A hearty perennial of philosophy class concerns the question of free will. Part of what's interesting is the conflict between the evidence supplied by our sensations and the conclusions yielded by reflection. On the one hand, I could right now, if I wanted, stand up, walk to the fridge, and, even though it's not yet noon, crack open a Miller High Life before settling into the recliner to enjoy some daytime television. At least, it sure feels like I could do that. On the other hand, you don't have to persuade me that things happen for a reason, that the "choices" that are made by me and other people have causes, which are themselves the effects of prior causes, and that you don't have to go back very far in this causation tree before you get to places I've never been and had no power to affect. Think, for example, about what science says about the reason we are the way we are--partly our genes, supplied by our parents, and partly our environment, especially the environment we grew up in, which is also supplied by our parents. And no one picked their parents.
I was stewing about this the other day because I felt so bad for one of my daughters, the 10-year-old, who confided to me that she was very nervous about having to take a standardized math test in school the next morning. "What does dad always say?" I asked, and we answered simultaneously, "Do your best!" But instead of laughing, she only smiled at me, sort of weakly, and my advice does seem pretty thin. She hadn't been planning on trying to do less than her best and was nervous anyway, so it's not like I had transported her to a new and better place.
I suppose the "deep meaning" behind my lame "Do your best!" is just that doing her best is all she can do. The truth is that her score on a standardized math test given to fourth graders had settled into a fairly narrow range around eleven years ago, when that sperm fertilized that egg, and, of the settling that's occurred since then, her industry as a student (her choice) is likely a pale influence compared to conditions in the uterus (not her choice), the attention she got as an infant (not her choice), and the quality of the instruction she receives in the school she attends (not her choice). Such a model seems like it might be a plausible resolution of the higher-level free will question. We feel like we are free either to work the problems in the Chapter Review or watch tv. The sensation of having this choice tends to obscure the fundamental facts of the case. You have to admit that other things are apparently like that. Based on the sensations we receive from living in the world, who would ever imagine that everything in the universe is made of just over 100 different kinds of atoms, and that these atoms are perpetually buzzing around, attracting each other when apart but then repelling upon being drawn together? No way!
I understand that the above view of things is an insult to the ethos of striving American achiever-types and will seem to some pretty dismal. There's a happier way to view it, however. I wouldn't say this to my daughter, because she should do her homework, but there isn't a good reason to be nervous about the math test: show up, take it, "do your best," attain the score that's been aimed at you since before you made choices; also, have fun at recess and be modest and kind to everyone, because the very best have only been the luckiest, and the very worst have had no good luck at all.