Disclaimer: I read the Quran in the light of science, philosophy, ethics, and public policy. This is not a theological discussion, but some rational thinking shaped by the Quran.

Humans have intellect and willpower. He uses his intellect to discern rights from wrongs and identify what is good or bad for him. His willpower enables him to make the choice and do what he wants to do. He is free to choose. However, there has always been the question of how free our freedom of choices is.

This summer I’ve stumbled upon a book titled Determined – Life Without Free Will. Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University is the author of the book. He belongs to the deterministic camp of neurobiology. Their main argument is that free will is an illusion. We are not the owners of our conscious decisions. They are determined by our biology and environments.

It is like, me and my Italian friend went to a dinner party. There was rice and bread among other things. After some Eeny Meeny Miny Moe moments, we ended up eating rice and bread respectively. Apparently, we could have chosen otherwise. However, our choices were determined by the food habits of the place we originally came from – me from Bangladesh and he from Italy.

According to the deterministic school of thought, our choices are not made by us consciously but by our brains. It perceives information from our sensory neurons. It processes the information and gives the decision to our motor neurons for the executions. We become aware of the decision only after it has been made in the brain. Thus, our conscious decisions are called an illusion. My conscious me is not the actor but a witness of the event.

Our individual variations in choice making come from two main sources: a) variation in our current inner physiological state (e.g., hormone regulation, stress level etc.), b) variation in our individual historical development of the brain specific to our ancestral, cultural, parental, and socioeconomic differences.

Robert gave many examples of how our decisions are determined by our biology, environment, and the interaction between them in the book. For example, when we had our last meal: when we are hungry, our brain lacks the necessary glucose for complex decision making and starts economizing the deliberation and deciding on the shortcut. The example given in the book is about an empirical study on parole decisions. The longer the judges had their last meal, the less they were likely to grant parole.

How was the stress level of our mums when we were in their bellies imprinting the level of vulnerabilities to depression and anxieties during adult life? Increased levels of hormones (i.e., androgen) in the mom’s body may result in the future adult higher likelihood of aggression, poor emotional balance, lower empathy etc.

What type of family and socioeconomic conditions did we grow up in during our childhood and when we were adolescents or young adult? During those periods, our key brain regions (i.e., frontal cortex and prefrontal cortex) responsible for complex decision making and long-term goal setting were still being formed.

We inherit our genetic constitution from our parents. The good news is that it is not hard luck. Thanks to Epigenetics – a new discipline of genetic studies, we know that our genetic behaviors are regulated by our internal and external environments. Our genetic makeup is a vast pool of potential for both good and bad. Which variant – good or bad – will be activated and expressed in our adult behavioral traits depends in part on which environment we had been growing up in. An abusive family environment may trigger an aggressive gene variant making the adult with a natural predisposition to the violence. While the same gene would trigger a non-violent variant if the individual grew up in a loving family.

The family environment is directly connected to our cultural and the physical environment we live in. For example, the nuclear family and the extended family culture would foster two different personality traits. While the former would be more self-centric and individualistic, the latter would be more pro-social and collectivist. Robert also gave examples of how the trends of personality traits vary from desert dwelling to rainforest dwelling, from more individualistic farming (e.g., wheat farming) areas to more collective farming (e.g., rice farming) areas, etc.

If my choices are determined by all these things that I did not have any control over like parents, families, cultures, and environment, then how free my conscious decisions are. Am I giving them, or they are given to our consciousness by our brain as the resultant sums of my aggregated and cumulative circumstances over time. For the deterministic camp, we are absolutely given the decisions.

However, the determinists are not fatalists. For them, environment is the key. We won’t be able to intervene either in our past or in our brain processes. Our brain in the right or wrong environment will produce the right or wrong decisions. However, the environment is an open system. It changes. Therefore, there is hope. Our job would be to learn from the past as much as possible and try to be in the optimal environment.

Meantime, we must redefine our value system of reward and punishment for personal achievements and failures. Because everything is determined beyond personal control, there should be no personal responsibility. There is only a series of successive good or bad luck. When somebody achieves something great, we can celebrate his good luck and praise and promote his environment as an ideal for others. When someone commits a horrendous crime, we should isolate him from his environment and put him in the right one without blaming him personally.

I can see the great intentions of this approach that our retributive punishment system is replaced by a corrective one and winner takes all culture is changed by a culture of all things considered. However, I’m not sure how fair (in a legal sense) or feasible this approach is for the society. Some determinists known as compatibilists think that the brain processes are very complex. For all practical purposes like personal responsibility, we can consider that we have free will.

The thing that strikes me most in the book is the fact that someone can already be impacted for life at birth. It gave me some paradoxical thoughts. I wish I had known it when we were expecting our babies. Especially during our first baby, I was working overseas. I was wondering if I could or should do something differently. According to deterministic logic, it’s futile thinking. There should not have been an alternative. So why I’m thinking again? In fact, I’m not thinking but reviewing my thought processes then.

For Professor Kevin Mitchel of the University of Dublin, my thought review is a cue that there is free will. Kevin is also a neuroscientist. Coincidentally, he also published a book titled “Free Agents – How evolution gave us free will” around the same time of Robert’s book but claiming that humans have free will. The long history of our biological evolution has set us free.

According to Kevin, living organisms are causal agents. They do things for their own reasons. They are not mindless machines that things only happen in them following the laws of physics. Machines have no purpose of their own. On the contrary, all living organisms have their foundational purpose of self-preservation through time, which we call selfhood. They do not merely exist at the mercy of the environment but participate and actively shape the latter for their own purposes.

