What is free will? Based on the Encyclopedia Britannica, free will is “the power or capacity to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints.” In real life, however, these restraints are so strong that people cannot help but follow them in most circumstances. That is the reason why we find that most ordinary people, when facing multiple choices, are unable to make use of their free will.
In his “You Don’t Have Free Will”, Jerry Coyne points out that human decisions “result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.” In other words, our behavior is solely determined by physical and chemical principles, and hence human free will is non-existent. There is some truth to this argument, as illustrated by the adulterous love of Francesca for her husband’s brother, Paolo in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno. As Dante asked Francesca in what way love caused her to make the wrong decision, Francesca described the scenario when she and Paolo were reading together in the afternoon:”At several points that reading drew our eyes/ Together, drained the color from our cheek”. After an initial period of flirtation, they were unable to control themselves anymore:”This one, from whom I never will be severed/ Kissed me upon the mouth, trembling all over/… And on that day we read in it no further”. Then they committed the sin of adultery which landed them in the Inferno. Instead of showing his contempt, however, Dante “seemed to die, and fell down as a body does when dead.” Apparently Dante is extremely sympathetic towards Francesca, as he understood that few people could ever resist the temptation of erotic love. In fact, modern scientists have already confirmed that sexual desire is largely driven by hormone in the human body.
Human decisions are bound not only by biological restraints, but also by social ones. In “Free Will is an Illusion, But You’re Still Responsible”, Michael Gazzaniga points out that responsibility for one’s action is determined “according to the rules established by the social network.” The consequence, therefore, is that people have to consider their social responsibility whenever they make any decision. In the end they will make the choice which is most acceptable by society or to the highest authority, rather than make decisions according to their own will. In this way, free will is indeed nothing but an illusion. This idea is exemplified by the starting conversation between Ismene and Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone. Ismene dares not bury her brother Polynices since she fears Creon, the king of the city who orders that nobody could ever bury Polynices. From what she tells her sister Antigone, we can observe her dilemma in making this decision. “I, for one, I’ll beg the dead to forgive me – I’m forced, I have no choice – I must obey the ones who stand in power.” Clearly Ismene would like to help her brother rest in peace (that is the reason she wished the dead could forgive her inaction), but Creon’s prohibition is the much more powerful restraint that prevents her from ultimately choosing to help. “But defy the city? I have no strength for that.” In Ismene’s point of view, the order of Creon is equivalent to the order of the entire city. She believes she has to take up the responsibility imposed by the city in order to continue surviving in this place. Thus, there is no way to show that Ismene’s decision is based on her free will. Furthermore, later from the conversation between Creon and Haemon, it can be shown that public opinion finds great value in Antigone’s improvised burial rites. “’No woman,’ they say, ‘ever deserved death less, and such a brutal death for such a glorious action… Death? She deserves a glowing crown of gold!’” The ‘glowing crown of gold’ sounds somewhat ironic, since nobody actually publicly supported Antigone for her heroic act. Nor did anybody take action to help her bury her brother. The reason is very simple: they are all afraid of Creon’s power, just as Ismene is. Thus, free will is nonexistent for the majority of people in this city.
Nevertheless, it is an over-generalization to claim that free will is merely an illusion – instead, we can find some manifestations of free will in Sophocles’ Antigone as well as in Descartes’ Discourse on Method. Admittedly, the arguments on social and biological restraints hold sway most of the time. But there are individuals who can transcend the pressure of human nature, norms, laws or external threats. Any one of them is exactly what I call as a ‘hero’ – someone who acts as a result of his own volition or according to his own careful deliberation. Descartes is one such hero in his era. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes first challenges the foundation of various branches of knowledge – “nothing solid could have been built on so insecure a foundation”. His dissatisfaction with the existing epistemological system leads him to give up studies and go on to set up a new method of reasoning and obtaining truth. His use of reason is manifested in Part IV of his Discourse on Method, in which he tries to prove that God exists. Apparently, Descartes is not restricted by any social or divine restraints, as the existence of God was considered a given fact by different religions. Descartes dares to challenge the existence of God which others dares not. On the other hand, unlike other skeptics Descartes also sets up his own principle – “I think therefore I am” – to make sure that even the “most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were unable to shake it.” Needless to say, Descartes champions free thinking and he advocates that it is thinking and doubting which demonstrates that human beings exist. This is exactly the fruit of free will.
Certainly, Descartes’ free will is not just manifested through deliberate use of reason. In Part II of his Discourse on Method, Descartes lists his three rules of morality. In particular, the second maxim demonstrates the uncompromising, hard-willed side of Descartes – “My second maxim was to be as firm and determined in my actions as I could be, and not to act on the most doubtful decisions, once I had made them, any less resolutely than on the most certain.” Instead of being a rational thinker in this case, Descartes seems to emphasize the importance of conviction and how a strong conviction will lead him to make the final decision. Since the conviction comes from the mind of Descartes himself rather than the external environment, it is true that this second maxim is, from another perspective, a new demonstration of Descartes’ free will.
In addition, the second maxim of Descartes reminds us of Antigone, another heroic figure whose free will comes from her strong belief that her brother must be buried properly. Based on Jean-Pierre Vernant’s “Imitations of the Will in Greek Tragedy”, will can be described as “the person seen as an agent, the self seen as the source of actions for which it is held responsible before others and to which it furthermore feels inwardly committed.” Antigone is such an agent who expresses her free will through her actions. Her strong objection to Creon’s order is shown in almost every word she speaks. “No, he has no right to keep me from my own.” “Even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory.” Firmly believing that it was her most important duty to bury her brother, Antigone would ignore Creon’s prohibition and Ismene’s admonition to accomplish her task. It is undeniable that Antigone has an extreme personality and she is uncompromising. Yet these imperfections of her characteristic have nothing to do with her exhibition of free will. In fact, they can make Antigone’s self-determined choice seem more dramatic as it culminated in a great tragedy in the end. Also Antigone is a literal character, and thus people may probably doubt if such an ‘Antigone’ figure does exist in the real world. The answer is a big “Yes”. Throughout history, we have witnessed countless number of people who made their own decisions regardless of external pressures. For example, Martin Luther King is the most famous African-American civil right movement leader in the U.S. history. In his speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, King demonstrates his bravery and determination by saying that “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I just want to do God’s will.” Even facing the threat of death, King was still following his conviction and making every effort to emancipate the black community. It is undeniable that King is a hero with free will – his continuous fight for freedom is just a real-life portrayal of Antigone’s fight for her brother.
In conclusion, free will is like diamond – rare, but still existent. Just as diamond which can only be formed in extremely high temperature and pressure, free will can never be found in a person unless he has an exceptionally reasonable mind or strong conviction. These characteristics will help him transcend the biological and environmental constraints, enabling his free will to shine as diamond does.
Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and Related Writings. London: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.
Sophocles, . The Three Theban Plays Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus At Colonus. Penguin Books, 1984. Print.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Ed. Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1996. Print.