The question of whether we are endowed with free-will is as old as human civilization. In this post, we offer a new perspective to this question — addressing it via a series of consecutive questions, located at decision-points of a flowchart.
Each answer directs us to a different path on the flowchart. Some answers land us at a dead-end. This requires regressing back to the recent decision-point, re-thinking our earlier decision (answers that landed us at a final-point on a path in the flowchart). Once we reach a final decision-point, which answers accurately the question (do we have free-will?), we are assured that the answer is well-founded, adopted only after all other options have been carefully explored, examined and rejected (or not, dependent on circumstance).
The flowchart includes Ovals (marking beginning or end of a path in the flowchart), Diamonds (decision-points) and Rectangles (steps in the flowchart). Other symbols commonly used in drawing process flowcharts are not needed. For each decision-point (diamond) — a question is asked. Each rectangular — provides an answer, addressed in detail below.
The questions forming the decision-points in the flowchart indeed form three filters, that only after we have “succeeded” passing them, can we be assured of the validity of our final conclusion, confidently asserting whether we entertain free will or otherwise.
The flowchart is now displayed, followed by comments relating to each of the decision-points (represented in the flowchart by ovals).
Enjoy the journey!
As we may now realize, the general structure of the flowchart comprises three fundamental questions/filters. They are:
We now address each filter, what it means and what are its implications, regarding the basic question:
Do we exercise free will?
A scientific theory, or scientific claim, requires that a criterion be provided how this claim can be rejected, falsified. For example, an acceptable criterion is that if a scientific theory predicts a certain outcome (obtained from experiment, or from sheer observation of nature, where “experiments” are hard to manipulate, as in cosmology), and if this predicted outcome fails to realize — that alone may collapse a scientific theory, invalidate it.
Is the claim “Humankind has free will” scientific? Since this claim relates not to humankind as a collective, this question reduces to the following:
Can we predict human response to any given Free-Will situation?
The answer is a resounding — No.
Human conduct can be predicted, to a certain degree, only regarding the collective, not individuals. Furthermore, given that randomness is part of nature, observed all around us, we never know whether the unpredictability of human response to given free-will situations is the result of nature randomness, observed everywhere in nature, or due to existence of individual free-will.
In short: The claim that human beings have free-will is not scientific, not falsifiable. We need to regress back to the decision-point and select a different path on the flowchart, which lands us at the next filter;
This question relates to a single issue (for members of the monotheistic faiths):
Do you believe in God?
If positive, do you believe in the Divine source of the Bible, and consequently, in the truth of the Bible?
If the answer is again yes, then we have to decide that human beings do have free-will, as individuals, because this is a theme asserted endlessly in the Bible (refer to two quotes, from Torah and the prophets, in a most recent post, here). This ends our journey — Yes, there is free-will because that is what the Bible preaches, in all forms and shapes, and we believe in the Divine source of the Bible.
If we are non-believers, or agnostic — we need again to regress to the most recent decision-point, choose another path that leads us to the last filter;
Many free-will situations are not really what they look like. Often, these are just optimization situations, ego-centered decision scenarios, where the ego attempts to optimize the outcome of its decision. For example, what would I gain and lose from pursuing this path and not another? We then choose the optimal path for which the net gain is maximal. This scenario is typical to most decision scenarios we encounter in everyday life. Therefore, one cannot say that the situations, where the ego optimizes its response, are indeed free-will situations. They are merely optimization scenarios, the simplest of which can be answered by a computer (refer to an earlier post, discussing these points more extensively, here).
What then characterizes free-will situations?
These are decision-points in life, where we can act, on ethical grounds, against our ego and our best interest, to achieve ethical goals that do not necessarily benefit us. Examples:
- Risking one’s life in battle to rescue fellow soldier;
- Persisting in resuscitating a patient, undergoing heart failure, even though an acceptable standard for exercising such effort has long-ago been surpassed;
- Sharing food with fellow human beings in conditions of extreme food scarcity;
- Ego-free donation.
All these scenarios, few drops in an ocean of possible scenarios that one may conceive of, demonstrate exercising ego-free free-will decisions, based on ethical principles, even when these may go against self-interest and self-preservation. An old Jewish idiom comes to mind (in the original language of Chazal, tractate Avot 4:1):
“Who is a hero? — Him, who overcomes his desire”.
(Tractate Avot, or Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers”, is a tractate of the Mishna, part of Talmud, which details Torah’s views on ethics and interpersonal relationships; A modern day PC translation would probably read: “Who is a hero? — Him/her, who overcomes her/his desire”.)
This end-point in our journey teaches us a powerful lesson:
We are not born natural free-will individuals.
We have to work on it, nourish it, grow it throughout our lives, in order to free ourselves of the suffocating grip of the ego, to subdue it to ethical moral principles.
Only then — may we exercise ethical principles and ethical judgement in our conduct, in our negotiations with fellow human beings, capable of converting optimization decisions (ego-centered decisions) into free-will decisions.
Then, and only then, do we become liberated free individuals, capable of exercising free-will out of free-will-decision.