Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Dylan Thomas “Fern Hill”
Fate show thy force, ourselves we do not owe
What is decree’d must be, and be this so
Shakespeare from “Twelfth Night”
I often catch myself doing semi-conscious automatic things (such as needlessly refreshing my email web page, repeatedly touching my face, moving my body in certain specific ways) in short a myriad of semi-conscious acts that I am but barely aware of and then only when I force myself to pay attention to them. I then asked myself how much of myself am I aware of. How much of myself is being “freely decided by myself”?
Well, upon cursory reflection, it seems to me that much of what is myself is not under my direct conscious control. I don’t consciously control the natural growth of my nails or hair, the beating of my heart, the division of my cells, or the transport of oxygen throughout my body. These very important things all happen “automatically”. But some people assert, in fact most people do, that I have an almost magical faculty called “free will” that allows me to choose what I will do and even exactly when I want to do it.
Now, some people suffer from compulsions such as incessantly checking doors to see if they are open or not. Many of these people report that they would consciously prefer not to be doing such things if they could, but they can’t. They feel they are being compelled. Normally, we would say that such people so compelled are not exercising their free will at all. Yet, I wonder if all life does not simply comprise what amounts to a series of compulsions? A compulsion to drink, to eat, to sleep, to quarrel etc. And that these processes/acts are all not under what we would prefer to term “our conscious control”. For instance, the fact that I wanted to take a sandwich out of the refrigerator today and did? Was that a “freely” taken decision of mine or did my body, that is to say, everything that I am decide for me before I was even aware that I was going to get up and retrieve a sandwich? To be sure, I may have the subjective feeling that “I decided” to take this action. I feel that it was most certainly “me” and “my free will” that were the main actors in all this. But can I be certain that there is an “I” which exercises “free will” over my “decisions” or could I just be an existential passenger on a train of life which is taking me for a predetermined ride and that all my notions of “self” “free will” and “decisions” are mere words referring to just so many ghosts?
In a profound sense, the question of the ultimate reality of free will was succinctly put by Schopenhauer when he asked “Can you want, what you want?”. In other words, in what sense are your actions and desires consciously your own? Schopenhauer also pointed out that true freedom of the will could only exist absent any and all necessity. That is to say, it could only exist if it was caused by itself and nothing else outside of it.
Yet, you still say, that we, all of us in fact, “feel” free. I openly admit that it may indeed seem so to us. But what I would also add is that what we are probably feeling is our physical-mental power to do things, not our free will to do them. We cognitively confuse the two things. And from our power and ability to do things we conclude that we do them freely. That our power to act springs freely from a mysterious source we call free will, rather than necessity. But indeed what we really are feeling is the power of necessity working through us, not at all by us.
So in order for us to ascertain whether or not we have free will, we would have to explain how it would be possible for me to do something, in principle, without something else having made me do it in a material world. That is the challenge for those who, often spiritedly, uphold numerous philosophical versions of free will under the academic heading of “libertarianism”.
Libertarians, being philosophers, have come up with a variety of clever arguments. One of the most famous among them perhaps is that of the “torn argument”. Simply put, we are sometimes, maybe everyday, torn between two or more choices. Yet, if the choice selected turns out to be random, we have no free will. And again, which is what we will be arguing, if the choice selected will be ultimately the one with the most “causal force” behind it, then once again it was fully determined. For what does it mean to have two or more choices before one? The fact that you are cognitively aware of one or more choices is itself determined by you being an intelligent, rational animal evolved to think about prior causes and their possible outcomes. But the decision you ultimately make will be the result of all that you are/consist of up to that point in time. All of the innumerable causal forces that have impelled you up to the very moment of your choice in what seemed to you a “torn” moment was in actuality nothing of the sort. You may often cognitively register many a possibility before you which causes you different levels of anxiety depending on its importance to your future thriving, but what you ultimately choose will either be random or, more likely in our view, predetermined.
