Throughout history, there runs a bountiful, inexhaustible debate over the concept and supposed phenomena of what we label ‘free will’. A steadfast, elongated battle between some who hold that God (whatever atheistic or deistic conception one may have of this), or Nature, or Physics, or Genetics determines what we do.
‘It’s God’s Will’, they say, or ‘it’s fate’, ‘it was meant to be’, ‘he was born with it’. After all, every effect has a cause, does it not? Every effect can be traced back to earlier origins for which we attribute responsibility, blame and accountability for what has come after that originating cause.
And if this is so, if there is some fatalism to all of this, is not Dostoevsky correct in asserting that “…if there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices …that is a real mathematical formula – then, most likely, man will be certain to [cease to feel desire]. For who would want to choose by rule? Besides, he will at once be transformed from a human being into an organ-stop; for what is a man without desires, without freewill and without choice, if not a stop in an organ?”.
Would Dostoevsky not be free of error, in that, given this deterministic conception of humanity, we would be nothing more than a set of organs, placidly sat on the temporal conveyor belt, heading to our unavoidable fate and the determined conditions thereof?
Objectively, what would life be like in this scenario? Determined achievements are no longer achievements. Criminals are no longer accountable. Humans are relegated to the realm of ‘lower’ animals. It’s not likely a ‘fate’ we would choose, if we so had that capacity.
But I would like to endeavour to refute this fear-inducing position. A psychoanalysis of this refutation was written long ago by Nietzsche; “It is certainly not the least charm of a theory that it is refutable; it is precisely thereby that it attracts the more subtle minds. It seems that the hundred-times-refuted theory of the “free will” owes its persistence to this charm alone; some one is always appearing who feels himself strong enough to refute it”.
So, if not determinism, then what else do we have to lean on? If we travel too far along this spectrum, we find ourselves disgusted at the arrival of randomness- the polar opposite of determinism that holds the exact same effects- unaccountability, irresponsibility and all of the amoral chain that comes with it. Thus, is randomness not simply an evil equal to determinism? Who among us, again, would ‘choose’, such a life?
And in this vein, it appears we would appreciate some much needed justification for something in between, and tangled betwixt these two polarities. A freedom born of necessity, if you will. Not only is this the preferable option (as it saves us from both complete determinism and complete randomness), but also the option with the most evidence, if we espouse our experience.
Kazantzakis, in Zorba the Greek described his own similar idea of free will in which Zorba explains to his friend that we are birds, with small chains around our ankles. We fly, and fly, and soar above the clouds, until suddenly we are jerked back by the tension at the end of the chain. But we continue to fly, in this arch of freedom that’s created for us by our very own restriction. Our responsibility is to do all we can not to make that chain disappear, but to make it longer, in order to make that arch or freedom fuller (comment I left on Mark Robertson’s Essay.
This adds more understanding to Dickens’ assertion that; “I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it”.
This all leads sportingly to the elegant theory of English Philosopher David Hume. Hume was one of the first truly ‘rational’ philosophers, who based his theories on only experiential experience, without reference to high-flung metaphysical claims, assertions or phenomena, which invariably suffer the wonderful problem of unfalsifiability. He was one of the very few who truly took Ockham’s Razor to heart.
He understood that attempting to pose that human beings were somehow outside of, and unaffected by, the laws of cause and effect was too much to attempt. This task could not be done with appeal to reason alone, so he set about using a different tact. His philosophy claimed that humans are determined animals. We are agents of cause and effect, no matter how ‘free’ we think we are- yet we can still be responsible for our acts (what we are talking about here is a form of compatibilism).
This is because we are determined to take the action that leads to the most pleasure, or the least pain. These are our motivators. These are our causes. This is our ‘fatality’. This may not sound too appealing at present, what with being guided and directed by our emotions alone, but allow me to continue.
We have, as humans, the capacity to reason (at least, I hope most of us do). If we choose not to use this reason for reflection, self-development, fuller understanding of the world etc, then of course, we will likely be motivated by sensual pleasures, alcohol, sex, food, shouting and brawling. These are the things that give us most pleasure, it seems. We will live as the beasts. We will be ‘determined’ to do so, because there is no stronger motivation pushing us in the alternative direction.
If, however, we dedicate our life to greater things such as further study, true empathy, personal development, and whatnot, then we understand the effects of our actions so much more fully. We develop capacities within us such as remorse, guilt, empathy, mutual understanding that change the face of the motivations we once had- they uncover further pains and pleasures that we knew not even existed, and thereby pull us in an opposing direction to the merely sensual aspect of experience.
Rather than choosing to eat 10 pizzas tonight, we eat only one, because we understand the health effects of doing so, and realize that we will save ourselves from future pain.
We choose not to cheat on our partners because the guilt we would feel, and the emotions we would trigger later on would not be worth the short burst of pleasure.
We choose not to buy that expensive TV and use the money toward something that will provide something more fulfilling to our life.
In this sense, we still remain determined to act according to what will give us most pleasure or least pain (note, this is not ethical egoism, but rather psychological egoism. Pain and pleasure are not the reasons for our actions, but only the motivations for, and causes of, them). Thus, we are still in the realm of cause and effect, while still retaining and maintaining responsibility for our actions.
To further iterate this, we can go back to Zorba’s ‘bird’ example. We start life on an extremely short, restrictive chain. The range of actions we can choose and deliberate between are extremely limited. But it is up to us to use our life, our reason, and our intellect, to make that chain longer- to allow ourselves to more fully understand where our acts will lead, and which pains and pleasures these acts will uncover- to educate ourselves enough to know that in the short term, something may bring about pleasure, but in the long term only pain. Because this is what will alter our decisions and choices through life, and give us a head start on chasing what is truly good for us.
As C S Lewis once said; “For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John”. Hume’s philosophy makes this choice entirely possible, depending on how we decide to live our life. Though we are determined to act according to our emotions, we have the freedom to educate ourselves enough to feel the ‘right’ emotions and the right time, which will in turn push us to act in more favorable ways.
And thus when Madelein Albright said “When people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”, she espouses the exact point of this post. The idea that we all have access to reason, and rationality, gives us all the chance to utilize this in order to uncover facts about the world that help us to change our viewpoints, and alter the course of our ‘fate’, to change who we are, to improve our morality, and to make the favourable decisions for which we will be proud to be accountable. The more we learn, understand, connect, and uncover, the more free we become- the more actions, roads, paths, directions and doors we give ourselves access to- the longer we forge our chain.