Humanity’s Friendly Ghost: On the Assumption and Absence of Independent Thought

Imani Gaskin ’25 in Opinions | October 27, 2023

          “Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer.” This is a refrain that was constantly echoed by my father throughout my childhood. It would ring out against any asinine questions of mine like “should I skip school today?” or “do I feel like driving right now?” Of course I knew that I was undoubtedly going to school and that my parents were never letting a 12-year-old behind the wheel, yet there was something deeply enjoyable about imagining I had a choice. His proclamation would often leave me upset as I reveled in the fun of pretending I had a choice.
          When asked if they have free will, most people would vehemently say yes. However, upon careful consideration, verifying this belief proves extremely difficult. Encyclopædia Britannica describes free will as “the power to make decisions or perform actions independently of any prior event or state of the universe.” In a world where mountains of information are always a few clicks away, people find themselves consuming knowledge at lightning speed. People may find their opinions being influenced by the wide variety of perspectives fed to them online. In understanding this phenomenon, it becomes quite clear that humans do not exist in vacuums, and as such, it is quite impossible to make decisions or act truly independent from outside influences. Yet, people still insist they have free will, and in some ways they are correct. In reality, people’s inability to reconcile these two thoughts is exactly what free will is based on: ignorance. People who do not recognize that none of their actions are truly independent feel more responsible for their actions. Confident in themselves, they create a fantasy where people hold infinite power over their lives and their choices, also known as free will. 
          Crafting the fantasy of choice is necessary to believe in free will. It is good however, that free will only exists as a fantasy, as the idea of free will in its purest form calls for a person to block out all of their knowledge and surroundings when making decisions—a feat which is not only impossible but ignorant in itself. People are naturally informed by their experiences. This process of learning from one’s past is what creates space for growth. If each choice we made was conducted completely independent of prior context, resolutions, and outside advice, people would be unable to learn from the mistakes of themselves and others. This calls into question the legitimacy of free will as a constructive tool in living a progressive life. 
In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama speaks of the American Dream as being “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.” From this, it can be understood then that free will is largely seen as a cornerstone of freedom, yet is free will truly conducive to leading a free and positive life? If free will were to actually occur and people were afforded the liberty of completely independent thoughts, it would be impossible for any restrictions to be placed on their behavior. Not only would the existence of authentic free will impact society in social and cultural ways, but also the sanctity of rules would become obsolete and anarchy would ensue. A society in which any good, bad or downright heinous thought is one in which you are free to act upon is one in which most people would not be enthusiastic to be a part of. This quality, seen as a pillar of American order and freedom, would lead to chaos. This dichotomy speaks to the deeply complex nature of free will, specifically the difference between free will as an ideal and free will as an implemented system.
          The fact that we live in an organized society where there are checks on behavior is proof enough that free will, by its textbook definition, does not exist. What does exist is free will as an ideal to believe in. The facade of autonomy, which helps people get through the day is as critical to society as the laws and cultural norms which inhibit true free will. The delicate balance of the dream of free will and its reality is what keeps society functioning. The maintenance of the illusion of free will is of the utmost importance to maintaining social order and keeping people happy.  
          Thus I wish to impart the same advice my father gave to me onto you to apply to the question of whether free will exists. “Don’t ask the question if you don't want to hear the answer.” Continuing to debate the everyday choices and try not to spend too much time analyzing whether your eventual decision was inevitable or not. As much as free will is an illusion, it is one I have enjoyed since childhood and one in which I plan to continue reveling in. Belief in free will, whether justified or not, helps people to step into their decisions with confidence which can only be gleaned from their faith in their own autonomy.