An associate of mine posed an open question recently, inquiring on the nature of free will relative to the probabilistic nature of the behaviour of atoms and particles; specifically, questioning if such could actually exist, given that the makeup of our own mental faculties — the neural pathways by which we reason and consider things — are made up of these objects which behave in accordance to probability and scientifically predictable potentials. While I’m certainly not qualified to evaluate the validity of the question from a scientific perspective (aside from, perhaps, a quick reference to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle), I’m more than willing to address the question from the more philosophical side. Which, of course, means without any qualification or regard to conventional wisdom.

The question of ‘free will’ is, of course, a rather hotly debated one. From the religious “God-given free will” to the deterministic view of early scientific endeavours, it’s been on the minds of great thinkers and the average man throughout the course of history. The most debated point, I think, exists on the crux of a difference between perceived free will and actual free will; that is, that perhaps the universe is, as some science claims, entirely deterministic, that our ability to decide, rationalize, and draw our own conclusions is a grand self-deception by which we believe ourselves to be making these decisions through a complex neural system which tricks us into thinking that we’re actually thinking — a rather dubious problem to attempt to tackle, as it’s one which cannot, by its own definition, be examined without prejudice in the normal fashion. After all, if we’re tricked into believing that we are considering things, then how can we consider whether we’re being tricked? Thus, until empirical evidence can be supplied by which this can be analyzed, this camp defends itself by what essentially becomes a logical fallacy.

More interesting, though, than the scientific examination of this quandary is the religious take on the same problem; my own religious background, as I’ve discussed, being Christian, I examine this from that perspective. Christians are taught two important things relating to this enigmatic situation; the religion hinges on the idea that God-given free will was the fulcrum point for Original Sin — when Man defied the will of God by choosing to partake of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Seemingly contradictory, though, is the prevalent and highly repeated mantra that God has planned all things; that every event, instance, and occurrence in our lives is God’s will manifest. Without delving into the “Did God plan Original Sin?” debate, this dualistic approach to the basic question seems to be self-negating and, frankly, rather flat.

There have been some interesting experiments in the field of neuroscience attempting to gauge the existence of this “conscious free will” and the way that we perceive it. Subjects asked to flick their wrist at a random (self-determined) interval and to record the time at which they felt they had made the decision to do so were found to have unconscious activity towards the action before they felt they had reached a conscious decision — that is, that the unconscious mind had already determined what it was going to do, and relayed that to the subject as a “conscious” decision on their part shortly after; even the conductor of this study (Benjamin Libet), however, acknowledged that despite the seeming evidence against free will, the conscious mind was still capable of ceasing the action taken milliseconds before it occurred; that is, that even though it appeared that the subconscious mind was relaying a “false free will”, the conscious mind retained the final say-so in whether the subconscious’ decision was carried out.

Personally, I hold to a belief that free will must exist, if the world is to be anything near interesting to live in. Probabilistic particles or not, the ability of humans to rationalize, identify a well-reasoned course of action, and then to deviate from that course is the most interesting thing that I have experienced. As much as science may seem to indicate that the idea of free will is merely one of perception, I say that the perception of a thing such as free will is equal to the existence of such. Much of logic and reason, after all, is founded on the principles of Aristotelian Realism, the core concept of which states that that which we perceive to be real is, in fact, real.

So, wouldn’t having the perception of free will, by that definition, be the same as having “actual” free will?

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