Freewill and Determinism

On freewill and determinism, Voltaire wrote: “It would be very singular that all nature, all the planets, should obey fixed eternal laws, and that there should be a little animal five feet high, who, in contempt of these laws, could act as he pleased, solely according to his caprice.” This captures the enlightenment’s thoughts and sentiments on the determination of our will. With the enlightenments empirical methods we are unable to empirically see freewill, but intuitively we can’t help but believe that we do act freely in some instances, maybe not in all situations but at least in some circumstances. Surely, once we stand up out of the theoretical arm chair and walk into the marketplace or volunteer our time for some worthy cause it is hard to deny, on a common sense level, that we do have a will and that it is free. In this article I will give arguments against freewill and then give the problems facing those arguments followed by two theories that do suggest that there is a freewill. Wherever the chips may fall, and however you want to interpret the tea leaves, is a task I leave up to you. There can be no final word on these matters, because the debate will live on as long as inquisitive minds continue to question this metaphysical conundrum. First, for the sake of determinism, I will argue that physics is complete, that is to say that there is ultimately one kind of stuff furnishing reality which determines how the cosmos, and ourselves there within act, which simply equates to matter in motion. This physicalist view also bleeds into the neurophysiological perspective. Secondly, I will argue a behavioristic psychology, which leaves little room for praise or blame. Thirdly, I will illustrate Freud’s model of the subconsious in order to show that we can’t be unconcious and yet act freely at the same time. I will try to show holes in each of these arguments. Lastly, as for arguments for freewill, I will invoke Kant and Schiller, two complementary great minds that tell a quite different story.

Now imagine a super-numerical machine, which knew the position, movement, and mass of all particles within reality. This machine would then conceive the past, present, and future as if it were a mathematical equation. This theoretical machine is infamously dubbed Leplace’s Demon. It defends that “Physics is complete.”  Our understanding of physics, of course, isn’t complete. However, many physicalists believe that in principle, physics can explain everything.  Our most trusted methods, when attempting to understand the cosmos, are the scientific methods. They have earned our trust, and have been the horse that wins all the races. With this trusted method, we have gone to the moon and back. Using this method, we have repeatedly found order and predictability. It certainly is getting evermore refined as we study atoms, quarks and gluons.  Yet, unlike classical mechanics, contemporary physics is based on probability, and not as heavily idealized as Newtonian mechanics. Does this probability leave the door open for freewill? No, for probability is about chance. If we take a reductionist approach to its extreme end we might as well be flipping a coin to see who gets the last piece of pizza.

However, if we take the laws of physics, including the law of conservation, couldn’t we yet still account for something extra, something mental, which is outside the realm of physics? Imagine a battlefield with soldiers fighting valiently. With the right tools we can examine the quarks and gluons, then atoms, then through the lens of the periodic table of elements we can understand what makes up the observed physical matter we may see with the naked eye. Furthermore, if we take a soldier, expand his brain to the size of a building and walk in we will mostly see fat, protein, and water, which will translate into neurons, which essentially are axons, dendrites, and the synapses betwixt them. Nowhere in this picture will we see sensations, feelings, ideas, desires and motives–nowhere in there will we see freewill. The eye has to be liberated from empirical understanding in order to see valor on the battlefield. To stress this point, we can’t see the mental reason why these brave men fight. We can explain the physical causes and properties top to bottom, but not the mental reason which is the final cause for why these men fight in the first place. It’s as if mental reasons supervene atop physical causes. Soldiers, by and large, fight for devotion towards their families and their values. You can’t see that with the scientific eye, you can only see matter violently attacking matter.

The Physiological determination of the will is a difficult thing to battle. In this physicalist theory of mind our thought processes create neuropathways in our brain. The more we are stimulated or think about such and such ideas the more we will act and think according to them. A term for this theory of thought and habit is called functional fixedness. It’s where we get fixed on habitual thoughts and heuristics. The longer we are fixed on them the harder these thought patterns are to overcome. This certainly does have an impact on us, however it isn’t the end all. New ideas enter into the arena of mind and they combat old thoughts. Shakespeare challenges us to think differently upon the world in all corners of life. If we open our minds to new ideas empathetically we can overcome habit formed heuristics so that our rich cognitive lives flourish. This takes a certain capacity that is part emotional, part intellectual called “wonder”. We must nourish our sense of wonder or else we let old age impose its deteministic thoughts upon a gray world. To nourish wonder we must actively seek out new music, art, movies, friends of all generations. All of these things will expose you to new ideas and if wonder is nourished correctly you will sustain a yearning to keep learning which will keep the brains neuropathways plastic, ready, and willing to accept new ideas, if not for the sake of survival then for the sake of understanding. 

Behaviorism, a reliable guide in psychology, states boldly, “no praise, no blame.” This is because all behavior, essentially, is the result of a history that has been reinforced. We are simply like billiard balls, going down an incline plane in this view–we have no free choice in the matter. After the laws of physics, our biology, and our reinforcement history, the culmination of all of this results into what we call “choices”, or rather, more accurately, our responses and reflexes. Why is Smith going to become a lawyer? This is because Smith’s parents helped cultivate him in such a manner, which steered him into that direction. Why did Smith’s brother become a poet instead? Smith’s brother was exposed to poetry early on, and this had a greater transforming effect on him. Somewhere in the network of neurons may lie the laws of association, where our ideas come together like gravity with other ideas—after reinforcement or contiguity works its magic. This furthers the idea that freewill is an illusion. However, much to behaviorism’s flaw, is that we have no problem taking a sour tasting medicine for it’s benefiting results which will relief symptoms moments after. So i want to stress that there is a choice between pleasure and pain.

