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Free will?

The Latins have a great proverb - Quam bene vivas refert non quam diu which translates to It is how well you live that matters, not how long. It has been said that it is invoked to remind us that death is inevitable and beyond our control, but the choices we make during our life are absolutely all up to us and therefore, within our control. Choices… we make them every day. Sometimes they are as easy as: what should I wear today? Which cereal should I have for breakfast? Yet, other times they can be nerve-rackingly complex: What career should I choose? Should I move halfway across the globe? While we all face different choices every day, most of us would tend to agree that we reach our decision out of our own will …. or is it?


The question of free will has long tormented even the most renowned philosophers, scientists, and doctors. Unfortunately, as at date, we still do not have a consensus as to whether humans have free will or not. While on one end of the spectrum we have the concept of free will, that humans are fundamentally free to decide, on the other, we are faced with the concept of determinism. The determinist approach proposes that all human behaviours has a cause which would make us predictable and therefore the concept of free will would be reduced to nothing more than an illusion.[1]


Sigmund Freud and Burrhus Federic Skinner are two well-known philosophers who have often been described as polar opposites.[2] Yet, ironically, both of them supported determinism. S. Freud’s various works in the area claim that human behaviour is often guided and shaped by unconscious processes and forces. He gave a simple example to support this rather complex statement ‘a man who criticizes, condemns, and attacks homosexuals might consciously believe that homosexuality is bad, but underneath he may have an unconscious attraction to homosexuality, and so he defends himself against his own homosexual feelings (which he cannot accept) by insisting that homosexuality is evil’.[3] As such, human beings think they are free but this results from a gap in the range of conscious awareness.

B.F. Skinner focused on external causes, setting a great importance on something he eloquently qualified as ‘operant condition’, that is such behaviour which operates on the environment to produce consequences.[4] In the world of Skinner, punishment is a way designed (by society) to remove awkward, dangerous or otherwise unwanted behaviour from a repertoire[5] based on the premise that a person once punished is less likely to behave in the same way again. On the other hand, he construed reward as a ‘positive reinforcer’.[6] According to Skinner, therefore, the sole reality is that humans are incapable of initiating action but rather, that we react to a series of external stimuli.[7]

All of the above begs what may at first appear to be obvious questions – did I choose to write this piece? Can you really say that you decided to read it out of your own free will? But more importantly, did the ‘criminal’ choose to commit a crime? Or was the latter simply driven by some unconscious forces or was it due to an operant condition? If that’s the case, can society really hold him accountable for his actions? Only one who is freely able to make a decision can be made responsible for his/her actions. Should freewill be predetermined, we would have to rethink all of society’s principles of moral and ethics. But pursuing this line of thought would, for this article at least, be going on a tangent.

Erich Fromm has developed, what I believe is, a softer approach to the topic – in his book The Fear of Freedom, he argues that all of us have the potential to control our own lives but that many of us are too afraid to do so. As a result, we give up our freedom.

Man has built his world; he has built factories and houses, he produces cars and clothes, he grows grain and fruit. But he has become estranged from the product of his own hands, he is not really the master any more of the world he has built; on the contrary, this man-made world has become his master, before whom he bows down, whom he tries to placate or to manipulate as best he can. The work of his own hands has become his God. He seems to be driven by self-interest, but in reality, his total self with all its concrete potentialities has become an instrument for the purposes of the very machine his hands have built.[8]

This would imply that social expectations play a crucial role in everyday decision making. So, what can we do to make sure that our decisions indeed come from us, free from any encumbrance?

I believe that humans are incredibly clever and once we realise that our decisions are being influenced by other factors, we can take steps to eliminate such influence –

1. We need to make ourselves aware of those said factors, be it internal or external, so that we can minimise our dependence on them and truly reach a free decision;

2. Let’s build our own database of experiences and knowledge which can equip us to personally understand the range of possibilities in front of us, and reach an informed decision;

But above all… let’s take a step back. We live in a fast-paced world, fuelled by development in globalisation and social media. People are always online and giving their opinions and thoughts on worldly subjects – which, in itself is not a bad thing, but in such instances, we may find it easier to go with the flow rather than question it – why agree or disagree when someone else is already giving their thoughts as to why one should agree or disagree. Such a culture does not encourage deep thought and processing. So, the next time you are confronted with an important decision: take your time, dig in, do your own research (from the source), and question your motivation.

[1] https://www.simplypsychology.org/simplypsychology.org-Freewillvsdeterminism.pdf [2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17874899 [3] Encyclopaedia of Social Psychology Vol. 1, Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs, Pg 363. [4] Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B. F. Skinner, Pg 24. [5] Ibid.Pg 64. [6] Ibid.Pg 38. [7] Ibid. Pg 164. [8] The fear of freedom https://pescanik.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/erich-fromm-the-fear-of-freedom-escape-from-freedom.pdf

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