In modern times, many religious questions often turn into scientific ones as technology improves. Science can delve deeper than ever before into every facet of human life. Over the past millennia, philosophers and theologians have debated whether humans have free will. Do we as individuals have the personal agency to determine our own destinies?
If yes, how does that connect to our relationship with a divine being? If no, the same question. Theologians have basically turmoiled over these two questions for all of existence. If there is a god or gods, are they pulling the strings in our lives? Do these gods determine if I decide to go to work tomorrow or if I decide to be mean to my mother during our next interaction? If we do have this agency, then we control our own fate. In the eyes of religion, that means we are the ones responsible for attaining our salvation in the afterlife or not via the quality of our earthly actions. If we do not contain this agency, then that god or gods control our fate. They decide who goes to Heaven or Hell.
Of course, Catholicism believes that humans were given free will by Yahweh at the time of Creation. This Catholic doctrine teaches then that we have the ability to control our own futures and that our actions will determine our salvation, or lack thereof.
However, I seek to examine free will in a different context–one that, in a way, dismantles the dichotomy of agency determined by humans or by a god. This is the free will known to psychology. This scientific look at the philosophical problems provides us with a more tangible, demonstrable answer on the matter. In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered that free will–outside of religion–is essentially an illusion.
The sciences of genetics and biochemistry are leading us to conclude that we indeed do not have personal agency. Our brains are running the show. Since we as personalities are a product of our brains, it is the organ itself that determines our actions. We do not have the power to make decisions; our brains do.
The human brain is a network of billions of neurons with trillions of synaptic connections. These lines of biological wiring transmit electricity through the transfer of certain chemicals. We have all heard of hormones and chemicals, such as dopamine, cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone. We all know that certain chemicals can affect our moods. This is the very essence of free will. The chemicals are driving who we are and what we do in our daily lives. It is scientifically known that some females often experience mood changes leading up to their monthly menstruation due to a chemical change within their bodies. Men can experience the same types of mood changes with different chemicals as well. We do not choose to engage these chemicals. They flow throughout our bodies and alter how we act. They change our decisions.
The fascinating point is that this is not a temporary occurrence. Chemicals are constantly determining how we act. Genetics, especially, determine how much of what chemicals we will contain throughout our lives. That is why illnesses like depression are heritable and extremely difficult to combat. The chemicals are determining our moods. The same logic follows with a naturally happy person possibly containing more dopamine than others. If someone has too much dopamine, they can become schizophrenic. If he or she has too little, they may suffer from depression. But it not just the extremes that change people’s moods and action; it is every change in multiple chemicals that determine our personalities every single day.
Therefore, the idea of free will–at least in the scientific sense–is dead. Our chemicals determined by our genetics are running the show without any agency by “us.” I quote the word us since we as human beings are one with the brain and its chemicals. There is no difference.
There is, however, one thing that can alter our chemicals and, therefore, our future actions: our environment. The physical and also social environments to which we are exposed can change the flow of our chemicals throughout our brains and bodies. People respond differently to the same situation due to the fact that we all have a unique balance of neuro-chemicals. If we experience a high-stress situation, our stress chemicals may increase causing us to respond in a certain way. Some people may handle that same stressful situation very calmly due to the fact that their genetics determined that they handle stress well.
Now, this new perspective on free will may change religious ideas. Some theists may propose that even if we do not have personal agency in the historically accepted sense, a god could have still provided us with the chemicals to determine our lives without that god itself controlling exactly which chemicals we receive through genetics; therefore, a god-controlled world is not the necessary conclusion of this scientific finding. Our destinies, therefore, are not necessarily determined by a god but still develop organically through nature and our genetics. However, this still may raise another theological debate on whether we ourselves should be held responsible for our salvation since we cannot change the genetics and chemicals that we were given by our ancestors. I personally am not interested in that debate with this article, yet it is definitely worth delving into further at another time.
There is another debate that these scientific findings raise. This debate includes how we treat the mentally ill, how we treat convicted felons, and also–more generally–whether there is truly a difference between someone being born the way they are or determining their lifestyle based on personal decisions.
First, we need to discuss how to properly treat and prevent mental illness. If people’s mental states are not determined by their own choices, then we have to treat mental illness with a great amount of care. We cannot simply tell someone to become happier when suffering from depression. Furthermore, just because someone’s chemicals determine their personalities, this does not mean we cannot attempt to change these personalities. We still ought to try to solve someone’s depression and see how they react to such treatment. If they do not dig out of depression, it is the fault of these chemicals. The same for if they do successfully leave the state of depression through such treatment. We want to try to change these mental illnesses as the inflicted people truly suffer great pain from such illnesses.
Also, these mental illnesses can cause societal harm. Illnesses can cause a person to become violent and hurt other human beings. That is why we have an insanity defense in legal trials. Unfortunately, this does mean that we still incarcerate someone for the actions determined by their chemicals. However, we have to protect society from incurring future harm and must lock up violent offenders. However, we still ought to attempt rehabilitation for these individuals since we never know how their psyches will react to such treatment.
Now, some have posed the argument that why seek to change someone’s political ideas, for example, if they are merely a product of their genetics and environment. However, I refute this argument with the fact that certain political ideas can indeed harm society. Therefore, we have a moral duty to seek to change people’s ideas in the effort of trying to create a more peaceful, conducive world.
With this new scientific finding, we now question the dichotomy of whether someone is born the way they are or if they have become that way out of personal choice. I think this is an artificial distinction. For example, someone exhibits homosexual feelings due to the balance of chemicals in their bodies. It is widely known that genetics and hormones play a large role in determining homosexuality. Due to this, it has been observed that sexual preferences may indeed change over the duration of an individual’s life. It is not so black and white. We now know that chemicals determine every facet of our lifestyles.
An argument to this example is that then why can we not seek to change homosexuals regardless of what caused the homosexual lifestyle. I argue that we are not justified in changing the lifestyles of homosexuals because such a lifestyle does no social harm. Homosexuals loving each other does not kill anyone, harm anyone, or ruin other heterosexual marriage. Granting this equality does not deprive other people their rights. Therefore, we allow people to be who they are and follow their personal pursuit of happiness.
As we have now seen, science can guide our political, religious, and societal ideas. The idea of free will has changed and, therefore, the way we view ourselves, each other, and the actions of all people must be altered. We may not have personal agency as we used to believe, but that does not mean we cannot seek to change the world. We should always stand up to harmful forces and give our best effort to see how those harmful forces may change in light of our actions. We should not try to change people whose lifestyles may be different than our own but do not harm others or society. Our future actions may indeed be determined by our chemistry, but that does not mean that we ought to give up on convincing each other of what we believe to be true and right. Either way, that forfeiture itself would be determined by our brains, but we cannot go on in life acting as if we do not have personal agency. We still have to convince ourselves that we do indeed make our own decisions.
*If you would like to read more on this subject, I advise buying Dr. Sam Harris’ Free Will.