The answer to the question of whether we as humans have control over our actions has been debated for thousands of years. Humans have a strong affinity towards the idea of freedom. We have formed our societies on the basis of personal responsibility. Every person is to be held into account for his or her actions. It is on this basis that we must assume that people have free will. This assumption does not mean that it is certain that people have control over their actions. It only means that it is a practical necessity to believe that it is so.
On the other hand we must accept that our free will is constrained by factors beyond our control. We never chose to be born. We did not design our physiology. We did not choose the society we were raised by nor do we have complete control over our socioeconomic status. We must accept that the world that we live in is, for the most part, largely deterministic.
We might believe that although we have minimal control over the outside world, we control our own minds. There are however many brain related disorders that prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that our own minds are not completely within our control. If we take the example of a person with Tourette’s syndrome, this person is not able to control what they say even if they want to. The inability of a person with Tourette’s to control their actions does not mean that they are not the person doing the action. Certain people with this disorder are believed to consciously say things they do not wish to say, due to being compelled to by an overwhelming urge.
This doesn’t mean that people without such neurological disorders have a completely free will. Everyone experiences urges that do not wish to have. A person who is overweight has an overwhelming urge to eat. They do not wish to have such an urge and do not have a large degree of control over whether they have the urge or not. What they do have control over, to a certain degree, is their ability to deal with this urge.
This allows us to, for practical purposes, assume that the brain, the mind and the will are three distinct entities. The brain is the biological structure that we are forced to live in. Our subconscious lives here. We might have some measure of control over it, through healthy eating, meditating or exercise, but we do not have complete control over it. We cannot force it to unthink a thought we wished it never thought. Thus it is best to think of the brain as being a part of us but not the source of our conscious selves. Our conscious self is the mind. The mind is the inner self that chooses to acknowledge or ignore the thoughts of the brain. The will is the outer self, the part of our self that manifests the mind into practical action. I am not claiming that this is actually how the mind and consciousness operate. I am claiming that, for practical purposes, this is how we could imagine how the mind and consciousness operate.
This mindset reduces the entirety of the human experience to an existence of active reaction. What do I mean by active reaction? Active reaction is simply playing the cards that you were dealt. You did not choose for the world to be the way it is. What are you going to do about it? You did not choose the thoughts that enter your brain. What are you going to do about it? You did not choose you natural talents. What are you going to do with them?
A person who comes to acknowledge that their life is no more than an existence of active reaction understands that they have no control over others. They can only, to a certain degree, control their reaction. Imagine that you’re driving and someone nearly crashes into you. You had no control over their action. You have an automatic urge to be angry. The only options you have are to either remain calm or let yourself succumb to anger.
This does not mean that an existence of active reaction is an existence bereft of beauty and creativity. Let us take the example of a talented musician. The musician did not choose their natural talent or their love of music. Their choice is relegated to nurturing or ignoring this natural talent. Their talent is only manifested if they choose to utilize it. Our musician might hear musical sounds or even full compositions in their head. The musician sets about figuring out the notes that make up the sounds they heard in their head. One could even argue that the musician did not compose the piece but rather was merely the conduit that the composition utilized to bring itself into existence. But had it not been for the musicians choice to set about discovering the notes that make up the composition then the piece would have not come into existence, remaining a fleeting melody in their head.
To live a life of active reaction is a mindset not based on any scientific proofs, we are simply to assume that we have a limited form of free will and acknowledge that the majority of things that happen to us are beyond our control. We may or may not truly have free will, but we must assume that we do.