Something very dear to me that I’ve wanted to share for many years but which at first I didn’t have the forum for, secondly not having the energy to write about fully, is a seriously subversive philosophical position I hold, namely, the belief that the idea of free-will as held by most persons in the world today probably, while a comfortable fiction, is untenable and incoherent, and couldn’t possibly be true. This isn’t to say I’m a hard-determinist however: it’s probably impossible to prove determinism, even if properly kept separate from the notion that the future is in any way predictable (as is not usually done— the two are usually conflated), since it’s also possible that the universe and everything in it is a random energy pattern— so I won’t talk about determinism much, not the separate phenomenon or predicting things or not. One is tempted to say that it’s also possible that a Creator or deistic omnipotent has either determined our actions or given us the faculty of free-will, but this would be a mistake, since it presupposes that the Creator himself would possess free-will, therefore begging the question.
First, my disclaimer: I’m a visual artist and not a philosopher, so maybe my points will lack rigor in some sense I don’t realize. Moreover, what I have to say is definitely not original thought so far as I know, though I can say I’ve come to these conclusions myself (as they are obvious) around fifteen years ago. Any plagiarism is wholly unintentional, since I haven’t actually read anything on this subject in years. I hope my writing style isn’t too bad or pretentious sounding… I know there’s a bit of affectation for Bertrand Russell here. Not much will be contributed to the corpus of philosophical insights, but I can at least make my reasoning on this known to the multitudes. This outstanding discussion thread on Reddit features a much more succinct and effective line of reasoning than I can give where the points overlap, so I highly recommend looking at that too, though the discussion erodes into one of phenomenology, which is a peripheral though fascinating subject.
Whether or not we as humans have free-will is in my mind the most important question to decide in all of philosophy, since depending on the answer so many other questions would be rendered pointless to ask. “Why can’t I make myself get out of bed?”, for example, is not only pointless to ask if we believe free-will to exist (by “belief” I mean that we hypothetically take the existence of free-will to be true), but meaningless. It strictly speaking makes no sense whatsoever— if free-will exists, there can’t possibly be any explanation why one can’t get out of bed; but before we explore this we probably have to define free-will.
What I think lay-people or self-help books mean by free-will is roughly this, as said in the first person: I can do anything I want; I make up my mind about what to do— or No one tells me what to think; I can make myself happy; No one else is responsible for my success (“or failures” is also sometimes appended to this statement, though usually not really believed); I can change my mind whenever I want; Anything is possible. Most any serious debate about free-will will be centered on eliminating the vagaries from these statements, since the ordinary person hasn’t thought about what it would entail for any of this to be true. Belief in free-will is a kind of shibboleth; I’m convinced that were a group or people given a questionnaire where one question asks “Do you believe in free-will?” and another asks “Do you believe in Fate?”, the vast majority of would answer yes to both (I’ve since learned that Hume makes this exact point).
Compatibilist ways of defining free-will center on the semantic implications that determinism has on questions of ethics, etc., so those arguments aren’t salient here since I wouldn’t even attempt to aver determinism, and I have only a little to offer about ethics and human agency. Belief in free-will is ultimately a comfortable way to deny having to have any social responsibility. Why do anything for anyone else if they have free-will and can therefore do “it”… whatever they want… for themselves? There are massive sociopolitical implications in this, enough so to turn me personally from being extremely right-wing when I was young to be being (provisionally, scientifically) leftist at the advanced age I am today, once I realized that free-will didn’t even exist. My entire outlook on life changed— I no longer see anyone as responsible for anything, in any significant sense. Rather, each of us is accountable for everything.
Free-will is, in essence, a belief that the laws of physics (whatever they may be) don’t apply to human behavior, though Free-willists would probably resent this representation. I say that a person truly doesn’t have free-will if he can’t will himself to survive, say, jumping naked into burning hot lava, or by holding his breath unaccompanied by any apparatus for eighteen months. All one need do is name something that is known to be either logically, or intuitively impossible: the very fact he is capable of even doing this shows that he knows it can’t be done under any circumstances, Will or not… indeed, that is his very criteria for coming up with the scenario in the first place. If some technology someday allows us to go into the distant past to visit ancient Ionia, then let’s insist one will himself to go there without that tech. Can there be any amount of Will sufficient to do that? Why wouldn’t a mentally retarded person simply will himself to be brilliant? With enough questioning, any sane and honest person will concede that the possible range of human action is quite small.
