Is human free will dependant on the supernatural? Freedom and determinism are still at odds in many people’s minds. The argument behind the conflict is the notion of human license over liberty. Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote, that, “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” Science dictates that since, “Every cause has an effect, therefore true free will is an impossibility in a deterministic universe," or in other words: Hume’s fork; either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them, (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy). Without religion we would go savage; with science we’re just automatons. Your alternatives are God or blind chance, however, there is another option, which is, “If someone rejected one sort of idea in the face of scientific evidence for another sort of idea, a rational process is the existent arbitrator in the dispute and produces concrete freedom to decide for or against one idea or another.”
This is essentially about mind, and reason does not compel a person to decide, no matter how compelling the evidence. Or if you prefer the language of determinism: our liberty in choice comes with the determinism of our ownership of all that determines us, especially those determinates which originate inside us. If a chimpanzee,--our closest cousin in the animal world, -- could conceptually think and had real fundamental intellectual alternatives, it would have free choice in some areas of its life, and not be merely suffering from, “The illusion” of being free (as Sam Harris asserts in The Moral Landscape). Consider for instance, if Sam Harris’ child continually lied to him as she grew up toward adulthood, yet Sam Harris taught her to believe that free will was an “illusion” – that self-regulation was only a habit forced upon a person by home, tribe and herd – and took no punitive action against her to change this nasty behavior. The likely result wouldn’t surprise any decent hard working honest person. We would consider him – in his role as a father – foolish, cowardly, and if he had no spouse to correct for his idiocy, even a failure.
In fact, let us suppose that we were all atheists and a group of philosophers, (let’s call them Positivists or Skinnerians), convinced us to believe that we were determined, that we had no real freedom of choice whatsoever. That factor alone would change everything which we do, and in a most unfortunate and drastic way. We’d stop taking responsibility for our decisions. We are subjective, determined and bracketed. Every intelligent person understands this. We are not talking (in regards to free will) about a huge aspect of our lives. We are saying: If you know a thing is wrong, and you want to do it anyway; then, as your mature reflective self grows (as the years go by) you have a shot at saying, “No!”, of being in control, of having your “reasoning self” being the driver at the wheel. You can affect your moral character in an important way over time. “We don’t have a ‘get out of evolution free’ card, but we are also not meat robots whose behavior is determined by the positions of a few knobs and switches, independent of any societal forces.” Indeed, the concept that if “theoretically” we could know everything globally that went into the creation of a human being then we could predict behaviours, is itself, an illusion. This is similar to the notion of a supernatural omnipotent overseer that we can picture in our heads, a being who knows "all". This very notion is verboten; it can’t exist hypothetically for the same reason that supernaturalism is surely false. We are always at the beginning of knowing, always in process, and ever will be, for infinity. So free will and determinism cannot be resolved in this manner anywhere into the future and this takes much of the sting out of the mechanicalist’s view of this philosophic maze.
When Michel Onfray states, (In Defense of Atheism), “When a court functions without religious symbols, it nevertheless operates in accordance with . . . biblical metaphysics . . . The child-rapist is free; he has the choice of engaging in normal sexual relationships with a consenting partner or of inflicting horrifying violence on a victim. . . .” I assume this applies to thieves who refuse to work for a living and the junkies who rebuke the straight life with the needle? This is a version of Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and other Leftist atheists’ broken-circuit arguments. He, like all intellectuals who deny human freedom, want the argument both ways. Is a pedofile not free to choose? Then let’s uproot this monster before he again acts on his compulsion. Or is he really sick and has broken circuits? Then how can he be treated anymore than a healthy sexual appetite could? It is just a fact like a smoking gun! Some immutable disposition you’re born with. Onfray implies that the child-rapist shouldn’t rot in prison but be treated. After treatment, maybe we could resettle him in Onfray’s neighborhood. The pedofile will at any rate not be given the chance “to confront the disease he suffers from.” Excellent. He doesn’t suffer from a disease anymore than if he was a farm boy mating with ponies. It is learned behavior, that’s why in the history of pedofile crime we see not immediate compulsion but an escalating from fantasy to actual assault. Hyperbole argument to the pedofile example doesn’t change the fact that Onfray and his ilk’s obnoxious contention is that male rapists are sick and aren’t really committing a criminal act by stealing sex with power and brutality, that we’re either born lucky (mentally healthy) or unfortunate (mentally diseased), and indeed, that all immoral behavior is mental disease. So, are you screwed by choice or by chance? If by choice, then punitive situations have moral meaning and can make sense. If by chance, that is, broken circuits and corrupted genes, then treatment is likely a waste of time. Either way, the thesis is incoherent. And besides, in some important sense we can all be psychopaths, can't we? The devout Catholic of the Dark Ages who boiled to death the Protestant in oil, and vice-versa after the Reformation with the Protestant doing like-tortures to Catholics, all the totalitarian autocrats who massacred innocents in the millions, the Islamists who murder gay people and stone women to death to this very day. See? Psychopaths are us? Belief and psychotic-sociopathic behaviors are far more connected to a conscious self-aware being as deceptive as us human beings than any neuroscientist will admit.