Evolution might itself be another word for biological determinism. True that that was most certainly not the view of some notable scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and John Maynard Smith who made much of contingency. But it is, in modified form, the idea held by equally prestigious life scientists such as Simon Conway Morris. For example, according to him, life’s genetic code, if it was either random or contingent, would almost never have been able to come into being. Rather, under the conditions of the early earth, it seems that the primordial amino acid soup that then existed had to give rise to the kind of optimal genetic code that it did. Life is material. Consciousness, if it is anything, is material. Decisions therefore result from material causes. Reject materialism and it is hard to see with what a scientific mind could actually work with except perhaps with speculations based on the quantum world which, even then, seem to present us with the problem of randomness. And what is random is also not under conscious control.
To help us think more clearly about “free will” we might start with the not very controversial observation that human beings take part in at least three levels of reality. The physical. The biological. And the cultural. Perhaps a thought experiment will better explain what I mean.
First, conjure up the image of the Empire State building. Now imagine someone standing near the top floor next to a window. This person now opens the window and jumps. According to well understood physical laws we will be able to be fairly certain about the exact speed and the final force with which she will hit the ground. At no point does she have the free will to stop what is going to happen to her. She is just as much a physical object as is any stone under the same circumstances. Indeed, she will hit the ground as is often colloquially said “like a rock”. After all, she is part of the physical universe and subject to its laws, any exercise of her “free will” will not prevent the sequence of events that will inevitably occur once she jumps out of that window.
At around the moment when she hits the ground from that height and with that speed she will surely die. This is a result of her biological inheritance. No act of free will on her part will change that. She is a certain kind of biological creature created by evolutionary processes that will not help her to survive such a fall. She does not possess enormous wings and thus cannot fly or glide for instance. She is a large land based creature, and like her ancient arboreal ancestors, will cease to live if she happens to suffer a great fall, such as from the top of the Empire State building. She carries within her a biological inheritance that has its limits which unfortunately cannot be crossed at the moment of her untimely demise. A very different result might well have occurred if a small insect had jumped out of that very same window instead of a full grown modern human female.
Now imagine if you will a different human female who is anatomically modern but living a hundred thousand years ago near the horn of Africa. This hypothetical ancient female may resemble the unfortunate woman who recently jumped down from the Empire State building in many respects but in at least three ways she is vastly different. First she lives near the horn of Africa, for the moment this is not so important. Secondly, and far more significant, she lived one hundred thousand years ago. And thirdly, she possesses a very different type of culture and technology. This ancient woman would not be able through any act of her presupposed free will to either imagine or physically create, either alone or with others of her group, something like the Empire State building. She is temporally, spatially, socially, and culturally locked where she is as regards some of the possible exercises of what is commonly referred to as her free will. She immutably exists at the dawn of humankind. At a time and place that could not through any creative act of human free will then have known or utilized anything about cars, planes, trains, steel buildings and/or philosophical musings about the existence or non-existence of free will.
In such ways then, human beings and their exercise of their alleged free will are, at the very least, constrained by the physical, the biological, the temporal, the spatial, the social, the cultural/technological, and some would add the Divine (but we’ll leave that one out for this essay).
I mentioned stones. Spinoza once famously said that if a stone flying through the air suddenly acquired consciousness it would think that it was the one causing itself to fly! But following this thought a bit further, are human beings, viewed in a certain way, not much more than a complex set of stones (elements) mixed with a certain amount of water (if often an extremely vociferous prideful mix)? Over 99% of the human body is composed of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. Each of these elements taken by themselves possesses no known aspects of “free will” but assembled into a human being we are expected to believe that the phenomenon of “free will” now occurs on a massively regular basis? How do such elements combine to produce “free will” then? Is it located in the human brain? Is it immaterial even? In choosing between the two, perhaps the human brain would be a good place to start.
The brain is organic and subject to the fundamental laws of physics and those of biology. Whatever decisions are made inside the brain they are surely made according to these rules. The question then becomes are they made in some sense independently of these laws or not? Is “free will” an emergent property that magically springs forth in the human brain, a property that clearly does not exist for its independent elements?