Clearly then there are limits to what can be willed. Self-help books marketed to the depressed, infirm or socially ineffective promise us the contrary, that in fact we really can manifest any reality we wish. Quantum physics and multiple universes are invoked to explain how this reality isn’t really “real” but only a manifestation of consciousness (rather, that consciousness is the only reality), or that any one of an infinite range of universes can be accessed where a new range of possibilities is found… none of this answers the basic question of how one even changes his mind about something. Occam’s razor aside, if there are multiple universes with infinitely different versions of us all, either existent or not, how do we instantiate the existence in this other universe? Whether there is some other reality is irrelevant since we would need Will just us much to get us there as we do to get us into the future here. Multiple dimensions are therefore no explanation. For this reason, Intention as being the fundamental prerequisite for free-will becomes irrelevant, since what we think we intend almost will necessarily be at variance with what we really end up doing: I can say that I intend to get married, then go do it, but it may not be what I imagined I’d be getting myself into. Intending to do something that you don’t know all the parameters of (which is impossible) means that you really don’t actually know what you’re intending to do… free-will sounds very pale indeed when you realize that you would have to be omniscient for it to be intentional.
This leads to the question of the kind of action one takes. Is any action on behalf of a living thing an instance of free-will? Surely if examined deeply enough we will find that there is a far smaller difference between involuntary behavior and voluntary than anyone would like to admit. No one would say that we will ourselves to sneeze. So within our range of possible action we find that the motivation to act never in fact comes from any internal locus of control, or Self, but from some faculty that is itself a pattern of experience which impels us one way or another. If I understand it correctly, Libertarianism as a philosophy defines free-will as this range of possible actions, but a hypothetical range of sandwiches I might be able to choose from or ignore doesn’t mean that I won’t opt exactly for the one particular exclusive option that I do in fact choose. In other words, what option is chosen is exclusive to all others, and all talk of what I might do or might have done is just counterfactual storytelling, not philosophy.
What anyone actually even believes about the range of human possibility is often also at odds from one says he believes. Anyone who puts his child in a good school instead of a bad one, or who is kind instead of abusive, knows good and well free-will doesn’t exist… if it did exist then it wouldn’t matter what school a child goes to or how you treated him.
Here a very interesting scenario arises. Perhaps the parent or child— or anyone, really— would simply perpetually will the child into the ever-most advantageous position. Or would he…? We’re brought back to involuntary behaviors and desires. Maybe everyone is always willing everything to be exactly as the world is. Even if all other objections to free-will are ignored, I can’t see how Free-willists can get round this difficulty. Now, when one fails he can only blame himself for making it happen, or rather that he, as part of the universe has made it happen, since everyone’s Will is collaborating on the state of existence. If your wife is hit by a bus then it’s your fault, her fault and everyone else’s too. Everyone made it happen. The moral significance of even having free-will in the first place is now erased if no one in particular is the primary author of reality; i.e., if everything is a manifestation of everyone having ultimate free-will then it hardly matters if anyone does. Some, however, like the Nazis, apparently believe that some people have Will and others don’t, so they won’t be troubled by this problem.
A Creator giving us Will doesn’t answer the question, since we have to wonder where his Will comes from. The universe being a random energy pattern (as I think likely) surely doesn’t explain Will, since it’s hard to take credit for what’s random, like a die toss, especially if you happen to be inside of a completely existentially random die toss system. At the very least this requires a somewhat radical redefining of the term free-will… I doubt I personally could ever find this method of reconciliation satisfactory. The question remains, whether we are rescue the idea of free-will or abandon it, from where does Will originate? The answer is simply that our mind is actually always made up for us, because who we are is determined by antecedent circumstances.
