From the moment we wake up, we make countless choices and decisions. From the most trivial and mundane choices like what to eat for breakfast, to major life-changing decisions that could impact our lives for years to come, like who to marry, our choices and decisions appear to be free i.e. made of our own volition and freewill. After all, no one makes me have my morning tea on a gun point; I choose to have it.
But is this really so? Are we really free to choose? To be more precise, are our choices really free?
Philosophers have debated the question of freewill for centuries. So many theories have been developed over the years but no definitive answers or conclusions have been reached.
A little disclaimer first: This article might sound pessimistic, even downright depressing to you. But I never said I would only and always write positive, uplifting stuff, did I?
Carol Cotton says, and I second that:
“Life is not all “sugar and spice and all things nice”—there’s a huge dollop of salty, sour, and bitter. Those who chose to ignore half the recipe, live only half a life.”
Besides, you are free to choose to keep reading this article or stop reading it right here and go do something else.
So yes, back to the question:
Are we really free to choose? Are our choices really free?
One way to answer this question is:
In most matters, we have no choice and what happens is determined by luck or chance or forces beyond our control. For example, we don’t choose to be born or to be born as a human, to be born at a certain time in history or certain day of the year, to be born in a particular religion, to be born to a particular set of parents of a certain race, certain nationality and certain social status. We don’t choose how attractive or unattractive we are physically. We don't choose our height, complexion, body shape, intelligence, etc. We don't choose how we are brought up or what school we go to in our early childhood. We don’t choose how we are conditioned by the society, culture, religion, media, etc. We don’t choose most of our beliefs, biases, stereotypes, habits, attitudes and behaviors that we develop or unconsciously pick up from others.
But in many matters, we apparently do have a choice. For example we can choose which subject to study, which career to pursue, what to wear, what to eat, which books to read, what to watch on TV, who to be friends with, how to treat people, how to behave, what to say, what to do next, etc. We can choose to change our habits, to change our unhelpful thinking patterns, to overcome our weaknesses, etc. We can choose to be more kind, more compassionate, more helping, more loving, more caring, more conscious, self-aware, etc. It is these choices that I am talking about. Are we really free to make these choices? Or are these choices limited, constrained, predetermined and influenced by external factors?
When are free to choose and when are we not?
We are free to choose if:
1. No one is stopping us or preventing us from doing what we really want to
do or forcing us to do something we don’t want to do
2. There are no physical constraints preventing us from doing what we want
3. We have the means or the power to do what we want to do
I am writing this article at midnight not just because I want to, but also because no one is preventing me from writing it (my husband is not home and my son is sleeping), there are no physical constraints preventing me from writing it (my body, my hands and brain are working just fine) and I have the means (laptop) and the power (writing ability) to write it. Technically speaking, it is a free choice. But if I factor in the fact that I have this pressure to complete this article tonight because I have to email it to my subscribers tomorrow, you could say it is not a free choice. So whether or not a choice is free also depends on how you look at it and what factors you decide to consider or ignore.
Here’s another way to put it: Being completely free or doing something out of your own free will requires that you have other options available AND you can choose any of the other available options. If you don’t have other options available or you do have options but you cannot choose from them, and you cannot avoid making a certain choice, then your choice is not free.
Let’s say you make a very healthy and nutritious vegetable salad and post a picture on Instagram with the caption “We are what we choose to eat”. Now, was it really a free choice? Were you really free to choose to eat something healthy? The answer depends on the availability of other possible options. If you had unhealthy or junk food available and you still deliberately chose to eat that salad, then you can say your choice was free and you were free to choose. But if you ate that salad because it was the only thing available and because pizza, hamburgers, and other junk food were not available, then it was not a free choice and you were not free to choose.
Now, we are free to choose in some ways and not in others. You can choose to eat whenever you want, even when you are not hungry, but you cannot choose to feel hungry. You can choose to read a book, but you cannot choose to like it, even if it is one of the best-selling books. You can choose to be well-dressed and presentable when meeting someone for the first time, but whether or not you will make a good first impression on them is beyond your control.
Some of our choices are based on our likes, wants and preferences. Even though we can do what we like or want, we are not free to choose what we like, want or prefer. Just like birds are programmed to have a preference for certain foods, we are also programmed to like, want and prefer certain things over others. I like chocolate ice-cream more than vanilla. If you ask me why I like chocolate and why I don't like vanilla, I would say, "I have no idea". Every time you want me to choose between chocolate and vanilla ice-cream, chocolate would be my choice every single time.
Except when you offer me the choice between strawberry and vanilla ice-cream; in that case, I would go for vanilla, because I don't like the strawberry flavor (I absolutely love strawberries though). This shows that sometimes, our choices are based on a certain frame of reference i.e. everything can be better or worse in comparison to everything else.
Some of our choices are free because we can control some aspects of the environment while other choices are not free because we cannot control certain aspects of the environment. For example, every night after my son goes to sleep, I don’t have the free choice to go out for a stroll and have an ice-cream even if I badly want to, because it’s late night, shops are closed, my husband is not home and my 2 year old son is sleeping. But I am free to write an article, free to paint whatever I want, free to watch a couple of episodes of my favorite series The Walking Dead, free to go to sleep.
There's a famous proverb, “If you pick up one end of the stick you also pick up the other”. I am free to choose to pick up one end of the stick, but not free to choose to pick up the other because the other end is picked up automatically as a consequence. This means that whenever we are free to make a choice, we are not free to choose the consequences of our choice. For example, I have control over my eating habits and I can choose to eat junk food every day. But, what all that junk will do to my body is beyond my control. I might live up to the age of 80 without any major health problems, or I might die in my 30s from a heart attack because of my poor eating habits or choices.
Psychologists also agree that we have less freedom than we think because unconscious processes exert a powerful influence over our choices. In other words, we have the freedom to choose but our choices are constrained, in ways we don’t even realize, by internal and external factors and forces that lie outside our conscious control, such as societal norms, expectations, morals, stereotypes, culture, religion, genetic predisposition, environmental factors, etc.
Think back to the last time you attended a wedding. What did you wear? Party or formal wear, right? There is no formal dress code for weddings, like most workplaces. You wore party wear and not casual wear because of societal norms. Our society dictates what we can or should wear at different occasions, even though we are free and allowed to wear what the hell ever we want.
Another example: Women in Pakistan, like all the women in the world, are allowed to ride a motorbike. It is not verboten as there are no laws, constitutional or religious, that prohibit women from doing so. Yet you will see that 99% of the women in Pakistan don’t know how to ride a motorbike, do not own one and do not even consider it as a possible means of transport. Less than 1% of women in Pakistan own and ride a bike, which is a trend that has started only recently.
Now the big question: why? Why don’t women in Pakistan ride motorbike when they are allowed to do so? Because for years, they have seen only men riding it. Because their fathers, brothers, husbands or sons never allowed or encouraged them to ride it. Because they even actively discouraged it by saying that women are not supposed to ride motorbikes, without giving any reason. Also because it is apparently vulgar or inappropriate for women to sit on motorbike like men do, with their legs spread. In other words, women in Pakistan are free to choose to ride a motorbike, but don’t have free choice because their choice is limited by the society’s norms, expectations, morals and stereotypes.