It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves for millennia: Do we make our own choices, or are we controlled by outside forces, such as the gods or — as science has ascended and we’ve learned more about these things — our genes, our subconscious and/or our animal instincts for survival and reproduction?
When I read an article like this or a blog like this, I tend to think it’s the latter. Despite inventing high-fructose corn syrup, we eat as if food were still scarce, and we all get fat. We hire people based on their beauty, which can be defined as traits we want passed on to the seceding generations. We find it difficult to comprehend long-term problems like global warming and can’t sacrifice our short-term rewards to solve them.
When we start believing that our instincts or our subconscious behaviors determine every choice we make, fatalism could set in. Someone who accepts such fatalism could logically conclude that he is not responsible for his actions and behave unethically or even break the law. And why not? If my subconscious or my genes determine my behavior, then what’s the point of doing anything?
I believe that the great story of being human is the struggle to operate as if we in fact do shape our own lives, even if that’s not strictly true. Identifying a purpose in life and believing we have the free will to pursue that purpose are what make consciousness bearable. It’s no accident that our most enduring stories are about people who struggled for freedom and sacrificed their own needs or desires to achieve a greater good.
Even if the concept of free will is just an invention to help us cope with our consciousness of our finite lives, it is a useful one. We should behave as if we have free will, even if that behavior is coded into our genes. That is the only way we can advance as a species, a goal that may provide that much-needed purpose to life.