Does free will exist ?

This question has been a subject of numerous philosophical, scientific and religious studies, yet it still raises many arguments as to whether we are free when it comes to determining our own actions. And if we are not, then what makes our actions predetermined ? Likewise, if we do have free will, what is the source of it, or, in other words, if the free will is a consequence, then what is the cause ?

Free will-deniers support the determinist theory, according to which any action of human-beings (as well as other known living beings) is a product of chemical reactions and electromagnetic impulses that occur in their brains. That theory practically views a human as a bio-machine, whose behavior is completely pre-programmed by the nature. Supporters of this theory mainly substantiate it by the results of neuroscientific experiments, such as the experiment conducted by Benjamin Lebet, which, basically, measured brain activity of volunteers in the process of decision making (something as simple as moving a wrist). The results showed that decision awareness and the action of moving a wrist itself are always preceded by the brain activity (he called it the readiness potential) by a several hundreds milliseconds.

And, thus, scientists, who advocate that free will does not exist, usually use the results of this experiment to show that they are absolutely right. However, Benjamin Lebet himself didn’t deem his experiment as a proof of the absence of free-will. On the contrary, he saw the results as a confirmation of the existence of free-will, since volunteers despite incoming brain impulses were able to suppress the urge to act after becoming aware of it. Lebet said that “Human subjects became aware of intention to act 350-400 ms after RP (readiness potential) starts, but 200 ms. before the motor act. The volitional process is therefore initiated unconsciously. But the conscious function could still control the outcome; it can veto the act… The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place.”

I would, however, argue about the letter part of the statement because this experiment, like many others similar scientific experiments, measured human behavior only on a quite primitive level. Therefore, its results can not be extrapolated to the decision-making process in complex life situations, which would demand performance of many logical operations, as well as compliance with moral categories. In other words, free will includes, but not limited to, the ability to consciously refrain from an act, initiated by the brain impulse.

If we are to come to the right conclusion eventually, it would be a vain attempt to try to comprehend such category as free will by mere scientific experiment. Therefore, we must seek philosophical explanation of this phenomenon rather than merely material one. After all, in a general sense, science is supposed to serve only as a tool for confirmation or refutation of philosophical concepts.

If we assume that will is a power to act, and liberty is a state, in which we are not compelled to act in a certain way, neither we are restrained in our actions, then is it actually possible to have free will ? In fact it is possible, but the capacity to be free is different for every individual. Here I agree with a French philosopher Voltaire, who wrote in his “Dictionnaire philosophique” (1764) that “The word «liberty», «free-will»,” is therefore an abstract word, a general word, like beauty, goodness, justice. These terms do not state that all men are always beautiful, good and just; similarly, they are not always free.”

In that case human’s own actions serve as a criteria that defines the capacity for freedom. On a more esoteric level it means that when one’s actions do not violate the laws of the Universe, that capacity naturally increases. However, more often than not ignorance and other vices lead to wrong actions, hence preventing the growth of free will. Another citation of Voltaire from “Dictionnaire philosophique” agrees with that statement: “In what sense then must one utter the phrase-” Man is free “? in the same sense that one utters the words, health, strength, happiness. Man is not always strong, always healthy, always happy. A great passion, a great obstacle, deprive him of his liberty, his power of action.”

Therefore the amount of free will that a person has at a given moment depends on the nature of his/her previous actions, and the amount of freedom a person will have in the future is defined according to the present actions of that person.

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