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An exploration of free will

by Suzette Garvey

The swings of human behavior vary from decade to decade, person to person and sometimes even day-to-day within the same person. This got me thinking about the fine line between free will and oppression. As we walk this line together, I’ll discuss the definition of free will, its counterpoint, qualifiers and potential demise.

Free will defined

According to Collins Dictionary, free will is the belief that people have a choice in what they do and their actions aren’t decided in advance by God or another power. A longstanding topic of study among philosophers, theologians and psychologists, free will underscores our ability to be self-determined.

The counterpoint of determinism

Determinism is the belief that internal or external forces, beyond our control, govern our behavior. Internal forces may involve genetics and neurological and hormonal processes. While external forces may include family, friends, government, God or media.

Free will advocates throughout history

Following the path that free will does exist, let’s sample ancient to modern viewpoints.

Nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said, “As a truly omnipotent and good being, God could create beings with true freedom over Him. Furthermore, God would voluntarily do so because "the greatest good ... which can be done for a being … is to be truly free.”

Twentieth century humanistic psychologists believed freedom is not only possible but also necessary if we are to become fully functional human beings. They believed that people are basically good, and have an innate need to better themselves and the world around them. The humanistic term for exercising free will is personal agency. We can have low or high personal agency, based upon our use of it.

Modern Christian philosopher Kevin Tempe, of Calvin University, underscores the connection between free will and goodness by quoting Thomas Aquinas, a 13thCentury Italian philosopher and Catholic priest. “Only an agent endowed with an intellect can act with a judgment which is free, in so far as it apprehends the common note of goodness… .” Tempe concludes one of the reasons we should care so much about free will is because it’s so closely related to freedom of action and moral responsibility.

All of this leads me to qualify that it is our moral responsibility to use our intellect, goodness, personal agency and talents toward personal self-actualization and that of our fellow human beings. However, what if we choose to abandon free will?

Surrendering freedom

Erich Fromm, a 20thcentury American democratic socialist stated, “Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.”

Even if we believe in free will, are we in danger of giving bits of it away in the face of convenience, acceptance, doubt or fear?

Free will and technology

As part of my profession, I spend a lot of time on social media. Recently, I clicked upon one of those auto-fill word bubbles that said, “Gorgeous,” in response to a friend’s landscape photo. Within seconds, I tensed up and realized although it was a lovely landscape, how would the developers at Facebook know that? Do they have a measurement tool for what I deem as quality art? I deleted the auto-fill and scrolled on with two questions in my mind: (1) How often am I presented with pre-designed thoughts about deeper opinions? (2) How prepared am I to recognize them?

If free will depends upon moral responsibility, how might other technological advancements impact our society? Christian List, Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at the London School of Economics, was recently quoted to say, “… future complex robots and artificial intelligence systems might well satisfy … requirements for free will. That would raise important questions about responsibility.”

Studies on compromising free will

What could happen if we give up on our free will altogether? According to the Association for Psychological Science, a set of studies in 2008 revealed people with weaker convictions about free will were more apt to cheat when given the opportunity as compared to those whose beliefs in free will were left untouched. These studies revealed participants’ views on free will were in fact quite pliable. It took only brief exposure to counter-messaging to alter participants’ views and consequent actions.

Crossing the line into tyranny or oppression

Tyranny is often defined as power held by one source, whereas oppression is defined as power held by a group. When individual or group free will is taken to an extreme, there's the risk of overriding moral responsibility and law, along with the freedom of action and free will of others.

Protecting freedom

Knowing the delicate nature of liberty (freedom of action), our forefathers addressed it in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Therefore, we could conclude one's liberty — as a right — is designed to be in balance with the individual rights of others and their pursuit of happiness.

Free will, too, should be acknowledged as a right and a gift that is exercised for self-actualization and human goodness. It flourishes by respecting it within others and safeguarding it for future generations. It’s not enough that we believe in free will; we must act upon it wisely.

This is one of my 2020 Toastmasters speeches. While the speeches I write for businesses are often about new construction or new services, I tend to jump into philosophical topics when writing my own speeches. Thanks for exploring with me.

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