When I raise my right arm, it is an act of free will or simply a biological impulse? This question, posed by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is an example of an age-old debate in modern philosophy: Does free will exist?
I believe in free will. Others, however, embrace the philosophy of naturalism.
Naturalism holds the idea that everything we do is predetermined by nature—the biological and chemical processes of the natural world. Naturalists believe that free will is an illusion, and that everything we do is caused by electrical impulses being sent from our brains to different parts of our bodies.
This logic implies that human beings have neither control over their bodies nor responsibility for their actions. Such a view paints quite a depressing portrait of human life. If our actions are predetermined by our genes, and our movements are merely electrical impulses, then how can we consider ourselves truly free? Naturalists imply that humans are merely slaves to their biological makeup, unable to make choices for themselves.
That’s where I disagree.
We make choices every day, like what time we’ll leave for school and what TV programs we’ll watch at home. We have hopes, goals, and aspirations, and whether we actively pursue them is entirely a matter of choice.
The most obvious goal among students is to do well in school. That means doing your assignments and reviewing the course material regularly. But let’s say it’s been a long day at school and you’re exhausted by the time you get home. Do you still review the course material or do you decide to relax? The choice is yours. It’s not predetermined that you’ll review the course material. You’re making a conscious decision because you want to do well in school.
Humans are not just passive organic robots who exist solely to carry out biologically programmed instructions and commands. We consciously think for ourselves and make decisions about our everyday lives.
With free will, I have the power to make the choice about whether I study or goof off—though sometimes, I wish I didn’t have to make that choice.