Fast philosophy: An intro to free will


Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes we fail to hand in assignments, mess up on a first date, or choose to major in electrical engineering. It’s nice to think in these situations that the outcome was inevitable.

Most people, however, instinctively believe that the choices they make are their own. Instead, consider a debate that still rages on in the world of philosophy: do we have free will?

The argument against free will – determinism – begins with the simple premise that all events in this world are a result of their physical causes. Everything is caused by something; we call this causation and it is the basis of our physical sciences like chemistry and physics, and that logic extends to humans as well. Our brains are made up of a series of chemical reactions which, when working as part of a complex process, give rise to thoughts, decisions, and even experiences. The determinist argument is therefore that we do not have any real freedom; the laws of nature are the cause of all our decisions, nothing more and nothing less. To make this more clear, let’s imagine that instead of writing this article, I decide to go shitpost on Reddit; clearly a decision has been made but the initial cause of the decision was still a chemical reaction in my brain, not some independent and self determined process.

Advocates of free will are not swayed by these arguments and maintain that determinism is as bogus as an arts major’s job prospects. The freedom loving counter attack focuses on the so-called “laws of nature,” which determinists view as a given. If something is found to be in violation of these laws of nature, we do not immediately throw out the entirety of science. Instead, we acknowledge that we missed a key concept and add the new knowledge to our existing laws of nature. Libertarians also argue that human decisions are contemplated over time and are grounded in existing goals and experiences; something far less black and white than determinists like to admit. A final emerging argument for free will centres around quantum theory, which states in essence that the universe is, at its core, a truly random place. If the behaviour of the very particles that make up “us” are random, libertarians argue, then how can thought be said to be predetermined?