Philosophy 101 Term Paper

Terence Vent

Laura Templeman

Philosophy 101

Research Paper

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.

Works Cited

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”. theory. Web. 2015.   Retrieved from (Links to an external site.) 13 Jun 2015

Templeman, Laura, “Phil section 13 lecture”. 2015. Web. Retrieved from canvas 13 Jun 2015.

On genetic weeding and a potential future of idiocracy

I believe we are the only species on the planet that does not allow genetic weeding to happen with our children. I understand why we don’t, of course – we are humanely human – but as this quote indicates this not be optimal evolutionary strategy. There was a movie several years ago called Idiocracy that presented the case for what can happen if the least fit people – in the movie’s premise this was expressed as the dumbest people – have all the babies. The movie didn’t take itself all that seriously, but the premise rings true, doesn’t it? Who has most of the children in the United States? Which countries are struggling the most with overcrowding? Looked at from a different angle, though, it’s possible that evolution is smarter than we think we are. The educated childless couples will die out without reproducing, and leave their technological advances to the children of those who reproduce. Sooner or later a disaster in the vein of the Idiocracy premise might lead to a wholescale ‘weeding’, leaving a smaller, leaner population of those who were ‘selected’ for their survival skills, educated on the perils of overpopulation, and with all that technology to work with. Will they be as compassionate about weeding out the weak, and as cavalier about reproduction?

On the paradox of time-travel, or ‘why aren’t there any time-travelers?’

In a weird way, the fact that there are no time travelers around is troubling. Does this mean that the earth ceased to exist before anyone figured out how to travel back in time, or is backwards time travel simply impossible? It seems, intuitively, that the second option is the more logical option – Occam ’s razor – but is it? If we are this close to understanding time, isn’t it more logical – and simpler – to expect time travel to eventually come to pass? If I were told to invent a time machine in a week it would be impossibly unlikely, but if I had until the end of time it would be as simple as walking to the moon. All I would need to walk to the moon is time, a way to get there, and a promise that it is possible. All I would need to invent a time machine is time, a way to get there, and a promise that it’s possible. Is the fact that there are no time travelers evidence that the human race didn’t make it, or evidence that backwards time travel is impossible?

On free will, foresight, and our willingness to change

Determinism versus foresight is an interesting theme, and of course central to the free will discussion. The movie (Minority Report) used the theme to drive the action, but it didn’t spend much time working through the process of foresight versus determinism. The only thing they said is that if we know something bad is going to happen, we can prevent it by changing our deterministic future. I actually agree; I think foresight is the key to free will, and the antidote to determinism in real life. This ‘superpower’ is limited, of course, and subject to a few outside factors. Among these factors are distance (remoteness of the danger), avoidability (the chance that the danger can be avoided with no preventative action), and the pleasure/pain ratio.

If the future bad thing is cancer and the cause is smoking, we have our foresight balanced against the remoteness of the danger and the chance that we (1) can quit later, or (2) might get lucky and avoid the ace of spades. The actual pleasure of smoking isn’t as strong as the fear of pain if we stop – I used to smoke – but the balancing act is the same. We balance distance, avoidability, and the pleasure/pain ratio to figure out when we will quit. My equation landed me at age forty-nine. Similar factors determine when we start eating better and exercising. We often wait too long.

A more immediate bad thing might be getting killed in an automobile accident. Preventative measures are driving slower and more carefully, making conservative choices, wearing seatbelts, and remaining sober. When we are very young we drive recklessly, and our boundless energy and enthusiasm might drive us – no pun intended – to make reckless choices like careening around blind corners and driving too fast for the road conditions. When does foresight overcome the outside factors and give immediacy to the danger? In this case, it depends on some other factors, like dependence on alcohol, but for the most part drivers choose to be more careful the older they get, in many cases due to some close calls that remind them of how suddenly remote danger can become immediate danger. Belt a child into the back seat and the immediacy becomes much more of a factor.

I think foresight might be even more important than I can explain with my feeble arguments. Without foresight, how can free will even work? I feel like it has been established that we don’t have purely original thoughts, so all free will has to be rooted in decisions that are based on past experience. Without foresight, we would simply keep repeating ourselves like the Homo habilis who kept producing the same hand-axe for a million years. Foresight allows us to recombine our experiences into new patterns, and produce what we perceive as better results. We want to be better because foresight tells us that we need to be.

On advertizing and gullibility

When I turned fifty a couple of years ago I was aware that I was leaving the prime 18-49 demographic. I like to think that I am immune to most direct advertising because of how smart and aware I am, but leaving the ‘key demo’ reminded me that most people become immune to all but the most subtle forms of direct advertising by age fifty, which is why advertisers prefer to go after younger consumers. I think the main reasons why older consumers become immune is that trends recycle – we’ve seen it all before – and our own offspring demonstrate such obsessive consumerism that we are horrified by the sight of it.

We also notice how stubbornly gullible our children are. My daughter might as well have had an endless loop of fast food and Apple commercials running through her head. She is still gullible, but now that she is an adult she is beginning to see the consequences of her gullibility. Eventually, probably around the time she turns fifty, she won’t be gullible anymore and the merchandisers will move to the next generation of suckers.

On the existence of unicorns

I humbly submit that unicorns exist. My reasoning: if, in fact, unicorns existed in some distant past and were all swept out to sea, they would have either (1) all died off, in which case they would no longer exist, or (2) they learned to adapt to living in water. There is a third option – that they survived long enough to come back to the shore later – but that would involve me knowing something about amphibians so I’ll table that for now. Stipulating that number two is in play, what would a unicorn look like now?

The unicorn’s primary feature – the spike on its head – would have to be there or what’s the point? In addition, unicorns are medium sized mammals, so in adapting to the sea they would have to be medium sized whales, dolphins, or porpoises. As you probably know – I assume that you are way ahead of me on this – there is a porpoise/whale sea creature with a spike coming out of its head – the narwhal. The spike is actually an elongated tooth, but is that a deal breaker? I don’t think so; perhaps the tales of the unicorn’s spike were a bit romanticized, and that spike was part of the unicorn’s teeth all along.

I presented this argument to my daughter when she was twelve, and she got really mad at me. Oh well, nobody appreciates the messenger.

On free will and decision making

In Blink by Malcomb Gladwell, the author goes into detail about how we make decisions, and which decisions are made consciously with detailed thought and which are made in what he terms thin-slicing, to represent snap decision making based on, for the most part, our past experiences and our intuition. His stance is that we are better served when we make important decisions without exercising free will, and that free will is best used for the more mundane decisions. The idea, as he explains it, is that we are easily fooled by our own minds because of things like inductive reasoning – being induced to make a certain decision, usually by professional salesmen and marketers – and various forms of circular reasoning when we pretty much spend more time self-justifying than making an actual decision. He recommends that we only use ‘free will’ decision making such as what you describe here for things like choosing where to go to dinner, which movie to watch, and what brand of underwear to buy. In other words, it is far from automatic that we make – as you said with emphasis – better choices through free will. The relative quality of free will decisions is not directly proportional to the amount of free will exercised.