The Influence of the Past on Free Will

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Free will is merely an illusion crafted by the human brain. The idea that we have the freedom to choose is appealing to us. Though it seems that we consciously partake in the decision process and have the power to control our actions and choices, we really are not doing so in a free manner. Most, if not all, of our decisions, are rooted in past experiences, memories, current circumstances or environment, intuitions, desires or beliefs. Our mind works to decide what is best when given two or even more options using a mixture of these elements. In essence, this makes even trivial decisions the result of logical reasoning, spurred by a certain cause. Yet it is also accurate that some of our decisions are completely random. Referring back to the hypothetical situation described by Nagel of the choice between cake and peach, one can see that at the moment while choosing there are two options present. But are there really two options if you already know what you will choose and don’t have the power to challenge the choice you have settled on?

I am not arguing in favor of the hard determinism perspective, that all of human behavior is predetermined. I believe we have a certain degree of free will. Humans are not born immoral or moral. Rather they have the liberty to choose how they wish to act and shape their character over the course of their lifetime. Free will provides us with a sense of purpose in life, we can craft our own experiences instead of leaving everything on a deity or fate for that matter. As such people who commit heinous crimes, such as murder, might not be inherently evil but may have been forced to commit the act in a certain situation. Regardless, people who commit crimes are doing so consciously and thus are morally responsible for their actions and should be punished. Yet there are a few exceptions. One important point to make is that free will is not the same as self-controlled choice. While in certain decisions one can practice restraint and stop oneself from pursuing one’s impulses or desires that can harm one, in most situations this notion of self-control is practically non-existent.

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Matters can often escalate quickly and people can be driven to make whimsical decisions that they regret later. In that certain moment, that person might be involuntarily inclined to commit the action, stripped of both free will and self-control. For example, a person who is mentally unstable might hurt someone if provoked by a certain individual that person with the mentally impaired individual is not fully aware of what he or she might be doing in a moral sense, therefore he or she can’t be fully held accountable as that person has limited control over their actions. In fact, after the brain has already set one in motion, may the person fully realize what is actually happening. This further complicates the idea there really is no determinism as some actions are the result of chemical reactions occurring in the brain that one has no control over.

It seems that the entire concept of free will is enacted by society to justify the system of morality and justice we have. If society favored the determinist view, no one could be punished for evil doing while people who conducted acts of goodwill would be praised. This would mean that there would be no universal morality. We would simply blame “fate” or “destiny” or that such was “God’s will” in order to justify the reason why someone committed a crime as punishing one (by inflicting pain) would be cruel. Therefore, the fact that one can choose between evil and good places the burden of the consequences on the individual which allows society to function more smoothly. To conclude, we do not live in a universe in which all individual decisions and choices are the result of previous events or one in which we are entitled to make decisions completely freely. It appears that we live in a universe in which certain decisions are already decided for us but we simply need to act for them to be true while others are chosen by us.

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