Do we have free will?

I touched upon free will in Is there a reason for our existence? and decided the subject merited further examination.

It seems to us that we have free will. I could decide to do this or that as I see fit. For example I could have decided not to publish this page but chose to do so. But how much choice did I actually have? Was it my decision or was it already 'fixed' and it just seems to me that I chose to do it?

I have no way of knowing. There is no 'test' that I can perform to prove I have free will, no matter what course of action I 'choose' to take I can not prove it was my choice. Just because it feels that we have free will does not mean that we do, we can't take it for granted based on a 'feeling'.

So how can we prove it? We can't. Like it or not we simply can not prove that we have a choice of actions. If we go back to the instant of the big bang, then those initial conditions led to things being the way they are today. The formation of galaxies, stars and planets, the emergence of life on Earth, were all determined by those initial conditions. Once the big bang started events happened that led to us being here. Could things have happened differently? That's debatable, but if the big bang were repeated, with the identical initial conditions, you would expect that by and large things would develop pretty much the same, perhaps exactly the same. Would this lead to such a close match that you and I would also be repeated? If we assume that the formation of the galaxies, stars and planets must be the same because the initial conditions are the same, then you would also expect the formation of life to be the same. At this point however, the rules change.

The formation of the universe would be the same because it would be following the same laws of physics as laid down in those initial conditions. Life however, once it has developed intelligence does not follow those same laws. Yes, we live and die by those laws, but we don't follow them, we change them. We have changed the surface of this planet for example. We change things, we cause things to happen that have no direct bearing on the initial conditions, these changes could not have been determined at the start of the universe, they were not 'built in'. We have irrigated desserts, reclaimed land that was under the sea, destroyed countless acres of forests, farmed the land, etc. etc. Planet Earth is no longer in the condition it would have been if left to nature. We have changed it by an act of will.

I suppose it could be argued that the changes that we have made are a part of those initial conditions, that the very way in which life has evolved has 'forced' us along this route, that it could have been 'calculated' from the initial conditions that human life would have evolved on this planet and changed things the way we have. Although it may seem ridiculous at first glance it could be so.

If we take the situation where we are now, it would seem ridiculous that all the atoms in my body could come together in such a complex and organised way as to make me, from those original atoms in a far away star somewhere. But it didn't just happen like that did it, it was a gradual step by step process over millions of years, each simple step leading to a slightly more complex stage that gradually formed simple cell life and so on all the way up to me. Each step of the way was only a very small step forward, building on what had happened before. Maybe you and I are but another simple, but inevitable, step along the pre-programmed route.

It could also be that whether or not we have free will is not dependent on the initial conditions, but whether or not we are all following 'a plan' as I mentioned in Is there a reason for our existence?

So how much freedom does the individual have? We simply don't know. I can not conceive of any test that would prove free will one way or the other. We just assume we have a free choice of actions because it feels as though we do.


What do I think?

I think we do have a free choice of actions. I do not think it possible the we are all following a pre-programmed course as laid down at the instant of the big bang. Could it have been predicted from those initial conditions that tonight I would go to Burger King, have a flamed grilled Whopper then go on to the cinema to watch Tomb Raider? I think not. However, we can't be certain.

It just makes me a little uneasy that I can't prove it. You would think it a simple thing to prove, but how can you?

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