June 15, 2015
If it’s not Deterministic in Thirty Minutes it’s Free Will
There are few subjects touchier than the debate between determinism and free will, and even fewer debates with so many widely divergent angles from which to attack. Many of the world’s smartest, best educated thinkers have been stumped in their attempts to determine whether or not free will exists. Some have determined that free will is imaginary, and some have even suggested that free will is a subversive force. Some believe that the orderly nature of the universe itself precludes such a sloppy variable as free will, while others find the idea of such repressive orderliness suffocating. Some see free will as an extension of human self-awareness, while others deem free will to be essential to the concepts of morality and ethical behavior. Some attempt to reconcile free will with determinist cause and effect, while others – including Eastern cultures – exercise free will as a tool to aid them in their journey towards concepts that they consider more important.
Many hard determinists claim that free will is imaginary; that the concept of free will is all in our heads. Albert Einstein, explaining the epiphany that led to his world-changing scientific theories, said that it began when he realized “If a man falls freely he will not feel his own weight” (Bowen 232). Seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was a pantheist who believed only “God and Nature” are free (Templeman). He believed we have the illusion of free will – that we “dream with our eyes open.” He claimed that “there is no such thing as free will. The mind is induced to wish this or that by some cause and that cause is determined by another cause, and so on back to infinity” (Bowen 219). Spinoza wrote that if a fallen stone were able to think, that “such a stone would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued its motion solely because of its own wish” (Bowen 220). This particular mindset considers free will to be a myth.
Some hard determinists go so far as to consider the myth of free will to be a subversive force. Voltaire said “it would be very [strange] that all nature, all the planets, should obey eternal laws, and that there should be a little animal, five feet high, who, in contempt of these laws, could act as he pleased” (Bowen 230). Contemporary philosopher John Hospers describes free will as the outer manifestation of our inner impulses. He considers our conscious to “be a slave to our deeper unconscious motivations” (Templeman). B.F. Skinner, the prominent animal psychologist, claimed that “freedom is a myth, and a dangerous myth because we have invested the myth and its symbol [“freedom”] with something close to sacred qualities” (Christian 259). Skinner also believed that what we consider to be free will is an illusion, and that what we are experiencing is actually a conditioned response based on past experience (Christian 260). Skinner also considered creative thought to be conditioned, rather than created. In “How Writing a Poem Is like Having a Baby”, Skinner suggests that the poet is, like a mother giving birth, simply a “locus for the poem to grow” (Bowen 231). To this hard determinist mindset the idea of free will is both unlikely and distasteful.
Many philosophers, especially those with a scientific background, suggest that the universe is so orderly and predetermined that it would be possible, with enough information, to predict everything that has ever happened and everything that will happen in the future. Isaac Newton said that “humans are made of atoms that follow the physical laws of the universe” (Templeman). Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, wrote; “the astonishing hypothesis is that you … are no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (Bowen 218). Pierre-Simon LaPlace, a prominent 19th century French mathematician, delivered a message of hope to every bookie, compulsive gambler, and degenerate horse player when he hypothesized that “an intelligence which in a single instant could know all the forces which animate the natural world, and the respective situations of all the beings that made it up, could, provided it was vast enough to make an analysis of all the data so supplied, be able to produce a single formula which specified all the movements in the universe from those of the largest bodies in the universe to those of the lightest atom” (Templeman). This mindset believes that universal law and order is a reality that can be quantified.
Other philosophers oppose the ideas of subconscious control, universal law, and empirical order. William James stood defiant in the face of coerced determinism, famously proclaiming: “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” (Christian 213). James believed that free will could be enhanced through practice, that “if I practice making choices, I can increase my freedom, and the idea (of free will) becomes more true” (Christian 215). James arrived at his epiphany after reading an article by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier, who considered the “experience of freedom” to be the “most distinctive quality of human beings” (Christian 213). James, after reading the article, wrote in his journal: “I see no reason why [Renouvier’s] definition of free will – the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts – need be the definition of an illusion” (Christian 213). Michael Palmer, in Moral Problems, demonstrated that past performance – a form of ‘contingent truth’ – is no guarantee of future performance (Emecz). Palmer’s conclusion was that we “cannot know the future from contingent predictions” (Emecz). Some illusions might in fact be the illusions of illusions.
