Paused for thought

Paused for thought

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Does free will exist?

My husband and I engaged in a very interesting debate recently, does free will exist? Is it possible to make your own life choices based entirely on the direction that your grey matter takes you? Without other forces drawing you on one life path or another? Neither of us are religious and I confess that I thought that this was a time old philosophical argument that generally ended with does God choose your path or do you find your own way. As it turns out, I was wrong.

My husband believes that it is not God, but physics that determine our way of life. That the universe is effectively programed, much like a computer, and then life is acted out according to said programming. His argument is that we are all a type of biological computer. That there are a variety of codes, or inputs, that then determine an output which is beyond our control. That Nature rolls our life out before us like a personalised metaphorical carpet. What about love I ask? Were we predetermined to be together? (Those of you who know me know that I'm a romantic and hate the thought of someone or something else making that decision for me!) Yes, said my husband. We were meant to be together either because of what we might achieve together or because of what the children who we have created might achieve. But is this not religion? Are we not having a time old conversation but using different terms? No, he said. It’s physics. It's determined at an atomic level over which we have no conscious control.

My views are different. I very much believe in free will. I think that there is cause and effect, I think that our actions are on occasion decided by the actions or reactions of others, and I do believe that social awareness and intelligence determines our choices too. I am also quite spiritual and consider that there is a strong external force that factors in the workings of the world and one which I am unable to name or define. All that to one side, I think that we have the opportunity to make our own decisions, to define our own life paths. I believe in taking responsibility personally for our actions and the choices that we make and not entrusting them elsewhere or following a path that we have not set ourselves, in our own minds. I’m interested in the idea of fate, but I think chance, luck and judgement are much more real determining factors in how life unfolds.

I think about some choices I have made: relationships I have, those I was not brave enough to start, or ones that I have turned away from; studies which I have dropped or taken up; career choices; where to live; where to go on holiday. I wonder about how they might fit together as a jigsaw. I realise that there are some pieces that slot together nicely, but would these have happened anyway? My husband and I went to school together, but only started dating years later after meeting again at a mutual friend’s party. Did fate, the universe, some higher power mean that we went to school together? Or did fate play a hand in bringing us back together at the party? Or did it feature in both? I think it was circumstance that we went to school together and a fortunate coincidence but not a surprise that we were at the same party. Then I think it was individual thought and commitment that saw our relationship blossom and grow into the strong and loving marriage that it has become. The career I initially chose was not my first choice, but one that I discovered through temporary work. Was this a planned diversion from my passion growing up? Was this a case of fate taking over from my brain? That my free will, my free choice, was removed? Was this to keep me in a location where I would meet my husband, a second time round? Or to give me some grounding, some real life experience and broaden my mind so that I could carefully pour this into my writing at a later date. Did I need longer to develop my written voice and this career gave me that opportunity.

This leads me to so many more questions. Do I feel this way because the values, the choices, the relationships that I hold so dear I cannot begin to believe are made by anyone or anything other than me and my grey matter? Is it because I like to believe that I’m in control? Unwilling or perhaps even unable to accept that I do not have the ability to make the most powerful, most important decisions of my life. Some scientists, much like my husband, believe that our brains are preprogrammed to make choices so that our conscious mind thinks it is making decisions and thinking through a variety of options, but actually it is being coerced into the path that science, physics or neurobiology, has chosen for us. Perhaps that is the case, perhaps I am willingly blind to the lack of freedom in life, in the predetermined route that I am following, the actions that I take. Are my feelings real? Or might they be subject to the same?

This topic I am sure will run for years, maybe centuries to come, with valid arguments and evidence from opposing sides. I am not going to solve it with one blog post and I am certainly not going to persuade anyone to my way of thinking. But I do think, and I do consider that my thoughts and actions are pure and led by me, whatever they may be. I do believe in the romance in life, that we are free to be whoever we want to be, to act and react as we choose. I believe that we live within whatever restrictions we choose to follow, not those set by a preprogrammed scientific code.

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