What is a “decision”? Where is it “taken” from? From what magical well does “free will” spring? At what point does the past become wondrously canceled, material causes serendipitously suspended, and the future magically unbounded? What kind of substance is free will? How can free will be an “uncaused” thing? From our fatalistic point of view, free will is nothing more and nothing less than a magical concept on par with the soul, ghosts, and witches. It functions, like the concept of the soul once did, by ennobling us. It even thereby gives us a myriad of reasons to live. It makes us feel special. For all these purposes and more, it is thus very hard to give up. It is an idea that does a lot of regulatory heavy lifting within our private and public lives. Yet, nevertheless, every decision is ultimately a neurological biochemical expression based on a previous neurological biochemical expression and so forth. One may recall the famous Libet experiments where subjects were recorded to have “made” decisions before they were aware of consciously making them, in this case when to flex their wrists. Or to cite a more recent if similar experiment by Haynes which showed that people selected which button to press, the left one or the right one that they were alternately holding in their hands, a full seven to ten seconds before they were themselves aware of their own choice.
Moreover, it is interesting to note how many thinkers, both ordinary and extraordinary, are loathe to give up the notion of free will because it is “intrinsically good”. I, on the other hand, am arguing that there is nothing at all wrong with giving up this idea especially if it is quite possibly completely wrong. I think one of the reasons that people resist the idea of the non-existence of free will is fear of a loss of control. The ability to control oneself in particular and society in general. But giving up the concept of free will does not mean you lose control of yourself, since after all you have been necessarily built as a “survival machine” as someone once memorably put it.
Indeed, I suspect that those who cling to the idea of free will do so from a strong attachment to the idea of human beings as something noble and special. After all, the idea of freedom, with so much historical blood spent in its name, has thereby bestowed upon itself a secular aura of divinity. Freedom is the supreme goddess of the West and she reigns closely alongside that other goddess of the West, justice. We cherish the idea that we are free to follow our inner nature not that our inner nature forces us precisely to be and to do as we must . More than this, our societies have been built around themselves the notion that good and evil are freely chosen and thus merit the full ferocity of collective punishment against the one who has chosen wrongly. This being so, I think the original various blood lusts of the ancient human community to both protect itself and regulate its existence stands behind much of the often desperate drive to preserve the notional existence of free will. We must feel ourselves completely justified in judging who is evil and who is good, who, in the extreme case, lives and who dies. Free will helps us feel morally cleansed that we belong to the “just”. It is an idea that ritually absolves us from collective guilt. Condemnation of the “evil” or “unclean” one is not our fault, after all he or she brought his or her own punishment upon their own head. Therefore, we are not willful executioners, for free will exists which allows for the existence of good and evil. The various cultural narratives that weave the cautionary tales of the protagonists known as Good and evil who are sprung from our free will, immediately call out for punishment and or reward upon their birth. I find it interesting, in this regard, that in the bible one of the first men, Cain, is clearly marked by God for killing his brother, Abel, but not immediately killed for his crime. Was God here acknowledging the necessity of the crime, its inevitability? The story of Cain viewed as a necessary outcome of human behavior that must in some way be accepted, because under certain conditions it is natural?
People need to regulate their social lives. Punishment is one very effective way to do it. Could free will be just a parasitic moral notion helping to resolve the social dynamics of humankind? We must postulate a metaphysical mechanism that allows us to explain the rightness of collective punishment. We must be absolved from naming the one that must be destroyed. The primitive community might even require some basic notion of free will to survive and prosper. It must understand itself as a collection of people that could individually, at any time, choose to obey or not, the communal law. Thus it would appear that only someone who is in some sense “evil” could “willfully” contradict the collective good. Perhaps this is the way it began. But that was the beginning. Today we may not need the notion of “free will” at all to arbitrate among ourselves and, in the worst case scenario, fatally settle scores with a righteous conscience.
Yet, after all this, what you in actuality are giving up in giving up free will is a certain way of interpreting yourself and your actions. You most certainly will continue to feel that you are in control of yourself but that is an apparently useful illusion to help you survive and flourish. However, even if you were completely convinced that you have no free will that would not, necessarily, negate your inborn will to live, both because it is so strong and that there is no urgent reason to collapse on the couch and wither away and die with this new found certain knowledge about yourself. Knowing you are and will be the result of both prior and future causes does not negate your existence, it simply helps to explain it, to illuminate it. You still will always act as if things are up to you even if you now know that both philosophically and naturalistically they are not.