To survive, living organisms must always make choices: approach or avoid, exploit or explore, fight or fly, etc. As a result, it requires an understanding of the meaning of environmental stimuli and imposing values upon the meanings for action selection. For the lower-level organisms such as bacterium the meaning and subsequent choices are encoded in and implemented by the underlying interlocking biochemical processes.

The human brain has numerous intervening and interlocking layers of simultaneous processing between perception and action selections. Kevin has described in detail in his book how our brain produces the mental state – the world of ideas, emotions, deliberative choices, setting up future goals, adopt policies and strategies – from those foundational biochemical processes leading to the state of abstract meaning and values, where our conscious selves are in charge. Moreover, humans are endowed with not only cognition (ability to think) but also metacognition (ability to think about thinking) and language.

All animals including humans perceive, process, and act. If they are satisfied with the outcome, they store the learning for future use. When the outcome is not satisfactory, all animals just decide to do other things. But we can review our thoughts and reasons behind our original thinking and reasoning. We can ask the question of why the desirable outcome has not been achieved. Was it a wrong choice, wrong timing, wrong strategy, wrong methodology, bad luck, or something else? We can learn from our mistakes.

We don’t need to be limited by our individual past experiences. With language, we can share ideas and thoughts with others. We can learn from their success and failure too. We are capable of imagination. Thus, we can set goals and adopt strategies towards achieving the goal in the future. Thus, like the past, future goals can also condition our present behaviors. We are neither completely determined by our past or present environments, nor we are completely independent from them. We are always constrained by them.

Kevin agrees with Robert that all our actions have prior causes. However, he argues that many of them are the result of our own making. He also agrees that we are born with an innate nature with genetic predispositions and propensities. However, he argues that these tendencies do not directly control our behavior except for rare genetic mutations and pathological conditions. Nurture plays a significant role in the development of our personalities. Again, it does not work in isolation. It is nature, nurture, and our active interaction with them that shape the person we become. Our choices are made by past experiences and knowledge, filtered by present goals and motivations in service of the future that we have consciously set for ourselves.

It is also true that many of our decisions are made unconsciously. They are either habitual work already resolved by our past deliberation or set by future goals. It does not mean that all our decisions are always made unconsciously. Even for habitual work, our consciousness may intervene on a need-to-know basis.

I don’t have the domain knowledge to judge who is right and who is wrong. In fact, when all things are considered, the difference between the two positions is not as big as it seems to be at first instance. One position postulates that our choices are completely determined by prior causes. The other considers that they are not determined but constrained by the prior causes. Many of those prior causes were the results of our past engagements and decisions. We also have the capacity to review and reset those decisions for the future. For practical purposes, their consensus appears to me all too important than their differences that the environment and upbringing play significant roles in the formation of our persona. If we want to change, we must change our environment.

Reading these two books has been an amazing journey for me for two reasons. First, both authors are neuroscientists. They have presented many of the same data and same the experimental results in their respective books. However, every time their interpretations were different, taking them to two different conclusions. This is because they have used two different theoretical frameworks – Robert used reductionist or bottom-up approaches, while Kevin used holistic or top-down approaches. Why do scientists in the same field use different theoretical frameworks? Because they are also people of the world. They are trying to solve different types of problems. Often, they need different types of solutions for the same problem.

Robert has worked a lot with the American criminal justice system. He has been witnessing how the system is failing the socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. He wants to change the system from its core philosophy of retribution to correction. Kevin is European, where the criminal justice system is much more liberal. Many necessary mitigating circumstances are already legally considered and encoded.

Secondly, to see that science has come to this point. It has been an age-old question for religion like Islam which makes the belief in fate and destiny an article of its faith itself. If everything is determined by my fate, how can I be responsible for my predetermined actions? The available answers are not that far from the debate between determinism, compatibilism, and limited free agency.

“So be steadfast in faith in all uprightness O Prophet—the natural Way of Allah which He has instilled in all people. Let there be no change in this creation of Allah. That is the Straight Way, but most people do not know (Al Quran 30:30).”

According to the Quran, humans are born with an innate nature called Fitrah. It’s a state of reference. If someone lives in harmony with the Fitrah, he will achieve the self-actualization. Divine guidance is there to follow the path of Fitrah. However, the Fitrah is neither deterministic nor constraining. It is his upbringing, environment, and his conscious engagement with them that constrain his behaviors. Islam puts enormous importance on what we eat, where we live, who is our friends so on and so forth. Living in the right environment is of utmost importance.

In terms of fate and moral responsibility, there are three things: intention, action, and outcome. We are responsible for our intentions and actions out of the limited freedom that we have. The outcome belongs to the hands of our fate, which is related to the environment and circumstances that we are in. We are both actors and witnesses of our own life story.

“According to the prophetic saying reported by Suhaib (r): Wonderous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him (Source: Sahih Muslim 2999)”.

As such, gratitude, patience, and forgiveness are considered as highly appreciated virtues of a believer. When the believer achieves something, he is supposed to express gratitude instead of being proud of self-entitlement. When he fails in something he is supposed to keep himself up in patience instead of suffering the self-blame. Because he should understand that the outcomes have not been the results of his actions alone but of his fortunate or unfortunate circumstances too. Forgiveness is recommended as the kindest virtue for the consideration of all mitigating circumstances.

I’m neither an expert in neurobiology nor in Islamic science. From an end-user point of view, it appears to me that for the moment, the experimental knowledge is going to the direction of divine knowledge along with all the devils in the details. However, faith and empirical facts remain two different things. They are based upon completely different paradigms. One is not any proof or disproof for other. We should be free to choose but not one at the expense of the other.