Are We Puppets or Do We Have Free Will?

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Are we puppets? Metaphorically, the question makes sense. Literally, we ask: do external forces, of which we are not conscious, manipulate our thoughts and actions? How crucial is the role of consciousness in this? If we are conscious of the external forces, might this be misconstrued as being a case of manipulation? Suppose we are aware of them but nevertheless allow ourselves to be manipulated? I think that, in both instances, the puppetry is real.

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Even the case of being unconscious of such forces triggers a more profound question: what fundamental events in the lives of self-aware beings bring them to the point where they fail to be conscious of being manipulated? Those who become inured to a manipulative situation likewise get to a point where things are normalized, even the very experience of being manipulated. In such cases, manipulation becomes normal and common, and the puppetry continues unabated.

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Are we not all puppets of our genetic configuration and social programming? Behaviorists of the Pavlovian-Skinnerian variety think we are. We have been conditioned by certain genetic and environmental factors from which there is no way out. We are captives of the past, and every decision or action we make is predetermined by how we have been individually engineered. In other words, human freedom is fictitious. We are not free moral agents, have never been and will never be. We are all puppets being manipulated by mysterious hands that have organized the genetic chips of our individual existences and placed us in the social milieus where we now find ourselves.

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So how does one arrive at the generalization: I am not only conscious but also self-conscious? I am aware of who I am and where I am now, and anything I do or plan to do is within the sphere of my volition. I am free to do what I want to do and can resist getting into a situation where I do not want to be. Having become aware of manipulation and the possibility of getting manipulated in some circumstances, I will see to it that no one can ever get me into them. It is within the scope of my individual freedom to prevent any manipulative act meant to influence me and desecrate the freedom which I believe defines the authenticity of my person.

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At the end of the day and in the silence of our hearts, though, we get into a much deeper reflection on these matters and face the question: isn’t this whole scenario simply a gearing up of ourselves to sustain a delusion? An arrogant posture of those who have been led to defend the illusion that the sole basis of our humanity is the reality of free will? What if we are not truly free? What if one’s consciousness of the notion of manipulation and the possibility of being manipulated in some instances does not prove definitely that one is free? What if we become aware of an uncharted corner of our inner life that is absolutely susceptible to manipulation? What overpowering force can dash the rhetoric of freedom so fiercely asserted on various platforms? After all our diatribes and treatises to support the proposition of human freedom, we turn around and find ourselves in the conventions of real life, amidst the means of actual daily manipulations, dominated by true-life puppeteers in a world of puppet shows.

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Real-life puppetry is a power issue, and it is quite pronounced in politics, economy,  religion, and other realms where power-wielding protagonists control not only their own lives but also the lives of others. In the area of politics, the puppet masters enact laws and exact duties. In the domain of economy, they own and manage the means of production and dictate the tempo and mode of goods and services production. Furthermore, they control the markets in terms of price manipulation and distribution priorities. In the sphere of religion, they formulate dogmas and deliver hell-and-brimstone sermons to instill fear in the hearts of the so-called believers.

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Thus we are brought to realize that we live in a world with, on the one hand, the powerful manipulators and, on the other hand, the powerless manipulated. We are caught and eaten up by a world system where things are dictated from a modern-day Olympus, the mighty abode of “gods and goddesses,” global powers that, not only manipulate, but also exploit the politics and economies of less powerful nations. These global powers create wars; they destroy the people they abhor or whose wealth of natural resources, like petroleum, they wish to monopolize. They make weak nations more feeble and sow the seeds of poverty to disempower them. These political and economic puppeteers have even tried to harvest the most modern developments in science and technology in a Manichean attempt to manipulate weather events and climate.

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Human manipulation and exploitation as puppetry is not seen only in genetic and sociocultural programming. A country’s common citizens are generally puppets of a state-power machinery that, in many ways, controls them through laws, orders, obligations, prohibitions, taxation, restrictions and a myriad other mechanisms. These are matters that the more critical members of a society are very much aware of. In other words, they know that they are being controlled and manipulated through an intricate maze of conditions, constraints and requirements, set up by the powerful, in the society they call home. The insufficiency or total absence of the people’s unified resistance against such manipulation is what sustains and continually allows the puppetry, despite its existence being known.

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Strictly speaking, those who are manipulated cannot be construed as being puppets, because a puppet cannot know that it is a puppet. In a looser and more figurative sense, however, they are puppets because they allow themselves to be so. They are “puppetized” and therefore viewed as being puppets. Subservience to the manipulative, exploitative and oppressive whims and wishes of a political, economic or religious power is an absolute case of human puppetry: an utter infringement on one’s human dignity as a moral agent who is supposedly endowed with a non-negotiable free will.

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Are we truly endowed with free will? We are challenged yet again to justify the reality of free will. If our persons are defined in terms of genetic assembly and environmental programming, does it make sense to talk of free will? It seems as if we have reached the point where the most rational resolution is to accept the fact that human personhood is predetermined, and free will is merely a persistent illusion.

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If this indeed is the human condition, then moral responsibility dies with free will. One’s ability to distinguish good from evil, or right from wrong is a matter of free will. If everything we do is merely the outcome of what we have been conditioned to do, then nobody should be held responsible for destructive, harmful, injurious, vicious and violent acts, since these actions would also result from genetic and social programs.

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Such considerations are deemed to be scientific and sensible, nevertheless they are trivial because they ignore what humans can do in persistent resistance to and open defiance of social programming and hereditary peculiarities. This is the very locus from which free will emerges. Thus it is inappropriate to confine free will by genetic and environmental determinism. A single instance of a disconnect from such determinism is sufficient to destroy all universal presuppositions that preclude the reality of free will. A clear case in point is one’s refusal to be coerced. This is a genuine act of free will. People who have the guts to resist and defy the coercive forces applied on them to yield to certain demands that are detrimental to their moral integrity illustrate the clear materialization of the reality of free will. Wherever free will is manifested, human puppetry dissolves.

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Are we puppets? No real puppet has the high-level capability to pose this question. Then why do we find ourselves so often in situations where we seem to be puppets? Because we allow ourselves to be “puppetized.” In such instances, we know within ourselves that we are not puppets at all, but we appear to be so from the point of view of the powerful puppeteers. In human society where there are no conscious puppets, puppeteers cannot thrive. The puppet masters can be defeated.

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Editor’s Note: All photographs by Luc de Leeuw.

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