Free will is something we all presume we have. It is a key concept in many religions and philosophies. It is defined by contemporary Hungarian philosopher Ferenc Huoranszki as the capacity for an individual to be responsible for his or her own actions. It is a commonly held thought that all of us are in full control of our choices in life and that self-determination is the natural state in which we all exist.
However, another concept, determinism, puts forth the idea that we are not actually in control of our own actions. According to Bob Doyle’s 2011 book “Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy,” determinism is the idea that human action is determined by prior events and conditions. Any action can be pre-determined by what those conditions are. Those conditions can be almost anything, internal or external, that is out of our control.
A study begun in 2007 by the National Institute for Mental Health found five different mental disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, all shared similar gene variations. These genetic variations accounted for 17 to 28 percent of the risk for the illnesses. In addition it has been commonly known for years that mental disorders, like major depression run in families.
We are at the mercy of our own genetics and brain chemistry. There are many stories of people having major personality changes after suffering brain trauma. People’s entire identities can be completely flipped by changes in brain chemistry. Even minor things, like hunger or lack of sleep, can cause noticeable and fairly predictable changes in behavior. This commonly takes people who otherwise would be perfectly civil and friendly and makes them highly irritable and quick to anger when they otherwise would not be if it was their choice.
Drug use is an excellent example of the influence brain chemistry has on our actions and decisions. The effects of drugs like nicotine, marijuana and alcohol are well-known and are often used to explain away different behaviors. The extreme examples of this are the effects of drug addiction. Addicts become dependent on a substance and use it compulsively. Their body’s desire for whatever it is they are addicted to over-rules any sort of rational thought or decision-making.
In addition to our personality, our political beliefs might also be the result of our biology.
A study conducted in 2005 by John Alford, Carolyn Funk and John Hibbing compared the political opinions of identical and fraternal twins and found identical twins, who have nearly identical genetics and very similar upbringings, hold shockingly similar political views on every single topic that was covered in the survey. This suggests our political beliefs could be influenced by something genetic. At the very least they are influenced in part by our personalities which are influenced by our brain chemistry.
Arguments against free will are not rock solid truths. In the 2005 study, they found the unshared experiences were more influential than the shared experiences of the twins studied. People frequently make horrible decisions all the time, and some overcome negative influences and make good choices. However, mental disorders changes in personality, both permanently and temporarily, and addiction all suggest our personalities and decisions are influenced by our brain chemistry. Free will and self-determination might not be the absolute truths we think them to be.