FREEDOM AND FATE, CAUSE AND CHOICE
Since I became a philosophy teacher and researcher over five decades ago, I have been investigating the issues around freedom and fate, cause and choice. My standpoints on many related issues have undergone many changes and developments, not least almost entire reversals of my convictions as regards fundamental philosophical issues. This I regard as inevitable if a person is truly to learn and discover, to deepen and broaden understanding… to be capable of accepting having been mistaken time and again, itself something which presupposes self-reflection and self-critical thinking of a quite radical kind. My temporary adherence to many different world-views, at times atheistic or agnostic and for a long period religious mysticism, eventually led me in a decisive paradigm-shift away from any belief in any all-encompassing intelligence or designing creator. A very radical reassessment of the considerable range of evidence on which these doctrines were based – evidence which I had taken too much on trust – proved them to be so speculative as to cause a major shift in my convictions.
Quite late in life I came fully to discount deterministic philosophies and various largely incompatible theories of ‘karma’ which ‘reward’ or ‘punish’ actions, rejecting that there is any supernatural moral system working through cause and effect to equalise the effects of actions which ‘reward’ or ‘punish’. However, my standpoint on issues of freedom of the will has been fairly consistent throughout. I have nearly always been convinced that some degree of real personal freedom is possible, though my views have changed on in what it consists, what evidence supports it, how much and to what it extends, what it is that limits it and to what extent it may be increased through personal development.
Whether or not humans have free will is an issue of whether free will is possible or not. It is not simple question, so a blunt dichotomy between freedom-determinism is not helpful, even if the issue could be empirically decided (which it apparently can never be). The term ‘free will’ has dozens of different meanings or interpretations. The more important of these are crucially meaningful in the entire human inquiry into how humans causally affect the world and society.
From the subjective individual viewpoint, we appear to have the free will to do anything we like. This is the one limitation of the subjective viewpoint, for the ego itself is formed as the result of many previous thoughts and acts, conditioning one’s freedom to pursue individual instincts and inclinations. What we think we are free to choose depends on many conditions, the opportunities, restraints, insight, and knowledge we possess. In society, one has freedom to act, but this does not imply that one has freedom to know what is the best way to attain our goals in acting ‘freely’, even if they are objectively attainable. We cannot avoid the consequences of our actions (i.e. conscious choices), which also imply responsibility precisely when and because they are regarded as resulting one’s own wilfull behaviour. Freedom of choice always implies consequences, and these can often work back upon the doer – whether of the good or pleasurable and bad or painful kind. Further, these are mostly only perceived on a limited scale and not possible results far into the future. Our freedom is also conditions, even if not fully determined, by conditions over which we have no control. What one thought were ‘free choices’ may well have been fully or partly determined by pre-existing personal tendencies that have been psychologically determined (having limited one’s scope of thought and action). They may also be choices influenced by wrong ideas about the choices available, or the results that could follow. this amounts to a measure of unfreedom. If one’s subjective freedom of choice is used only within objective conditions which limit future alternatives or even lead to the opposite of the desired end, this amounts to a measure of unfreedom. From the mundane viewpoint, the conditioning of our minds by our wants and desires is itself obscured… and the more so the stronger, blinder or wilful the person’s ego.
There are senses in which we are free to choose, even though one cannot make the assumption that all individuals are equally free to choose. Individuals are not all equally able to exercise free will, as their abilities depend on such factors as maturity, health condition, physical limitations, social restraints, intelligence and the level of their knowledge. Besides, people in different cultures and different socio-economic classes are subject to different degrees of restraint or freedom to act, the alternatives between which they can choose are fewer that in more egalitarian and prosperous cultures. These aspects of freedom of the will – seemingly such an evident fact – are mostly overlooked by those theoreticians who concentrate on the more technical philosophical or theological issues around human free will. The ‘technical’ scientific-philosophical debate avoids conflicting with the widely cherished generalised belief about the supposed freedom and equality of all persons. On the one hand it is patently evident that everyone does not have the same degree of personal freedom – that is, the ability and means to do whatever they choose – because all freedom or choice is limited by the alternatives on hand. For example, an infant is less free than an adult, a person serving a prison sentence is less free than a normal citizen, a person with broad knowledge and long experience is usually aware of more realistic possibilities and alternatives than a person deprived of education and opportunities for wide experience. The limitations on freedom can also be congenital, as in those born with symptoms of genetic mental retardation. On these respects, that there is relative ‘freedom of the will’ makes perfectly good sense.
