Thursday, June 01, 2006

Free Will and Determinism

Dear Reader,

We are taught to believe we have free will. We are also taught not to question that teaching. In the spirit of Modernism (i.e., nihilism--ah, the awesome power of the negative), let us question it.

Free how? Free from what? Free to what?

The answers to all these questions are the same: Don't ask. The implication is that we are infinitely free because we say we are. This is patently false.

First, nothing is true just because we say it is, or because a document says it is. Belief that we can dictate terms to the cosmos--I can fly because I say I can fly; you are a bad person because I say you are--is properly called nominalism, and it is a common and obvious fallacy, bad logic.

Second, we are obviously not infinitely free. Your freedom interferes with my freedom, and vice versa, and once you spin that web of interferences out across six billion people you find quite a tangle of unfreedom. Further, reality intrudes on our precious fantasy of infinite freedom. The sun will not rise one instant sooner just because I will it to, nor will I live one moment longer than the cosmos permits. We are profoundly bound. And finally and most importantly, we obstruct ourselves. An alcoholic reaches for the bottle even--especially--when that is exactly the wrong thing to do to achieve what he believes he wants, and we are all special cases of the alcoholic: the neglected child, the victim of bullies, the overachiever, the exhibitionist . . . the more psychology identifies the patterns of human behavior, the more we realize these patterns constrain us.

So long as we believe the choice is between free will and determinism, any reality-seeking person has to choose determinism, because there is no good argument to be made for free will in the face of a cosmos of evidence to the contrary.

But why should we believe free will and determinism are the only options for explaining the human condition? Contemporary writers may lack the profundity to imagine any more than two explanations, but fortunately we have the far more insightful authors of the past to consider.

The Ancient Greeks did not believe in free will because they weren't that stupid, but neither did they settle for the simple determinism of Moderns. Put more bluntly, contrary to what the brilliant Philip Rieff writes in Sacred Order/Social Order Volume One, My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, the Ancient Greeks believed in fate but not in fate alone. To characterize them as fatalistic is one of those partial truths that is better characterized as false than true.

The Ancient Greeks believed that Man is ruled by his character, and that character is fate--Êthos anthrôpôi daimôn, wrote Heraclitus--but what is the source of character?

Each of us inherits a character (whether by genetics, or upbringing, or some combination, or something else, really does not matter for this discussion) from our parents, and by the time we figure this out (if we ever do) we have been living under the rule of that character for some years, usually decades. If we are lucky, we have eudaimonia, a good daimon, giving us good character; if unlucky, dysdaimonia, a bad daimon, giving us bad character. Our character is a daimon that rides us and steers us as a man rides a horse, nudges us through our unconscious mind, through our appetites, desires, urges, and impulses, toward certain ends and away from others. Because, as psychologists have known for over a century, the conscious mind, the ego, although it imagines itself to be in charge of the self is really just the plaything or tool of the unconscious mind that does all the steering, we often find ourselves doing things we never would have imagined, living lives quite different than those we consciously chose when we were younger. The intersection of fates where the teleology of our character meets the web of causes and effects of the cosmos steers us on an unpredictable but (from a divine perspective) fated path.

So far this accords with Rieff's dismissal of the ancient world view as organized around fate, but here is the crucial ingredient missing from his perspective: the Ancient Greeks believed in a second source of character as well.

Just as a gardener, regardless of whether the garden begins as glory or travesty, may either let it go to pot or may carefully coax it into a wonder, so each of us may cultivate our own character or not, may give in to our worst impulses and so strengthen them or may work to improve ourselves internally. We act upon our own inner cosmos or character, and thereby shift it continuously. Heraclitus wrote that all things change, and our innermost character is no exception. Our character is not software or genetics, it is more like an organism that learns and responds, changing. In the end, our character when we die may be unbelievably different than when we are born, depending on how we tend to our character, on how the cosmos treats us, and on how our character reacts.

This is a far more complex relationship to both freedom and fate than is embodied in the trivial, reductionistic, childish, Modern opposition of free will and determinism. The Ancient Greeks believed that although our character drives us to our fates, the forces both internal and external operating upon our character were so complex that not even we can know ourselves well enough to predict for sure what we will do until submitted to the trials of life. Indeed, this was the sacred purpose of story, to put a protagonist under just the right pressures to compel the truth about that character to emerge, to remind ourselves of the limits and liabilities of character and self-knowledge in an attempt to keep cancerous ego in check.

Thus, the ancient worldview is not about strictly fate but about nature, which is a domain of fate and choice, each of which influences the other in complex and changing ways. Here, in this endless dance of powers, we can imagine forces of human nature intricate enough to explain the complexities of observed human behavior far better than with any trivial choice between free will and determinism.

Character is fate, so we must cultivate our characters or suffer the fatal consequences.

Yours truly,


Anonymous said...

Free will is not the freedom to do as one pleases. That's omnipotence. Free will is the freedom to WANT as one pleases. And that freedom is absolute, within the confines of our awareness.

Danny Barer said...


Here's a story my dad ran on his blog ( that I think is apropos to your point:

"Grandfather's citizenship class had completed its work. The tests had been taken and passed. They appeared before a superior court judge to take the oath of allegiance. Having administered the oath, the judge gave them a lecture on American freedom and dismissed them

"One new citizen ran out of the courthouse and punched the first person he saw in the nose. A policeman dragged the poor guy back to the same judge. The man said, 'Judge you told us we were free citizens.'

"The judge replied. 'Sir, your freedom ends where that guy's nose begins.'"

Beverly Marshall Saling said...

"Anonymous" has missed the point of this entry. You are not actually free to "want" as you please. You are merely free to want as the complex influences of your character and fate (so far) cause you to want.

You say yourself that this freedom is absolute "within the confines of our awareness" (though I think "comprehension" is a better word than "awareness"). The point of Rick's blog is that those are some very confining confines indeed.

rick.saling said...

Wasn't it Hegel who said "Freedom is the recognition of necessity"?

Rick Marshall said...

Sort of.

Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring: “Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the appreciation of necessity. ‘Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood.’ Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves—two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined. . . . Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity (Naturnotwendigkeiten).” (5th Germ. ed., pp. 112–13.)

I do not yet know Hegel well enough to put my finger on his closest formulation of this idea, but based on what I know of Hegel so far it sounds like Engels is doing a reasonable job of paraphrasing and condensing an important principle in Hegel's philosophy.