If you take some of the hard determinists' arguments such as in the work Incognito, D Eagleman, you see at once that biological reductionism is supported by some science and little philosophy. Human behavior has a marked, and sometimes, irresistible component when the physical brain is affected; however, trapped by their cause-effect dogma, human creativity and originality are dismissed as springing strictly from matter. Ideas, languages, creativity and concepts are believed to be hardwired; that is to say, they are the results of a super-sophisticated molecular machine, — us — and that the theory of mind and even mind itself is illusionary. Mind is brain-matter. Ideas, like rocks, sometimes roll down hill. Spinoza said the only difference between a human being and a stone rolling down a hill is that the human being thinks he is in charge of his own destiny -- huts, houses, skyscrapers and spaceships are in some sense like rocks. They have been put together by the universe with us as the mediator. Who would object to that? We’re mindless biological machines with no choice or creativity, especially, no self, only what the Big Bang dictated; that, and chance or fate as the singular puppet master.
Some people say that if God did not exist and everybody knew it; we'd go native; if we were all atheists, everything would be permitted, and the world would look like Las Vegas. However, look at it this way, if people know a stock will go up tomorrow . . . it will go up today. (Malkiel’s Law). Or look at it another way: if we all could get rich in the stock market, entertainment, horse racing or by using some other equally, exciting or easy techniques, then the slow tedious expensive method of accruing our economic future with higher education (human capital) would be for the most part, forsaken, and the result for humankind, would be a disaster. In other words, we all react to the information at our disposal. Students just stepping out into the world, especially so.
What does this say about free choice?
We want it thrust upon us no matter what the cost.
But do we really have it?
Ultimately freedom in humans is dependant on individual creativity. While every later act or thought is dependent upon former decisions or speculations, we create ideas and then act on these original self-created events. This way, bonafide freedom is achieved. This creativity–this value judgement–this focusing and weighing of evidence, (this carving of a rock into a wheel), this day to day practical reasoning, (or however you want to word it), is choosing between one thing or another with reason as the judge between right and wrong. This sets us free from many compelling determinative factors, or in other words: we are the cause of our own choices; we are the agent that decides internally and are not only choosing from external causes or cues. This deduction does not exactly falsify the Compatibilists’ faith in mechanicalism, nothing could—it is a religious tenet of the Left—but it sure takes the tarnish off their glossy absolutism.
Reason is the fundamental value in ethics. It is the arbitrator for harmony and cooperation of the emotions, passions, instincts, intuitions, impulses and whatever other states arise in people. Reason can resolve conflicts between these often chaotic aspects, and bring about the greatest satisfaction to a person, helping manage their lives in attaining personal happiness and building moral character so that they are not always reacting emotionally, (or out of control as it were). It gives us all a shot at our own unique self-criticism so we can adjust our behavior in the future; it gives us valuable bio-feedback. Volitional acts by long-standing habits of reason, -science, -creativity, -whatever, are indeed 'the libertarian illusion' that is all too real, [see endnote].