Possessing a certain knowledge of necessity must not extinguish the joy of living unless, of course, you are so constituted that the idea of necessitous causality leads you to be terminally depressed. If, after all, I am not the true agent of myself in a deep mystical sense, I am still the causal being that I am who is the direct result of evolution and can accept myself as such and live as I was meant to live: as a person in pursuit of those things which generally make people happy. Now those things were certainly prescribed before my existence, but it is also in the nature of causality that things are in flux and thus change, always step wise of course, for nature never “jumps”. The infinite complex causal interplay of both life and the universe is the guarantor of change, it is never the death of hope.
Real change is inevitable and definitely not precluded by causality and we as causal beings will effect change according to both our nature and the planes of causality within and through which we move and that move through us: the physical, biological, and in our special case, the cultural/technological as we illustrated above through our two hypothetical women. We would not exist if we were not adapted to our world and that world adapted us to seek out more pleasure and to avoid more pain aided by our natural/cultural capacities of rationality and intelligence. We will, because of our nature, seek out a felicitous average of pleasure over the total span of our lives. If due to constraints either within us or outside of us or a combination of both we will not do so, we will soon perish and such tendencies may on average perish with us according to the logic of natural selection. For what does not further life, under prevailing circumstances, is soon removed from the vital circulation of biological existence. What does not increase a being’s power to the necessary point of ensuring its survival will not itself persist. In this Spinoza meets Darwin.
As beings that are born into the world and survive and are happy in doing so, we have much to hope for. Our natures are not thereby fixed, but they are surely not infinitely malleable, for they will always obey some kind of necessary laws, even if we go about radically changing ourselves as we may indeed soon do through new technologies such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. But whatever technologies we use they will, like everything else in the cosmos, be constrained by necessity. Necessity is the reigning goddess of existence from which nothing can escape.
Thus, our decisions spring from the deep well of the past that extends beyond our births, our parents, the very point of origin of our species to the beginning of the cosmos itself. That we cannot practically be aware of the long convergent causal chains that led up to our seemingly “free decision” to study medicine and not law this summer is beside the point. In principle, those long multiple convergent causal chains are always there. We are not, as the existentialists would have it, always on the way to making something of ourselves for ourselves are all ready made and all our future decisions are predeterminately baked in. Even our very possible belief in some form of “soft existentialism” will, in itself, help to determine our lives. No belief and no action no matter how radically conceived can free us from the past and thus tear asunder the inevitable fabric of the future. We are condemned to be unfree but that does not mean we are condemned to be ignorant. Evolution both cultural and genetic, has given us the power to reason and to explore both ourselves and the world around us more fully than any other being that we currently know of. We are biological expressions of causality. Just as we are physical expressions of it. Just as we are spatial and temporal expressions of the very same logic. Just as we are even cultural expressions of it. We are over-determined. There is no need to add “the magical” property of free will. Prior causation can explain all that we are or ever will be. Free will is a needless “Ptolemaic ring” added to all that is obviously apparent and explainable without it. We cling to this “ring” because we desperately want (and perhaps need) to believe in some specially human-given relative degree of freedom and moral uniqueness. But desperate belief is not an argument, no matter how cleverly drawn up. No, then, we are not free but we are intelligent and curious by nature and that might, in the end, be all that we really need to lead meaningful and, yes, even moral lives.
Following Schopenhauer’s thoughts on free will, we should ask ourselves does not everything that exists have a certain nature? Can there ever be existence of a thing without some sort of essence? How can something exist and not “be” something? Thus if free will exists, it too must be possessed of a definite essence, it must “be” something. And what is this essence? Is it not something like a scale of justice that before it is used does not move but when it does it does so only when something is placed in either its left or right scale? And what is after all placed there if not matter and the causes that follow from it? The more overwhelming the material’s force the more certain the decision; yes or no, left or right, up or down, life or death.
