What is free will? By Manuel Pelegrina

This post is also available in: Spanish

There is a personal feeling that people can “do what they want” to a certain degree. They may or may not go to a football match, the may or may not call a friend to go out, they may work harder, etc. However, that is just a delusion, since these same choices were already “programmed” as possible actions, inside some given coordinates. Thus, somebody who lives in a tribe in the African desert will not be able to go to a football match, no matter what; somebody who calls some friend to go out will know he may not call some other friend due to incompatibility of characters; somebody who thinks about working harder may get sick or fired, etc.

On the other hand, no matter how strange or rare something may be, it can happen to us: finding ourselves in a robbery, in a car crash, winning the lottery or, notwithstanding our economic and intellectual efforts, we may “produce” incompetent or murderous children. That is not usual, but it may happen. Why?

All of the above suggests we live in a network of learned conducts and that we can choose between them, but that this choice is very much determined by other conducts and by the possible combinations of all those which may happen, with more or less frequency, or following probabilistic laws.

However, our conduct tries by all means to defy this determinism. We want to be free, and there are people, creative types mostly (artists, scientists, researchers or artisans of any specialty) who, after seeing something for the first time before anyone else, after a laboratory experiment or after coming up with an original sentence, feel something akin to freedom. Freedom is a victorious challenge to Nature, when the latter resists being known.

I think that, despite our economic determinism, ideological control, physical limitations, the control of our conduct by the mass media, even the restraint of our freedom, we have to do what we can to experience the feeling of freedom. The poet Miguel Hernández wrote beautiful works on freedom while he was in jail and sick, defeated and alone, but he wrote. This same thing still happens today.

Most of us live in a democracy, and democracy offers us the possibility to be free within its limits, but the reports on the “amount of fear” or the citizens’ insecurity appear not to be much higher in democratic countries with a western culture, since perversions of democracy allow the manipulation and control of conducts and the production of citizens who are very sensitive to fear in an everyday situation. These are the fundamental ingredients of the anxiety and depression which have become so common in our society and which are usually the progeny of our stress and fear. However, despite the fact that almost all available evidence points to the impossibility of free will, and despite all the controls we are subjected to, it is healthy to feel, now and then, the safety and happiness that freedom gives us.

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