People can be creative and invent original ideas of their own – rational or otherwise – they're abounding with hypotheses, theories and opinions, most of them wrong, but nonetheless, to a high degree, creative. Protagorean Man is the measure of all things. Rendering of much of the modern problems of subjectivity, moral relativity and scepticism are often patently impossible as so many logically necessary connections can demonstrate. We are subjective, that's a given, but with almost any effort, we can attain outside information, and change direction. Going with the flow is just a lazy inclination which at any rate is exposed to be a false one.
Turns out that unless you lock yourself in a dark closet (or have one singular source of knowledge about everything), you are receiving and transmitting, therefore constantly changing, direction. The only question is, "Do you want to be a good driver or blind at the wheel?" Do you want to use reason, or the alternative, (feelings, faith, hunches and etc.,) to decide? It is about self-managing not about judging. You are free either to be a slave to your emotions or liberated by your powers of reasoning, but don't be misconceived, you are, as Jean-Paul Sartre long ago coined, "Condemned to be free," along with every other human being. From Flow, 30 years ago: "The function of consciousness is to represent information about what is happening outside and inside the organism in such a way that it can be evaluated and acted upon by the body. In this sense, it functions as a clearinghouse for sensations, perceptions, feelings, and ideas, establishing priorities among all the diverse information. Without consciousness we would still “know” what is going on, but we would have to react to it in a reflexive, instinctive way. With consciousness, we can deliberately weigh what the senses tell us, and respond accordingly. And we can also invent information that did not exist before: it is because we have consciousness that we can daydream, make up lies, and write beautiful poems and scientific theories."
As a scientist and atheist, you rejoin, If one is responsible for this certain thought, X, then this thought X must be anteceded by X1 + X2 and so forth. Or so the theory goes. The process is determined and no thought is ex nihito (or comes about from spontaneous combustion as it were). Or if you perfer a more concise definition from Sean Carroll, an American theoretical physicist who specializes in quantum mechanics, gravity and cosmology and like Dennett is a compatibilist and believes my view of libertarian free-will is ultimately false: "The usual argument against free will is straightforward: We are made of atoms, and those atoms follow the patterns we refer to as the laws of physics. These laws serve to completely describe the evolution of a system, without any influences from outside the atomic description. If information is conserved through time, the entire future of the universe is already written, even if we don’t know it yet. Quantum mechanics predicts our future in terms of probabilities rather than certainties, but those probabilities themselves are absolutely fixed by the state of the universe right now".
No such determination is made by volitional awareness which results in original creative thought, especially focused thinking determined and arbitrated by reasoning. It is a long process, the chronicle of which is the entire history of ideas, the evolution of mammalian life on earth and the unfolding of the cosmos. For instance, history isn’t determined by technology, ultimately, technology is invented by the human mind, nonetheless, in part, history is determined by technology. Free will is the event that is sometimes the deciding factor in a formula which includes, perhaps, 90 per cent physical (genetic, environmental and cultivated), and 10 per cent mental (i.e., it is up to you,); so you can make yourself freer than you are, and in part how you do that is by never thinking that you are robotically determined; you are not completely free, but certainly, no Calvinist slave. Or to reword this again: the co-existence of agency/free will with all the other very valid restrictions on our freedom to choose (i.e., brain damage and disease, social, cultural, civil and especially biological influences), all have great effect on our decisions. Here, then, what seems intuitive, is the rapid end of a process. What seems determined is also freedom to act on original ideas. What is a result of mystifying human behavior sometimes has a prime mover, that is, you sometimes have freedom of choice based on your ability to decide among multiple options with your reasoning being the determining factor against your being completely determined into one specific choice. Reason is related to your power to produce ideas, in that, focused awareness (directing the will, mind, self on objects of some sort, etcetera, i.e., agency), is an ultimate choice; concentration creates ideas (i.e., creative alternatives). Your faculty of reasoning is the arbitrator. You are free to the extent that you are rational, analytic, thoughtful or whatever you would like to call it. Free will is mitigated, but it exists; it is very real (in potential). Moreover, free will is probably on a bell curve among the whole of humankind; a continuum if you’ll allow me, where some have a Churchillian will, with the centre fill with people like me, working to stronger agency as the years go by, and then, at the opposite end, those with diminished agency and with little actual free choice.