From this way of thinking, so Schopenhauer, it follows that given the same person under the same set of circumstances there can only be one possible action, not, therefore, a choicebetween some actions and not others. Thus it follows that if we were to run the tape of existence backwards to its very beginning it would unfold exactly as it did the first time. This is the idea of quidquid fit necessario fit: that whatever happens, happens necessarily. Thus we should never, in all seriousness, entertain the commonly expressed thought that “if only” I could go back in time I would do things differently. My dear reader, as we will argue, no not ever. You always do what you must given the exact same circumstances. In fact, if you think about it, wishing to change things in the past happens because you now have extra additional causal information. So your imagination can simulate your past state armed with this new causal information and, of course, with your future knowledge you could now choose differently because the situation would not be the same, you would now have future knowledge of future states which you would have carried into the past. However, there is some good news in all of this is: and that is that you are absolutely justified to leaveall feelings of regret, remorse, even melancholy and nostalgia behind you. It’s never your fault. And this entails the first, perhaps for many, radical moral law of fatalism.
Following up on this idea, we could say, along with Schopenhauer, that we know ourselves, what we are, through our acts such that actions flow from “being”: operari sequitur esse. However, thinking a bit more upon this I’m not so sure. For instance, someone could give a bouquet to someone else which is usually interpreted as a sign of friendship or even love but harbor the most intense dislike for that person without ever letting on externally. In this way, our subjective states can remain perfectly hidden from others while our acts may convey a perfectly false picture of who we really are at least inwardly. These thoughts also bring us to quarrel with Aristotle. Is it really through acts/habits that we become who we are? Is it through acts of courage that we become/are courageous? Is it through teaching that I become a teacher? Perhaps in part. Habituation has effects on subjective states surely. But at what point can we discern between the possible dissimulation of outward acts and the nature of a person’s true being? Much of the dramatic tension in Shakespeare; Iago, Macbeth, Richard the III and other literary figures are based on this awareness/acting out of seeming versus being. It is also the very heart of the teachings of Machiavelli.
Should we perhaps now turn our attention to Hobbes modern formulation of the problem? He certainly has some interesting things to say. For instance, Hobbes, like us, believes that everything is causally determined. However, he also believes that if someone is not thwarted in his or her desires, then, in this sense and only in this sense, could they be appropriately called free. Thus, for Hobbes, the unfettered ability to satisfy our desires is the only freedom that we can truly speak of. This is of course the metaphysical foundation of much of our liberal society. A society where the obstruction of our desires or the interference with life projects tied to our identity (a modern word for nature or essence perhaps?) is not tolerated in so far as it does not prevent others in realizing the very same kinds of life projects.
Let us walk a while longer with Hobbes. Modern man speaks of his right to happiness. For us, his conception of happiness is causally over-determined. We seek what we call happiness because we are bound to do it. We can do no other. And our happiness, following Hobbes and Spinoza also, are tied to those things which increase our individual power(s), sense of well being, and, ultimately, survival. Indeed, it could not be in any other way. Modern man is determined to seek happiness, and modern liberal society is determined to not stand in his way. It grants him the “freedom” to be what he already is and to do what he must.
But this inception of political freedom only comes at a necessary point in history. A point where the state, science, and conceptions of man begin to coalesce around new ideas of power and of knowledge. The birth of every idea, too, has definite causes. And the birth of Hobbesian “freedom” is certainly no exception to that.
Implicitly, then, the liberal state acknowledges the “essences” of men or to put it in another way their self-conceptions and the life projects tied to them. Their “being” is a given as is their future development from whatever necessary starting point. Every one is a destiny that must be fulfilled. Now, whoever lived under a totalitarian regime also fulfilled their destiny, but perhaps not as pleasantly as someone who lived comfortably in London in 2021. Each individual, whether someone in Stalinist Moscow or someone in Post Modernist London lived out their destiny to the full. The only difference was under what historically determined formulation of social-political freedom. Interestingly enough both historical possibilities were, in part, actually two sides of Hobbes’ thought; the Absolutist, Leviathan state or an ineradicable natural right of man (in this case the right to ones own preservation of life under any political circumstances).
Locke too offers us an intriguing way of looking at the problem of free will. He imagines that a man wakes up in a room that is locked from the outside. The man decides to stay inside the room. This example is often brought up as an instance where constraints did not effect decisions. A more modern version of this sort of thing, are so called “Frankfurt Cases” where for example a device is implanted in a would be terrorist’s brain (unbeknownst to her) to ensure that she carries out a bombing attack on an elite university. If she chooses to not carry out the attack, the device will impel her to do it, while if she does carry out the attack the device will remain inactive. In this case, the terrorist carries out the attack and the device remains inactivated.
