence against it, should we, then, disregard the concept of free will? Should our belief in free will be discarded?


Free will is unquestionably a core part of humanity.


‘In 2002,’ Cave narrates, ‘two psychologists ran an experiment to find out what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose.’ The researchers, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, found that “people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.” In one of their experiments, ‘Vohs and colleagues,’ Cave explains, ‘measured the extent to which a group of day labourers believed in free will, then examined their performance on the job by looking at their supervisor’s ratings. Those who believed more strongly that they were in control of their own actions showed up on time for work more frequently and were rated by supervisors as more capable.’ Further research in this area has found that people with a weaker belief in free will are less likely to be charitable and ‘when people were induced to believe that “all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,” those people came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness.’


When the belief in free will is eroded, it challenges several critical systems that shape our societies. We become forced into questions about the foundations of morality, cultural values (particularly western) built around the concept of free will, and the prosecuting power of our justice system – as people begin to argue their case from the stance of lacking control over their actions.


As evident in research, when we do not believe in free will, we indulge our darker side and create a culture of decadence. Our belief in free will is the most subconscious level of faith, a belief that offers us a level of control in a world haunted by uncontrollable events. Thus, the lack of (belief in) free will could result in a damning state of despondency. 


Although free will might be an illusion or a concept required for the success of our designed society, it is unquestionably a core part of humanity. Wouldn’t it, then, be worth reassessing the definition of free will, rather than arguing about its reality?


Voyage vers Mars 4, 2020, by Congolese artist, Hilary Balu.


In redefining free will, we would need to better understand the meaning of freedom (free) and choice (will). ‘Human freedom,’ James Baldwin reflected in his letter from the south, ‘is a complex, difficult -and private- thing.’ The complexity of freedom is intensified in our modern culture of calls for the right to be as is, in every sphere. This desire, in itself, is required for equity and safety. However, it is driven by the principle of truth which, as we know, is largely subjective. We are thus faced with the challenge of determining truths that provide equity and individual protection. 


Choice, however, is not as complex. It is both the presence of and an act of choosing between several possibilities. We are always choosing, be it voluntarily or involuntarily motivated. Wouldn’t it, then, be more ideal to consider free will as a force that propels our ability to engage in rational or irrational choices: our ability to choose, despite the complexity of freedom.


In his book (Restorative Free Will), the philosopher, Bruce Waller, proposes that ‘we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint. ‘For Waller,’ Cave explains, ‘it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behaviour at different levels.’ In this way, judgement is passed as ‘whether someone had the normal ability to choose rationally, reflecting on the implications of their actions’ and we are offered a chance to reaccess the concept of morality, in tandem with our socioeconomic and cultural advancements.


Whether free will is maintained as a true concept, argued as an illusion, or redefined for our furtherance, the truth remains that it is an inalienable part of our existence.


1 Question for You

Do you believe that we have free will?


As you think through this question, here’s what you should read next:Visit Stephen Cave’s pondering on the inexistence of free will, explore the concepts of determinism and fatalism, and revisit the role of forks as metaphors for identity


*Awril is the Wolof word for the month, April. Wolof belongs to the Atlantic group of the Niger-Congo language family. It is spoken by 5.2 million people in Senegal. It is also spoken in The Gambia and Mauritania.