I once saw an aphorism posted on the sign outside a church that I unfortunately can’t remember exactly, but the gist of it was this: “If you want to be a better person, then you have to want to be better.” Instantly I saw that this was the perfect argument against free-will, and I reformulated it thusly: “If you want to be a better person, then you have to want to be a better person… but before that you have to want to want to be a better person… but before that you have to want to want to want to be a better person… but before that you have to want to want to want to want to be a better person… but before that you have to want to want to want to want to want to be a better person…. Naturally I knew about infinite regress and how it can reveal fallacies, such as in the First Cause argument, but only at this point did it occur to me that it applies to free-will also, here called Ryle’s Regress. Though it also applies to any proposition involving causality, determinism, say, doesn’t carry with it the moral associations and implication of there being an agent who is responsible for actions, whereas free-will does. In other words, whether or not science or religion can provide a cosmology thats explains how any process has come into being, the actual meaning of the term determinism (say) is preserved, whereas free-will becomes meaningless no matter which. If God created the universe out of nothing and gave us free-will (never mind the objection), then we can only reach back to God’s Will and wonder how His free-will came into being.
Interestingly, I would think determinism too might be refutable on grounds of it requiring an infinite regress and implausible, thermodynamically impossible cosmogony, but thankfully it’s a hypothetical scientific concept instead of a magical one, so we can leave it to the scientists to figure out. Science is working on explaining where the universe came from, but as an explanation, God, however bad an explanation as it is, may be as good as any in this context really, since what we’re talking about is how one energy pattern (the universe) becomes another: is the state of the pattern actuated by something outside the system, something unaffected by it— Will— or is the system instantiated deterministically or chaotically? If the former, doesn’t that beg the question and merely give us a larger system to wonder about? Where does the actuating force come from?
The doctrine of free-will doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny. It doesn’t make sense. Of course we as humans, animals, living things do things, oftentimes even with intention, but because our bodies and thoughts are part of the energy pattern of the universe– events in time we call photons, protons, electrons— there is no reason to believe whatsoever that this energy field of the self isn’t subject to the behavior of rest of the field, whatever that may be. We may not know how the universe behaves in terms of its laws, but it doesn’t matter here because free-will doesn’t survive in any case. We can, and do take actions on things in our world, but not because of a faculty called free-will. We do what we do because we were made to do what we do. We can direct our efforts wherever, but that’s because we were made to direct our efforts wherever.
Because we can’t ever know the future and the consequences of actions, it will always at least seem like we have free-will even though we can know it to not be so. Some of us are simply made to be “better” or more effective people, though this term may be unduly quantitative. We use the term Lucky as shorthand for admitting we can’t enumerate all the reasons why one person turns out better, why we can’t explain how the pieces fell into place so favorably… though we might be able to see quite clearly at least a little of the picture. To this day, in most of the world, if you happen to be born into a protestant family as a white male then you are automatically very likely more fortunate than most any one else in history, living or dead. I resent that anyone takes any success derived from these facts as special proof of virtue, but this is what so many Americans, for example, do— congratulate themselves for being born in America— even if they don’t ever accomplish anything more noteworthy than that in their lives. Then they speak of the Pride they feel for being American, or christian, or german… it’s all the same oddity. In my mind, one can’t be proud for something one didn’t earn, so for this reason I think American Pride isn’t the right name for the phenomenon, but that’s for another post. Proper Pride though, despite what so many people seem to think, isn’t really a virtue (this is pretty old news) but a kind of emotionally incoherent vice.
If free-will doesn’t exist, then how does one “earn” anything? The answer is that “earning things” is simply an arbitrary class of actions a person either is or isn’t seen doing. We need to separate the idea of responsibility from accountability; responsibility implies agency, free-will, and thus a system of ethics— whereas accountability is only a description of “who ends up being stuck with the check”— the former, a prescriptive, teleological system, the latter a descriptive, mechanistic view of the facts of the situation, insofar as they can be known. If it is seen when studying the matter that better education, nutrition and population control statistically tends to elevate society as a whole then we should try to see to it that we make these universal conditions.
If one doesn’t have a free-will, then how is one supposed to change one’s mind about one’s own political philosophy, or anything for that matter? The answer is that hopefully the arguments I’ve set forth in this little essay will convince you to change your mind, because they are irrefutable!