There are certain questions which are both unanswerable and important. Does a Supreme Being exist? Does the universe have a purpose? Do we possess free will?
Of these, the most important question is the last one. The concept of free will impacts on many aspects of daily life, from education to the legal system to government. In law, the assumption of free will is essential to the concept of guilt and punishment. After all, only if an individual is free to choose his course of action would punishment be morally justified. This is why, in civilised societies, children and the insane are not punished in the same way as sane adults for the same crimes. An insane person, by definition, has a skewed perception of reality and is not in control of their faculties. Since their insanity is not their fault, punishment would be both ineffective and unethical.
Similarly, we assume that a child does not have the mental or moral capacity to distinguish right from wrong and, as a pragmatic solution, have set the age of adulthood at 18 years. Obviously, there are individuals below this age who may commit crimes with a complete understanding of good and bad actions, and even more individuals above this age who also commit crimes with an immature understanding of wrongdoing. But a cut-off age is needed for the law to function, and 18 has been chosen as the mean average for the capacity for reason.
What is perhaps paradoxical in all this is that practical problems of law, policy, and politics essentially hinge on a metaphysical concept. After all, if we assume human beings don’t have free will, that changes what we would consider the most just, or most effective, system of law or government. In education, for example, most teachers in Trinidad and Tobago blame children for academic failure: it is the pupils who are lazy, inattentive or delinquent. Each of these judgments, of course, hinges on the child having the ability to choose to be hard-working, attentive or well-behaved. And choice implies free will.
This idea of free will comes primarily from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The concept of sin would be meaningless without free will. But free will is an incoherent principle, given the Christian concept of God. After all, if God is omnipotent, then free will, by definition, cannot exist. If an all-powerful, all-knowing God has given us choice, but also knows what choices we will make, then we don’t really have choice. An omnipotent omniscient God must be deterministic, just as a Newtonian universe must be.
New Age flakeheads like to use quantum physics to “prove” we have free will, typically invoking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to “prove” we can create reality if we just think hard enough. Physicist Hugh Everett’s Many-Worlds principle offers an interesting resolution, philosophically speaking, between determinism and free will: Everett posits that every choice we make creates a new deterministic universe. (Thus, in some parallel reality, another Kevin Baldeosingh has just written the preceding sentence using a dash instead of a colon.) As the physicist Paul Davies has remarked, however, this theory is rather “expensive on universes”.
So the metaphysical question cannot be answered. However, if we reduce the issue of free will to a psychological question, it can be tested and, in fact, has been. And what psychologists have found is that human beings have less free will than we like to assume.
There are a plethora of experiments which demonstrate how easily we are influenced by trivial and random things. One such experiment, for example, exposed young university students, on a subconscious level, to a set of words which indicated old age (elderly, wrinkled, senile, weak). When the students left the room, their walking rates were measured as they went down a hallway and those students who had unconsciously absorbed these words walked slower than those who had not.
These are trivial and temporary effects, of course, but research also shows that the factors which shape our selves (temperament, attitudes, beliefs) are mostly out of our control. The Big Five personality traits—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism—are strongly mediated by genes. The number of words our parents speak to us in infant years may well influence our academic success (11 million words per years for loquacious parents, as compared to one million for taciturn ones). If we live in a democratic system like America’s, we are more likely to be happy than if we live under an authoritarian government like Cuba’s.
So when people argue that all our social problems would be solved if all of us did the right thing, this argument is not only tautological, but rests on a false idea of free will. Instead, social problems are best solved by creating institutions which allow individuals to have a range of choices in life and leaving them free to make those choices.