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Ask a Philosopher: Can I Make My Own Decisions?
We asked young people what their most burning philosophical questions are. In order to answer them, we went and asked some of today’s leading thinkers.
Is life already planned out for us or do we get to make our own decisions?
- Mira, 13
James Tartaglia, Keele University, UK
We get to make our own decisions, definitely – there are few things in philosophy I’m more sure about. The reason people think life is already planned out for us is because of a 2500-year-old philosophical theory called ‘materialism’, which basically says that everything is made of atoms, including us, and that everything is already planned out for the atoms. Modern science and modern philosophy have both shown that’s not true, but people carry on believing it anyway – I think it’s a kind of superstition.
Matt Schneeweiss, The Stoic Jew Podcast
Judaism teaches that we have free will and that WE are the ones who make all our own decisions: “See I have placed before you today the life and the good and the death and the bad … choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:15,19). Similarly, the Sages teach us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven”: “everything” refers to what is outside of our control, and “fear of heaven” refers to all our free will decisions. God is involved in our lives, but He lets US make our own plans, and rewards and punishes us based on the decisions we make. Even though God knows what we will choose, this doesn’t mean that He makes our decisions for us – just like you can know that a rock thrown up into the air will fall down, but that doesn’t mean that you are MAKING it fall with your mind.
Miriam Kosman, Author
Both. The final happy ending--that as the stubborn and ridiculously optimistic people that we are--have continued to believe in throughout our long and tumultuous history, will happen. How we get there is up to us. Yes, we totally get to make our own decisions! We get to decide if we want to give expression to the grandeur of our soaring divine soul, or if we want to spend our lives in pursuit of the ultimate sushi. Like a finely tuned GPS, The Infinite Mind lovingly recalibrates after each moral detour, gently guiding each of us and all of humanity toward a revelation of unity, connection, and infinite embrace.
Paul Franks, Yale University
I hope that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives! Nobody decides everything about their own circumstances, because from the moment of birth human beings are “thrown” – to use Heidegger’s word – into situations they could not have chosen. But everybody who attains the capacity for self-conscious choice has something over which they have some power, even if it is only the power over one’s own attitude to incredibly difficult circumstances. The extent of one’s freedom to make one’s own decisions varies greatly from person to person, and I think that each of us should try in a spirit of gratitude to make the best possible use of our freedom.
Grant Maxwell, Author
The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza says that our will is our emotions, and our emotions are determined, so in this sense, we don’t have freedom of the will. But we have a “freedom of mind” to choose how to express the affective emotions that constantly move through us. The affective (emotional) will is like waves in the ocean. We can’t control the waves, but we can choose how to relate to them, positioning ourselves like skilled surfers to ride the waves of emotion rather than be tumbled by them.