Do we consciously direct our own actions, or is it controlled by other forces? That is the question debates on 'free will vs. determinism' try to answer; an important question in discussions on human nature, a fundamental feature in the philosophy of psychology.
Argument in favour of free will is most apparent in humanistic psychology. Unlike their predecessors – psychoanalysts and behaviourists – humanistic psychologists believe that man is in control of not only his own behavioural actions, but also in acquiring and developing new traits and beliefs. Thus, a person who has certain bad habits and maladaptive traits may consciously try to change them hence improving his behaviour and personal characteristics. An individual therefore, is not entirely at the mercy of his unconscious thoughts and desires. And neither is he powerless against the influence of his environment; social and cultural factors. He can change, regardless, and become a better person.
However, one has to be mindful of the other side of the free will equation. With free will, man indeed can change for the better but he can also change for the worse. In the past ten years, I have seen quite a few such transformations; from the mildest to the most drastic, from the most expected to the most unbelievable. I have seen how some of the most ardent and obsessive supporters of a certain Deputy Prime Minister became his strongest enemies and abusers in a matter of a few months after he was sacked from his position. I have seen how some people who used to praise and revere a certain Islamic philosophy professor from the ‘beacon on top of the hill’ began to condemn and insult his ideas and personality after he was forcibly removed from his founder-director position. And I have seen many young men and women of my generation who recorded among the highest decibel shouting reformasi and other idealistic slogans against the status quo, but upon joining the very institution they used to condemn, became passive and impotent. Alas! Some have even turned from anti-corruption activists to corruption propagators.
These spectacular transformations were all done out of free will. It is they who chose to change. It was not determined. Yes, in Islam we believe that Allah is all-Knowing hence, He knows what is to come of us in the future. That knowledge however is God’s alone. It doesn’t belong to us and should not be of our concern. Our responsibility is to utilise what God has endowed upon us; knowledge, intelligence and free will, and assume the responsibility of God’s vicegerents on earth, to enjoin good and forbid evil.
But unfortunately, when man is faced with moral ambiguities, he may lose his rationality and choose the path of ignominy.
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