The significance of the above consideration is that it opens for the possibility of degrees of human freedom of will in a way which even tends to challenge the basic assumption of free will as a universal human capacity, or at least some of the implications drawn from it (not least in religion, morals and the law). It has been proposed in some religions and by esoteric schools that the degree of free will anyone has depends upon unusual achievements such a yoga, tantra and other practices. The pseudo-philosopher Gurdjieff was a proponent of such a theory. This idea also forms the basis of most Hindu and Buddhist religion. The difficulty with this is that, as a hypothesis, it is far beyond any normal means of investigation or testing. Nonetheless, science in general still regards the existence of higher forms of consciousness or ‘transcendental wisdom’ than the human mind normally achieves as a ‘unvalidated hypothesis’, and some even regard it as an unnecessary theory to explain anything. Moreover, there is no evidence that any such supposed ‘spiritual masters’ have ever contributed anything significant to genuine knowledge, but only to speculation and subjective self-interpretations.
The atheist Sam Harris, of whose ideas mostly approve, unfortunately wrote: “Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be ourselves in the world. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.”
Though his declaration is unnecessarily compounded with what he believes our sense of freedom results from, the core idea that free will is an illusion cannot be proven false. Nor, of course, can it be proven true. When I pay attention to “what it is like to be myself in the world” I come to an entirely different result than Sam Harris believes anyone would. This test he proposes is really so vague that it can be taken a hundred ways, so it is rather useless as an argument for his contention. I can see conditions over which I had no control, but also alternatives between which I had to decide – after long deliberations as to which of the most likely consequences were the best bet. I note also that, fortunate as I am in my life situation, I have far more alternatives and possibilities than many who are less ‘free’ (i.e. live under far more constraining conditions).
Without giving a definition of ‘free will’, which presumably Harris finds impossible since he claims there is no such thing – he has (on his own theory) involuntarily plumped for physical determinism as the reason for no free will being possible. The whole idea of ‘freedom’ – one of the vaguest and most misused words available (if not comparable to ‘God’) is itself under threat here, of course. (But has not our freedom ever been under threat… o.k., joke over). If one cannot properly distinguish and define the different meanings and contexts of what ‘freedom of the will’, ‘ choice’ and ‘volition’ are, one does not actually know what it is one is talking about. Despite a few references to research which suggests – but does not prove (of course) – that the brain and/or consciousness is a totally causally-determined entity and that there can be no indeterminism whatever (as is nonetheless accepted in micro-physics).
Many people understand ‘free will’ to mean our having options and to be able to distinguish and so select those alternative courses of action one chooses or wishes (whatever the multiplicity of circumstances that lie behind the choice… including conscious intentions and subconscious predilections). This makes free will – or freedom – something that is relative to the level of one’s control over the environment and oneself. Those who have the opportunities provided by upbringing, education, social position, self-help and resources have a greater degree of freedom – and can exercise their ‘will’ (desires, motives, and
The idea of choice between real alternatives as an illusion has consequences of an extremely far-reaching nature… and they would be revolutionary if it were eliminated from human thought and intercourse. I do not see that Harris has considered this, and I find the reason to be his over-generalizing approach…. and that means his language imprecision. What does Harris mean by ‘freedom of the will’ exactly?
