A poser, even for an Einstein

A self-determined life – according to a Swiss Life study, that’s what nine out of ten seniors would like. Now, self-determination presupposes free will. But the greatest minds have been arguing for centuries about whether free will in fact exists – from Confucius to Kant, from Spinoza to Sartre. Can modern neurological research come up with a definitive answer?

Albert Einstein was lighting his beloved pipe, when he suddenly paused and began to brood: "I can tell that I want to light my pipe, and light it I do; but how am I to reconcile this with the idea of freedom?" Einstein continued to puzzle over the matter: "What lies behind this act of volition, my desire to light my pipe? A further act of volition?" And the intellectual giant was forced to admit that "I honestly don’t know what people mean when they talk about the freedom of human will."

Does free will exist or not? Well, if you find the question confusing, you’re in good company.

The scepticism of neurological researchers

Our brains as well as our experience of life and the influences of our environment: all of these factors affect our will. "We live our lives mostly on autopilot", says the American journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, summing up the current state of research. The German cognitive scientist Wolfgang Prinz offers a paradoxical formulation: "We don’t do what we want; we want what we do." A wide range of experiments with electrical stimuli in the brain suggest that a decision has already been made before we even have time to consciously think through the pros and cons.

Foundation of coexistence

Such a degree of scepticism is surprising: after all, self-determination is the central value of the modern world. Indeed, we owe the most passionate defence of free will to the greatest thinker of the Enlightenment, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who saw in it the foundation of all morality. The Swiss educationalist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was of like mind: "Humans owe their sight to their will, as well as their blindness. They are free thanks to their will, but they are likewise slaves. They are honest thanks to their will, and they are likewise scoundrels."

Other thinkers, however, of no less moment have doubted the existence of free will, among them the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): "People may be able to do what they want, but they cannot want what they want."

Is our society imaginable at all without the concept of free will - is the modern world imaginable? One thing is certain: without free will, the foundation of our coexistence would crumble. For who then would be responsible for their deeds and omissions? Without free will, ethical behaviour would simply be impossible. But the consequences would go well beyond the merely legal; for self-determination is the bedrock of human dignity.

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The value of self-determination only becomes clear with all its implications when we recall the alternative: determination by others.

Varying conceptions of human nature

The value of self-determination only becomes clear with all its implications when we recall the alternative: determination by others. It was no accident that Jean Bodin (1529-1596), the French political theorist and father of the concept of sovereignty, was the first to argue in this fashion: “For us, natural liberty means not being subordinated to any living human other than God, and not to be obliged to obey commands from anyone other than ourselves: that is, from our own reason, which is ever in harmony with the will of God.”

Self-determination versus determination by others - can bridges be built at all between such different conceptions of human nature? Yes, says the Swiss philosopher and novelist Peter Bieri. Bieri calls his conciliatory proposal “conditional freedom”. “Even if my interior world is intimately interwoven with the rest of the world,” says the philosopher, explaining his position, “yet there is a mighty difference between a life in which people exercise such care with their thinking, feeling and willing, and a life that merely collides with people, and whose experience overwhelms them without their being able to defend themselves.” Bieri’s conclusion: “Understanding self-determination means emphasising this difference.”

Increasing relevance

It is clear that this debate will preoccupy us for some time to come, and that the differences between neurological investigation and our own conception of human nature are likely to grow more acute. So too will we see the growing relevance of this topic in our society, in which ever more older people are insisting on a self-determined life.

It is well possible that we will never get a conclusive answer. As the English man of letters Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) once wrote, without fear of contradiction: "All theory is against free will; all experience for it.”

Swiss Life study on a longer self-determined life:


Pictures: iStock/Gilithuka, iStock/Dirk Freder, Keystone/AP Photo, iStock/Chris van de Velde, Kate Stafford/CC BY-SA 2.0/Wikimedia Commons, iStock/Africanway, Julius Nielsen/University of Copenhagen, Manfred Heyde/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons, Keystone/DPA/Wildlife/N.Wu, Alamy