Yet, do these clever thought experiments really reveal that people are capable of making free decisions under constraints? I think not. And simply because the terrorist, continuing with our latest example, was under all sorts of constraints besides the cautionary one of the device pre-implanted in her brain. The terrorist has a history: genetic, psychological, cultural, experiential which led her to make the decision she did. Indeed, we are always impelled by multiple constraints, causes. When our terrorist set off the bomb she did so as an expression of multiple convergent chains of causality. Her every act was/is over-determined. The “constraints” are always far too many (infinite?), the fall back device in her brain was only one of them.
More seriously, imagine a world that was not determined. How would it operate? Perhaps anything would be possible. There would be no universal laws. There would be no causality. In short, there would either be absolute material chaos or maybe, very quickly, nothing at all. Indeed, I find it much harder to conceive of a world that is not deterministic than one that is. Life, consciousness, existence itself might very well depend on natural deterministic laws.
And then there are those who, from time to time, like to invoke some aspects of the radical indeterminacy of the quantum world. Some have even speculated that the key to the “hard problem” of consciousness as well as free will are to be found here. That the “randomness” of quantum phenomena explains the operative reality and functioning of free will. However, others point out the simple fact that if something is “random” it is not thereby under our control. So that even if we were to discount the fascinating problem of how quantum mechanics effects the “big” world we would still be left with how if free will is random it thereby reflects “my” decision. Of course, it doesn’t; precisely because it is random.
Furthermore, think of modern science and everyday life. Are not both strongly grounded in our ability to make accurate predictions? Would both science and our everyday lives be possible without a deterministic universe offering us the very real likelihood to anticipate the future outcomes of, say for example, our industry, sun, medicine, and all the quotidian cycles of daily life? Perhaps, really, we should be immensely thankful that the world is deterministic rather than lamenting the loss of the prospect of a world where “uncaused” decision making would be possible.
Yet knowledge itself, when it is possessed, becomes a cause in and of itself. Thus the more we know of ourselves and the world around us, the more the scope of our ability to effect future causes grow. By knowing the world, we increase our possible arc of action. This is of course not the same thing as the exercise of a free will, but it is the next best thing. In the human expansion of knowledge, in the minute investigation of causation we find our powers increasing with ourselves becoming a new source of that much more greater future causes. In this way, Kant’s famous “Dare to know!” takes on a new and perhaps unexpected meaning.
We are existential beings. We are essential beings. The one presupposes the other. We are, so that we become. In our becoming is all that we must be. We are necessary but we also possess through our evolutionary history the ability for self reflection and reason. This allows us the illumination of our own history and probable future. Probable because we are not able to calculate all the causal variables going forward, we are not an infinite calculating machine, but nevertheless with increasing knowledge we can see ever farther into our own future states of being. In fact, we might say that the relative level of civilization that humanity has attained is always equal to the levels of causality it has absolutely understood. This relative level, particularly in the last fifty years, seems to be undergoing an exponential increase.
Do worms have free will? Do rocks (Spinoza?)? Do animals in general? We too are of course driven by instincts, indeed we perhaps have many more of them, or at least different ones than many other animals, for example our famed “language instinct”. Evolution has supplied us with many psychological instincts and dispositions many of which can be found in the “lower animals” and some which are peculiar only to us. We are as much driven by our biology as any other living thing. That we fancy ourselves “reasoning animals” is to obscure the fact that our reasons are, ultimately, biologically-culturally based material motives. For indeed, if man is distinguished from the animals at all, it is in the necessary evolutionary interplay between his genetic and cultural inheritance.
Does reason have anything to do with freedom? Evolution has made us rational animals because we developed that way by genetic, environmental, and cultural causes. The daily reasons that we come up with for ourselves are determined exactly by those same causes which gave rise to our capacity for reason in the first place.
Most startling perhaps in all this is that the future turns out to be as fixed a proposition as the past, in a sense all is past, all “is” already has been. Thus every fine new building you past is in some sense already in ruins, every future planet we encounter teeming with life already a dead planet, and every stirring contemporary deed already the stuff of ancient legend and song. Within such a vision, forwards and backwards even life and death tend to lose their absolute orientation and meaning.
