A Series of Question Marks

If humans cannot freely make decisions, how do we respond to the events in life?

Y. Rasti
5 min readJun 26, 2020


Fishing Boats in Stormy Seas. Hermanus Koekkoek the Elder. 1855.

We are faced with many choices in life; the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the words we say are all choices. We then seem to think that all of our decision will determine our future events. As if life is a labyrinth of choices whose direction is absolute. But if we analyze the concept carefully, we will find irregularities from the options’ causal narrative. Is it true that humans are free to choose? Is it true that we individually have the power to make decisions that will determine the future?

We are free if, in the decision-making process, we can choose other than what we have chosen. If the possibility to choose a different one does not exist, then the choice we make can not be said as part of freedom, or in other words, we do not have the power to choose freely as we previously believed.

To examine this, we need to look at the decision-making process that occurs internally. In decision making, we are influenced by our mental state, which is directly tied to our brain’s state, which is also a natural state. And we all know for sure that the natural or biological state is not free at all. This kind of determination is explained by the food that we chose to eat. We cannot eat contaminated food and decide not to be poisoned. Maybe with this example, you will argue that decision-making in life is not necessarily influenced by the food that goes into the stomach. But try to remember again how your mind becomes different when you forget to eat your breakfast or do not have time to drink coffee before going to the office, while on the previous day you have to work late at night.

As another example, if you are a woman, try to remember how your thoughts were different when you were menstruating. Through these examples, we can clearly understand that our thoughts directly receive the effects of biological conditions. The decisions we make are not single events but are also influenced by previous events, like a series of dominoes that fall in a row. This example is only a small picture and does not represent the external factors that bind choices, such as pressure and social habits.

In reading this article, for example, you will arrive at the thought that you have the freedom to agree or disagree with everything I say. But the choices you might make are influenced by what you have read before, what you previously believed, and what you already accepted as value, and they do not reach you absolutely through your own choice.

If humans cannot freely make decisions, how do we respond to the events in life? Honestly, I can’t answer that question. But when I thought about that, I came to a new question. When we want to make a decision, we are always driven by our objective to the result, which is always related to the concept of failure and success in life. The question is, how do we determine what is success and what is failure? The answer to this question is troublesome; besides the absence of a clear definition of what failure is, we also have different values about what success is.

During the Roman Empire, success was always related to the area of land they controlled, the possessions, and the number of troops. Success like this seems reasonable at first glance, that naturally, every individual has a desire to become rich, powerful, and has power over other individuals. But success like this comes with excessive worry about failure. Someone who pursues success like this is simultaneously pursued by fear and shame if those values are not met. This shame happened to a Roman general, Publius Quinctilius Varus. He decided to commit suicide because he was ashamed of his failure at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

Decades after Varus’ death, Jesus preached on the hill in Galilee and said, “Blessed are the poor …”, “Blessed are the meek …” And so on. Jesus’ sermon directly challenged the values of success previously believed in the Roman Empire. Jesus placed success not in the size of the land you rule, not in your strength of war, nor in the amount of wealth you own. He radically uprooted the concept of success that had previously existed on earth.

Years after the sermon, Jesus’ followers then valued worldly desires, such as accumulating wealth, as a failure. In their perspective, success is going through self-denial, walk on the path of misery, and being able to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The early church is reluctant to pursue material matters and assess poverty and weakness as blessings and divine prosperity symbols. Paul, a follower of Jesus, even explained to his congregation in Corinth that he preferred to boast of his weaknesses because it was in this weakness that divine power became perfect.

Similarly, Siddharta Gautama taught us that we must eliminate tanha — lust or desire — to be free from dukkha or suffering. This teaching illustrates that success, according to the Buddha, is a denial of worldly desires, by not pursuing things in the thought of the Roman Empire known as success.
But success like this does not necessarily become perfect. Because pursuing this kind of success will be faced with natural suffering due to a lack of resources to sustain life itself, pursuing success like this requires dedication and additional efforts to maintain hope. This success requires you to believe that there will be more important things, divine things, waiting in the future, like waiting for a savior, who unfortunately doesn’t necessarily arrive tomorrow morning.

What is it that I’m trying to signify with all of these? Would it help us if we realize that all the decisions we make are not entirely free? What are these value differences about success and failure indicate? Maybe, all of these — and possibly this life — are just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.⁸

But, if I have to conclude, I would say that in the uncertainty of life, between bound choices, success and failure are dynamic and have no absolute value. Questions like, “What should we expect?” “To what do we place hope?” for me, is just like an effort to find meaning, that above this uncertain life, we are compelled to look for something that seems inevitable, which we can use as a reference in interpreting life. But in truth, there are no definitive answers to these questions. Perhaps humanity’s greatest curse is to love life and accept uncertainty. Fighting the scourge will only lead to anxiety.
To close this article, I will quote Nietzsche’s words,

“My formula for human greatness is Amor Fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less conceal it — all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity — but to love it.”

⁸If you know my reference to these words, I like you already. Cheers!