Do you make your own choices or your destiny has been decided for you by circumstances behind your control? For thousands of years, this question has puzzled philosophers, scientist and anyone who thinks about how they choose to act and live. Part of the complexity of the matter is related to the metaphysical nature of the subject which has a close affinity with the concept of GOD. Some people think that “Everything” that happens in nature and life is predetermined.
Morality, love, hate and free will is just an illusion(Ward, 2005) while others think, human beings have an absolute and total freedom to enjoy all the deeds and actions unconstrained by any external forces, fate or divine intervention ( Sadegh, 2011). There are at least three main approaches to the problem of free will and determinism. First is deterministic approach. Determinists main idea is that all events are caused and the caused events are never free, (Ward, 2005). The future state of things can be explained and predicted by knowing the current state of the things and the way they are affected by the work of natural laws, (Ward, 2005).
This approach implies that the urge to eat, for example, is governed by our internal need and the search for food is also a natural reaction to this need. When a person is on a diet and limits his food intakes at the time of hunger, the deterministic view explains that this restriction is not by choice but it is a natural response to the health concern. To make things more complicated, if the person fails to follow his diet and fall off the wagon, the failure is attributed to the winning of the hunger force over health conscious force.
The Libertarianism approach on the other hand, recognizes free will, and the ability to make choices unconstrained by forces such as physical laws, fate and divine desire. Man’s decisions are influenced, but not caused (Sadegh, 2011). The question of free will has important implications for our moral responsibility. If we do not have free will, and our behavior is determined by what came before us, like our environment, genetics and our parents then what does that mean for our justice system and our idea of crime and punishment?
How do we treat individuals who commit crimes if we believe their backgrounds led them to the crimes? The third approach towards the issue of Free will and Determinism is the compatibility view or a combination of both. This simply means that determinism and freewill are not absolute concepts and freedom is compatible with determinism because freedom essentially just a matter of not being constrained in certain way when one acts or makes a choice. The reality is that humans have some degree of free will within the boundaries of determinism. Normal adult human beings in normal circumstances are able to act and choose freely.
No one is holding a gun to their heads. Therefore they are fully free to choose and act even if their whole physical and psychological makeup is determined by thing that they had no control over like genetic inheritance and early upbringing. It is true that our choices are limited by some circumstances, but it does not mean that we are not free in those circumstances. Only compulsion, panic or uncontrollable impulse really removes our freedom to choose. Even when our finger is being forced down on the button, we can still act freely in resisting the pressure.
Going back to my hunger example, although hunger is a natural reaction to seek food, and man might not have control over this mechanism, he is certainly in control of the way he is reacting toward this need. What to eat, when to eat and even how much to eat, are some of the decisions that man can make. Of course we can’t do everything we want to do, we might want to fry unassisted or end civil war in Africa or even free all women from abuse. But that is not free will, free will is simply a matter of having true and genuine options and opportunities for action, and being able to choose between those options according to what we want and think.
One of the strongest evidence for supporting free will is human conscience. When people do something that is against their moral values they feel shame and regret and they try to use their negative experience to avoid making the same mistakes in future. This behavior and emotional response indicate that humans have a free nature. The existence of shame is unexplainable with a deterministic view. The fact that people admire and praise the good and rebuke the evil is also a confirmation of free will. Growing up and going to school in a Muslim society, we were encouraged to think, talk and write about free will and determination.
The main reason was to teach us the responsibility of our actions, despite knowing that God is aware and in control of everything. It might have been difficult to understand such a philosophical concept at the time but now I am at peace with this concept due to the early teaching of Islam. Islam provides a comprehensive answer to the Free will and determinism debate. Islam, more than 1200 years ago stated: No Determinism, No Free will but something in between. According to Islam, the choices of man are not entirely determined by God.
Man indeed is a free agent and freely makes choices, but these choices are limited. One of the reasons for the creation of the world is to provide a ground for humans to flourish and qualify for divine satisfaction. God will reward or punish people in the hereafter based on their deeds. One way to characterize the concept of ultimate responsibility for one’s action is by refereeing to the story of hell and heaven. If we are responsible for what we do, then it make sense to propose that it could be just to punish some in hell and reward others in heaven. It makes sense because what we do is absolutely up to us.
But, one certainly does not have to believe in the story of heaven and hell in order to understand and believe the notion of responsibility. Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century also recognised that there had to be some balance between complete determinism (clocks) and complete disorder and chance (clouds), (Haselhurst ,2012). “What we need for understanding rational human behaviour – and indeed, animal behaviour – is something intermediate in character between perfect chance and perfect determinism – something intermediate between perfect clouds and perfects clocks (Popper, 1972, p.232)” (Haselhurst ,2012).
1. Ward, K. “Baron, D’Holbach And Determinism”, open source buddhism Oxford University Press (2005) 2. Sadegh, M (2011) Citing website. Free will and determination in Islam. Retrieved Feb 20, 2013, from http://www. bsharat. com/id/1/2/1jabr. html 3. Haselhurst, G, (2012) Citing website. Philosophy of Education. Retrieved Fed 20, 2013, from http://www. spaceandmotion. com/Philosophy-Free-Will-Determinism. htm.
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