COLUMN: Are we as free as we think?


Ian Palacios

Ian Palacios, Columnist

Suppose your friend forgot to pick you up from work. You may rightly say, “You were supposed to pick me up today! You could have, but instead you forgot.” Though this seems like common sense, we might be mistaken under a purely scientific view of the world.

When we solve a problem in physics, there is always an objective answer to a problem. When atoms interact, they interact predictably according to unchanging laws. So, when you roll a ball down a hill, if we are given all relevant variables–the speed of the ball, the friction between the ball and the hill, the mass and gravity–we can know for certain where the ball will stop rolling and how long it will take.

Even though we might not have the exact answer (since we can’t have the variables perfectly correct), in principle, we can know what the ball will do and where it will go.

So what’s the difference between the ball and us?

Our brains are made of only material stuff (atoms and their interactions), and we already know material stuff is “deterministic.” So does that mean human actions are deterministic too?

If the interactions between the parts of our brains are pre-determined just like the ball rolling down the hill, our actions are pre-determined as well.

Under this scientific view of the world, the world is like a movie: we might not know what will happen as we watch it pass, but there is only one way it can happen. If we were to reverse time and press play again, the same events would occur.

This may be a problem. If all of our actions are already set out for us beforehand, when we say your friend could have picked you up, then she really couldn’t have picked you up: she was pre-determined to forget.

So, does this mean we are not free? Not necessarily.

In order to preserve a notion of freedom, we have two options: reject the purely scientific worldview and posit that humans are, in some sense, not entirely bound by the laws of physics or we can revise our concept of freedom.

We may say that someone is free if she has the relevant capacities to make her own choices and reflect on her actions, even if all of that choice-making is predetermined. However, we’d need to ask ourselves if people can really be responsible for actions they were pre-determined to perform.

A quick note on quantum indeterminacy. It’s possible that very small particles are truly random and can not be predicted how they will behave. This would refute determinism, but it would not change my argument in any important sense, since we can just say the world is deterministic “above” the quantum level and random when part of the quantum level, and neither of these offer a person freedom.


Ian is an English and philosophy major. He can be contacted at 581-2812 or at [email protected]