Jean-Paul Sartre gives perhaps the most eloquent – and most extensive – argument in favor of free will in his epic Being and Nothingness. He wrote that the primary purpose of human life is a “gradual escape from self-deception by means of a progressive movement toward authenticity” (Christian 265). Sartre did not accept the inevitability of determinism, defiantly claiming that he had “never accepted anything without contesting it in some way” (Christian 266). His experiences in World War II, in particular the daily life and death decisions that his fellow prisoners were faced with, led him to proclaim that he and his French countrymen were “never more free than during the German occupation” (Christian 267). Sartre explained how facing torture, and not knowing whether or not they would give in to the torture, exposed the basic question of liberty itself; the prisoner was compelled to see as deep inside himself as a man possibly can. This stark, brutal view of human consciousness led Sartre to his most famous quotation: “we are condemned to be free” (Christian 265).
There are a number of counterpoint arguments based on the reality – or illusion – of free will. Seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke determined that a man locked in a room in which he chooses to stay is not evidence of his free will; Locke believed that freedom and will are two separate ideas, and that the man’s ignorance of his status only gave him the illusion of free will (Templeman). Modern philosopher Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, maintained that the opposite is true. If we are forced to act in the same way as we wish to act, it is free (Templeman). Dennett also maintained that humans can act unexpectedly, which is not compatible with the concept of cause and effect (Templeman). German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz put the onus of unexpected action on the universe itself. Leibniz believed that we act according to the rules of nature, but that nature’s rules could hypothetically be different, so we could logically choose to act differently – and hence have free will (Templeman). Kant chose to look at the reality of free will from the opposite end; Kant believed that we must have free will to be morally responsible, and that morality would have no meaning without free will (Templeman).
Many philosophers have attempted to reconcile determinism with free will. Scottish philosopher David Hume professed to finding joy in making life’s mundane decisions, from playing backgammon to dining, despite also maintaining that we can never know anything for sure (Christian 182). Kant believed that we are dualistic in our view, both free and determined. We are objects in the world, subject to deterministic forces, but we also are conscious beings who can think for ourselves (Templeman). John Locke, who refused to accept that a man content behind a locked door is free, also refused to accept that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism (Templeman). William James said that we need free will for ethics, but that we can’t prove its existence (Templeman). Nietzsche believed that we have free will, but that most people do not use it (Templeman). He believed that we could will ourselves to improved traits and then pass those improved traits on to our offspring, but that most of us prefer to follow the crowd and allow our free will to be subjugated to the group (Christian 478).
Eastern cultures have their own views about free will and determinism. Most of them include the concept of karma, which carries over from one life to the next and is not part of corporeal existence. Hinduism calls this essence ‘atman’ (Bowen 42). Hinduism equates free will to spiritual growth, using the analogy of a cow tied to a pole. As we grow spiritually, the rope gets longer (Templeman). Buddha taught that “we are what we think, having become what we thought (Christian 230). Buddha’s eightfold path – right perspective, right intention, right speech, right behavior, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation – is predicated on the existence of free will (Christian 232). Right thoughts and actions, or right decisions, logically require the existence of wrong thoughts and actions, or wrong decisions. Buddha teaches that the path to enlightenment can be reached by making the right decisions, but those decisions are not spelled out. Buddhists must make these decisions themselves. As the Dhammapada reads, “the Buddha can only tell you the way; it is for you yourself to make the effort” (Christian 236). In the East, free will is a tool used to align oneself with what might be considered a deterministic ideal.
The spectrum between pure free will and pure determinism leaves room for a bewildering array of divergent opinions, culled from a bewildering array of angles. Determinist views can range from the hard view that nothing happens randomly – and all supposed decisions are illusions – to more conciliatory views that allow for individual decisions within a larger framework of cause and effect. Free will can range from choosing to remain in a locked room to a level of freedom so all-encompassing that night is not assumed until the sun actually drops below the horizon. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the massive, bewildering middle. It is certainly possible that all human awareness is an illusion, delivered to our minds by an entity beyond our ability to perceive, let alone understand. It is also possible, and perhaps a bit more probable, that we are creatures of habitual and hereditary cause and effect, but are also capable of making some decisions that can have an effect on a Chinese butterfly. If the Chinese butterfly decides to eat fish the chicken population will increase, but will this have anything to do with the price of eggs? There are only an infinite number of ways to find out.
Bowen, Jack. Dream Weaver Anniversary Edition. 2008. Pearson Education, Inc., New York, NY. Print.
Christian, James L. Philosophy, an Introduction to the Art of Wondering. 2009. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Belmont, Ca. Print.
Emecz, Paul. “Free Will and Determinism”. Rsrevision.com/ethical theory. Web. 2015. Retrieved from rsvision.com (Links to an external site.) 13 Jun 2015
Templeman, Laura, “Phil section 13 lecture”. 2015. Web. Retrieved from canvas 13 Jun 2015.