In our lives, we merely feel ourselves as the ones who are participating or deciding in the course of our existence but it is just a subjective feeling, an illusion. Participation in a sense is lived through us, notby us.
Possibly, in the end, the laying to rest of the notion of “free will” is just another step in the historical progression of the “Copernican/Darwinian Revolution”. The feeling of the uniqueness of man is to be overcome if he is ever to see himself, his fellow man, and the world around him more clearly.
Under this view, it makes as much sense to punish a man for murder as it does to whip a stone for having rolled down a hill. In both cases it could have been in no other way. Stones roll down hills, some men murder. Both are caused events with not the slightest choice involved. People do notchoose to be serial killers, they become serial killers through specific sets of causes: genetic, cultural, or psychological usually all three. They do not choose to kill, they kill because they must.
If true, this might well mean that so much of our present liberal society is complete gobbledygook. That our political systems based on particular notions of freedom are inherently false. That even our justice system based on notions of free will is also fundamentally false. We are determined beings who, at most, feel themselves to be free. We are all caused objects that have the subjective illusion of being potentially uncaused. We believe that our future is open, although it is most assuredly closed. It is our fondest, last illusion. It is the final grandest piece of pride in the modern psychological edifice of man. Man desires to be free, but that in itself has causes; psychological, economic, and historical. It is indeed a motivating dream that, itself, has become a historical cause in the demiurgic development of mankind.
Nietzsche, borrowing from Indian philosophy among other sources, confronted the moral challenge of determinism in a characteristically extreme fashion. He dared us to imagine that we are beings that are not only locked in a predetermined word, but one that repeats itself infinitely in an “eternal return”. From this metaphysical idea, Nietzsche asked of us to be able, at every moment in our lives, to completely and utterly affirm our actions in a subjective manner. As he would put it, for us to say absolutely “Yes” to life and ourselves for all eternity. A tremendous affirmation of all of existence no matter its presumably endless repetition. For Nietzsche, endless repetition does not give rise to a feeling of absurdity, as it would for a Camus, but is rather an existential opportunity for joyous proclamation.
This grand poetic vision is tied to Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati (the loving of ones fate). This is not just the understanding of universal necessity, not just its matter of fact acceptance, but loving ones fate with all ones subjective might. In a sense, it is rather an inverse existentialism that says “love what you must be and love what you cannot change; you are what you are”. To be in love with our unfreedom. One problem of course is that whether you are able to love or not love your fate is, by this theory’s very premises, not at all up to you. Whether or not you are a fatalistic optimist who rejoices in the unfolding of ones being in time and space or a morose fatalistic pessimist who complains at every turn of events is not for you to decide. There can be no decision here, thus no independent moral declarations affirmative or otherwise.
Yet in one sense perhaps Nietzsche was on to something. What is “is”, that much is uncontroversial. How should we subjectively evaluate the “is”? Thinking about the fate of ourselves is certainly one way. If ours is a fate that unfolds in suffering, we shall, quite naturally, be inclined to deprecate our existence, even to curse it. Pain for us is evil. The loss of our power(s) is bad. It would take a sublime form of character to see in our individual suffering any natural kind of redemption. Indeed, just in this, lies the genius of many, if not all, religions (and perhaps Marxism too?). The promise of redemption from necessity. Freedom from inevitable pain caused by the inescapable causal nature of the world. No wonder then that the promises of religion take place in another world, for they surely could not take place in this one. In this world, we either have the strength of character to “sing in our chains like the sea” or we do not. The Nietzschean tone of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Fern Hill” that we started out with has not escaped us.
