Imagine, if you will, a cat placed within a box. This box has no windows and is soundproofed. Further imagine that you then leave the room, during which time I might, or I might not, poison the cat and kill it. When you come back into the room, you have to decide – without opening the box, mind you - “Is the cat alive or dead?”
The answer, of course, is “I won’t know unless I open the box and observe it. Until such time as I do, the cat exists in a state of quantum uncertainty, meaning that the cat is potentially alive and dead at the same time. The act of observation solidifies the probabilities into certainty.”
This (highly simplified) version of a thought experiment known as Schrödinger‘s Paradox can be applied to the notion of free will*. For centuries, humankind has argued whether or not we have ultimate control over our own actions, or if everything that happens to us and everything that we do is predestined, whether it be by Deity or by the inter-relatedness of cause and effect. Indeed, it could be theorized that entire branches of science and commerce – specifically psychology, advertising, and politics – are highly advanced tools of mental and social manipulation designed test whether or not we have the free will not to succumb to their machinations.
However, I disagree with both sides of this argument, because I feel they are proceeding from an incorrect conclusion. Proponents of free will vs. predestination both like to believe they are the scientists, and if they just look hard enough they will find the evidence necessary to collapse the probabilities into a certainty. They are, unfortunately, incorrect in this belief.
Humanity is not the scientist. Humanity is the cat.
The cat does not understand what is happening to it. It cannot comprehend why it has been placed in the box, or how long it will be there, or what will happen to it while it is there. The cat is completely incapable of affecting its environment: it cannot escape, cannot make its presence known (remember, the box is windowless and soundproofed), cannot do anything other than wait for the experiment to run its course.
If the cat had the intelligence, it might notice that it is utterly trapped and its every action within the box is futile. If it understood logic, it might realize that, having been placed into the box by a scientist, it follows that a scientist will remove it. If the cat had self-awareness, it might conclude that this removal does not necessarily precede the cat starving to death. The cat might even despair, were it self-aware enough, and attempt to kill itself in order to die quickly, rather than suffer a slow lingering death of negligence.
This is humanity. We understand that we are alive, and trapped inside this reality. We cannot change anything about this reality other than to choose to leave the experiment early. Everything that we do, including suicide, is done because we are inside that metaphorical box. It is irrelevant to our existence if we have free will within this box, because the “free” portion of free will is so thoroughly constrained by the environment of the box. It does not matter if the cat has free will to pace within the box, because the cat cannot leave that box.
Humanity has created philosophy and religion in an attempt to explain the box. Some beliefs state that the box only exists within the mind of the cat, and that it can leave any time it desires. Others say that the box is a test, and that if the cat is virtuous, it will be rewarded with a paradise on the other side of the box. Some will argue that the box is a death sentence, and that it doesn't matter what the cat does, because it’s going to die there. Regardless, all of these beliefs try to bypass the fact that the cat is the experiment, and try to make it into an observer.
The cat cannot observe itself in the same manner that the scientist can. The cat can only perceive part of itself, and only while it is alive. Once the cat dies, its observation of itself ends – but that does not mean it cannot still be observed. The scientist which placed it there (Deity, Mother Nature, Causality; call it what you will) will observe it, living or dead, and remove it.
What all this means is that the concept of “free will” is irrelevant. If we have free will, we still cannot comprehend the outside of the box from the inside, nor can we understand our purpose within it. If we do not have free will, it does not matter, because we only have the illusion of free will while trapped within that box. We will only know the truth once an outside force – God, death, whatever – removes us from that box.