The key issue about free will should not be whether it is a metaphysical possibility or not, but what means, how the idea is used for, what role it plays in human affairs. Further, how the scope of freedom can be increased in a fair way within a society for most people. One may reduce the issue to some either-or propositions (e.g. that it exists or it does not, or that everything is determined or not). But the issue of freedom is not encompassed by single ‘determinations’ – such as whether there can be an uncaused cause or not. The human experience of freedom and all that it has come to mean in respect of human development, the improvement of society (towards democratic freedom, habeas corpus, relative personal and social liberation and many another humanistic connection) is what ought to be the key issue, for these usages cannot be eliminated from our understanding – being so important are widespread. Human freedom has raised the species to orders of empowerment denied to any other order of animal life. (This is not to accept the religious doctrine that mankind is the only being with the freedom to know the difference between right and wrong and to choose between them in his actions. The key issue about free will is not whether it is a metaphysical possibility or not, but what it is used for, how its scope can be increased in a fair way within a society. Note also that freedom of the will is not a necessary component of theology and religious moralizing, for there have been many a religious determinist since the Stoic Zenon, and most pre-Greek religion is highly fatalistic/deterministic, not least in India where a deterministic brand of ‘karma’ theory is one root cause of the widespread fatalism seen among the Indian masses today. Sam Harris seems to think determinism could be a conceptual tool against religious moralism… for if we have no choice, then all moral preaching is totally futile. It can equally well be a tool of fanatics… all is Allah’s will, being one example for contemporary comparisons.
The countless phenomena of reality are not totally understood by any fully explicit and coherent system that satisfies strictly logical reason, and may never be so. That would assume an overall purposive order in reality, and would have to overcome the problem that experience is too subtle, intricate, deep and extensive to be fixated in a definitive or complete way by the human mind, individually or collectively. This is to say that the mind cannot (certainly so far) fully understand any purpose or meaning of the universe that might apply, not least because this exceeds the mental sphere altogether.
Universal physical laws with a very high level of probability of being objectively correct are already known to us. Yet they do not actually serve to explain many key issues about human life. To be satisfactory, it need not be total, but it must give an account of all phenomena observed and of what reason thereby conceives. An overall, total rational purpose in or ‘behind the scenes’ applying to every phenomenon might seem to amount to total determinism and an ‘automatic and basically mechanical-type universe’. However intricate such an overarching scientific cosmology might be, it would probably fail to satisfy the human mind which generally abhors ‘purposelessness’ or ultimate meaninglessness. If, as mystics assert, the universe is created out of universal love for ineffable blissful purposes, it could not then be understood fully in rational terms.
As noted, determinist theses narrow the discussion to what is little better than the ‘clockwork universe’ conception and technical philosophical arguments: The famous dictum ‘every event has a cause’ is not proven, of course… nut every single event cannot be studied or proven to be tied to a preceding event. So it is an assumption, a principle – fruitful indeed in respect of scientific investigation. It is the desirable carrot before the donkey that doesn’t know the answer (yet). But then the universe is a continuously interacting complex of countless influences – multiple causes if you like, a mutually-dependent ‘ecology’ of events – so that the reductionist method of isolating one event to one cause is rather comparable to missing the forests for one tree. Admittedly, one tree tells us a lot about a forest, but far from all that is involved. The ‘one cause-one effect’ hypothesis is fruitful as an analytical instrument but not much use in that we are also faced with the synthetical task (holistic if you prefer) or understanding in terms of greater and greater wholes. One such greater whole is the human brain, another is nature, another is ‘society’ and the question becomes – is everything running on predetermined lines, or is there any point in mental development, education, politics, upbringing to responsibility, or any of the countless attempts to ‘liberate’ people progressively from the worst burdens of life? (How to ‘liberate’ someone who can never be other than unfree?)
All explanations must end somewhere (in practice and in theory), so proving what causes what in the super-intricate human mind will always remain largely an open question. In such an uncertain situation, how should we think about ourselves – as ignorant automatons, as unwitting slaves of circumstance? Harris’ thesis implies that is just what we are! But he might rather take a leaf from Maimonides’ book, “We ought to exert our efforts in everything as though they were absolutely free..” (That Maimonides added, “… and God will do as he sees fit.” need not faze us… one can substitute ‘natural causes’ for God and ‘determine’ for ‘as he sees fit’).