Freud’s model of mental life is riddled with the unknown. Freud believes we aren’t aware of our thoughts and our perceptions that are given in the light of conscious life. Furthermore, that we can be aware of memories and stored knowledge when our active powers bring them to the surface.  However, in the subconscious there are hidden and occult forces that have the true grip on our lives which leave our true motives shrouded in mystery. Painful experiences, violent motives, fears, shameful sexual desires, irrational wishes all lay actively in the id which operates on the pleasure principle. In this model of mental life we cannot truly know ourselves. Therefore, logically speaking, we cannot be free to consciously act as we want to act. This unconscious id is a tough beast to battle. Freud goes so far as to say through therapy we cannot even come to know ourselves, only that we may live a more comforting life coming to terms that there is a subconscious id with repressed ideas and desires which we may be able to unrepress through talk therapy. Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I believe we can discover our true motives and desires. Once they’ve been brought into the light of consciousness through learning, reflection, dream interpretation, art, and conversation we can begin to sketch together the inner working of our psyche and begin to cope and understand what and why these have been sublimated, in order to live a conscious, examined life. 

Kant, a rationalist, enlightenment thinker, believed in the freedom of the will that could act in the intelligible world. Opposed to the passions, he believed through rational deliberation we can act or forebear from acting on certain rational princples such as the categorical imperative. Here are his renditions of his Categorical imperative:

  • Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law
  • Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

To act according to these rational principles is to enter into the intelligible world where the moral domain exists, where we may be praised or blamed purely out of logical argument unrestrained from the passions. 

Schiller, who came after the patrimony of Kant, is central to the romantic rebellion to science and reason. Kant put up an impenetrable barrier between the phenomenal realm of science and the noumenal realm of things as they are in themselves that frustrated mankind. How do we tap into the noumenal realm was on the minds of the many as they labored intensively to reason their way into it. Schiller believed we couldn’t reason our way into it but only find ourselves, our noumenal selves there when in some activity. “Man is never so authentically himself as when at play,” he believed, and art is our chief source of play, and through play we tap into humanities noumenal self. Through the childlike naivete’ drive, and the philoospher’s formal drive we can fuse them together to create a fusion called the play drive that drives us into the noumenal realm where our true selves exists. 

To conclude, if we look at the brain, all we will see is matter in motion, no where do we see thoughts, ideas, desires, or motivations. Furthermore, with the help of the conservation law, we may discover physical energy; however we will never discover conscious, mental energy. It seems like this search for mind is something ghost or wraith-like. However, science is limited to empirical observation so there are cracks in the scientific explanation for it seems incomplete in describing the intrinsic, subjective life we all take part in.  Furthermore, this physicalist view bleeds into neurophysiology which assumes that we are determined to act according to our neuropathways deeply ingrained in our brain, but all isn’t lost to habit for an open mind can overcome habit and sloth. Secondly, one’s behavior is also subject to one’s own reinforcement history. Strictly speaking, we act to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Therefore, there is no freewill, it’s all an illusion. However, we do have a choice between pleasure and pain and that is why we take the foul tasting medicine for its long lasting effects. Thirdly, Freud’s unconscious id leaves no room for conscious awareness. There is no method for us to discover it’s true motives and desires so that we could one day, hopefully, be able to cope and control ourselves. However, I can’t help buy deny that through literature, learning, dream interpretation, art, reflection, and conversation we come into contact with our unconscious selves, and can begin to cope and accept what we have sublimated. As for Kant, I do believe there is freedom when acting in the intelligible world, especially when we’ve come to the old age of having a wide array of choices to select from and to act or forebear from acting without the treasonous passions traitorously holding us hostage. We see this freedom of will from the youngest of ages when a child can darken the world by closing his eyes. All this said, I agree with Schiller more than anyone on freewill, that we are most free when we are at play. It seems as time itself is arrested when we are wrapped up in some activity that we can’t detach ourselves from out of sheer enjoyment. We may skip a meal, lose track of time, and forget about other responsibilities as we joyously labor away. Mankind has found many activities these days, but I now wonder if some of these activities aren’t a form of play as they are addictions. After all that’s said and done, once we leave the armchair, we can’t help when acting or forebear from acting as though we have responsibility for the things we do. Should abstract philosophical thoughts dictates our everyday lives or should they yield to common sense? I’m a pragmatic person, and when there is a metaphysical dispute that could go either way I ask myself, “what’s in my highest virtue to believe?” I  believe these theoretical ideas that denounces free will should yield to common sense, which is the foundation for how we conduct our lives. 



2 thoughts on “Freewill and Determinism

  1. Why does determinism have to be rational? I did give different kinds of problems for freewill. Leplaces demon is functionally rational as in intelligible. Also, I have no issue with freewill being predictable. Smith may know I’m at the bus stop instead of on the train, because he listend to the radio and knew I wasn’t going to get to work on time with a broken down train and the only smart choice would have been to take the bus.


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