But being free from ultimate responsibility for our actions does not necessarily make us non-moral. Rather, it opens up possibilities for a new morality. A more scientific sort of morality. Perhaps even a more rational, sublime one. Morality becomes an investigation of causes. Why a person becamea serial killer, rather than why and how he should be punished. If we understand how someone becomes a serial killer, perhaps we can take steps to prevent someone else, in future, from becoming a serial killer. In the extreme utopian case of this way of thinking, if we understand why someone becomes a criminal, we can perhaps be in a better position to eliminate criminality all together one day. In giving up the notion of free will we do not give up morality. What we give up is the ancient fetish of collectively meting out punishment and what we gain is a focus on a deeper understanding of our world and ourselves. We free ourselves from guilt and self-recrimination while we fill ourselves with new forms of enlightenment and of mercy. We open ourselves up to what I call the “moral graciousness of fatalism”. Through our intelligence and our reason we strive to do great things and make things better for ourselves; indeed all of our presupposed knowledge of causal determinism does not prevent us from such acts. Rather, it provides us a with a deep sense of cosmic mercy. For when what we call evil (which is usually what is inimical to our material interests among which are survival and prosperity in the broadest of senses), is committed we can perceive it not through the terrible moral lens of reflexive communal punishment (in the extreme case the meting out of death) but as a challenge to our intellect to understand and unravel the skein of past consequence that led to whatever was the unfortunate result under consideration. Thus, such a moral concept of fatalism lies beyond traditional notions of good and evil but, to achieve some kind of semblance of morality, it must become one with the understanding and reason.
Some ideas lend themselves to mystical visions, as was famously the case for Plato in his allegory of the cave, perhaps the most celebrated allegory in all of Western civilization. When I meditate on the problem of free will and fatalism I often visualize and almost even hear the various rushing streams, sometimes slight other times wide, deep, and powerful, of causality. I almost seem to perceive how whatever seems to unfold both inside and outside of myself has been impelled by these vast waters of fate. Another thought which often moves me in an admittedly mystical way is the thought that if I’m right and fatalism is the correct existential situation for all things, human and non-human both, then it was inevitable that the universe was to achieve present consciousness of itself and its own past and future existence. That in a sense, humans are the universe investigating itself while simultaneously creating layers of novel ways of being: culture, morality, technology, all of which necessary potential lay dormant for billions of years. If true, this is a profound thought leading to awe. For if fatalism is true, teleology must also be true. This is to say that if everything is determined from the very beginning of material existence then so are its ultimate purposes or ends. Yet, there may be a multitude of ultimate purposes, not just human ones. However, humans special and particular way of being seems to have an innate potential to change, to some extent, the nature of the physical universe; it already has profoundly changed the material nature of this planet. The more we know about material causes the more we seem to be practicing a kind of modern alchemy that seeks to transform the whole world. An ever deepening knowledge of causes is the true alchemy. It might very well be the elixir of life and transformer of worlds
Indeed, just as much as it was for Socrates, “Know Thyself!” is the fatalist’s moral credo and yet perhaps it must become more than this: “Know the causes that led to yourself and others and the world around you!”. Free yourself of the blindness of hate, while not necessarily relinquishing the benevolence of love. There is no contradiction in this. For in a predetermined world, there is no need for a rational being to feel anger either towards oneself or others, although ones genetic endowment will probably make you feel it anyway, but there is every reason for a rational being to feel pity, love, understanding, and mercy for a world and the beings in it that share with you and every one of us the same inexorable path of existence. For Essence here not only precedes Existence, it is Existence. So yes we are saying that free will, contingency, even reason when construed to be in some form causally independent are common illusions with which we comfort ourselves as individuals and with which we provide often specious reasons for the actions we take in our collective life. As a recent popular book would have it, human beings and the societies they build follow a blueprint. This blueprint allows for variation but is not infinitely malleable. It most certainly is based on what went before and will slowly change, step wise, necessarily following a long causal chain into the future. Hopefully, this extended causal chain which we call the “future” will be guided by more fundamental knowledge of itself rather than by wishful ignorance. By more cold facts than cherished ancient beliefs. For, ultimately, we are the necessary unfolding of material essence as is the very world itself. Yet, although we often pose as the mad clowns of either chance or necessity; it is to existence as it is that we are firmly bound. Indeed, we may at times wistfully grimace as if we were free, but, nevertheless, we continuously and oftentimes nervously dance the jig of eternity.
Dan Corjescu has a PhD in Continental Philosophy from Sofia University. Teaches at Ravensburg-Weinburg and Neu Ulm University of Applied Sciences.