Einstein's Theory of Relativity was like a mystical event after years of super intensity in the dimension of focused awareness. Where is his freedom? Many Einstein-types like Heidegger at the time in Germany, with perhaps even greater IQs, joined The Nazi Party. (And Professor Peterson, with all due respect, let's be completely honest here, if Nietzsche had been alive, who do you really think he'd be backing as his uberman in Germany in the 1930s?) So, what moral culpability did these two thinkers (Hitler and Einstein) have? On the one side is a Jew who is the exact epitome of a scapegoat, a pacifist-determinist. On the other, the dark movement clouded in blood instinct, uber's will to power and the crowd's angry roar. Notice Relativity and Nazism aren’t Spinoza's rocks rolling down the hill. They’re explanations and events caused by ideas. Einstein and Hitler originated and refined them. The one? The other? Neither really determined completely, nor free, but the result of the human mind in process and the history of a complicated event.
The creation of idea doesn’t guarantee morality, but only human freedom itself. Reason – the act of focusing on necessary connections – guarantees human free-action. Atheism and freedom are not incompatible. Science and free-choice are not at odds. The existence of free will is not a resounding fact to exclude all others, but a fact notwithstanding. So this is the science of free will: the more it is mastered, the greater the likeliness of self-control; the more you are resigned to the inevitability of fate, the lesser the likelihood that you’ll master your own fortune, thus caving into whims, even ones like serial murder, child-rape and democide.
Sam Harris says in Free Will that choice made from something other than deterministic compulsion is an illusion. Anyone who has the point of view as such, that is, the physically coupled x + y = z type argument, especially the worn-out old one that ‘if all antecedent factors are accounted for, than the unique homo sapiens' ability of cognitive creativity is an illusion.’ And moreover, if free will is indeed an illusion, (that there is no seat in the brain for mind/self/soul), then there is also no moral culpability for homo sapiens' action. There is no real agency in us; there is no one driving; the self in itself is an illusion; in fact, it’s magic and Sam Harris has no rational opposition, only the religious miraculous one. How brave. He’s like an atheist in Iran.
Endnote: Neurophilosophy of Free Will: “However, we should not wantonly reject the theory of autopoiesis (self-creation) from neurophilosophy solely because it is inherently self-refuting. The truly interesting aspect of radical constructivism is not that it is radical, but that it is constructivism. The theory of autopoiesis unfolds its relevance within a certain mixture of constructivistic and realistic elements. We do have access to objective reality, namely through the structural linking of our central nervous system to the environment via the receptors and effectors of our bodies. And we have a subjective phenomenal [Kantian] world that emerges from the operations of the brain itself. But we should not expect that our individual and subjective conception of the world, as we experience it through our senses, discloses nature to us as it really is. We should also not assume that inter-subjectivity is always possible, nor that we could think or imagine anything at all if we only had the appropriate information. My point is that the theory of autopoiesis offers us a well founded approach from biology for understanding how communication and language can evolve, although internally our brain is concerned with nothing more than the maintenance of its own states.” This absolutely contemptible philosophic gobbledygook could only be made by a tenured academic philosopher; eight billion people on the planet, almost all hooked up to the internet (seven billion users) and Henrik Walter snidely assumes human beings don’t have the apparatuses in reason and science to get to objective reality. What a sad ignorant phenomenologist, ('ha!, see! we are blind because we have eyes!') hiding behind the foggy opaque philosophy which like religion, mysticism and Marxism, is the well documented enemy of reason. As for his representation of libertarian free-will, it is no more than camouflaged compatibilism. “We have already mentioned that most people have the natural conviction that they possess free will. This conviction is due to certain experiences and enriched by our cultural values of freedom and self-determination. The least that neurophilosophy can try to do is to attempt to explain the experience of being able to do otherwise, intelligibility and agency-by using the means and insights of neuroscience itself. If we simultaneously keep our eye on the ongoing philosophical debate, we can explain some of these experiences naturally, without retrieving the concept of libertarian free will, which is incompatible with causal determinism. This would give us an argument for demonstrating that the assumption of a strong version of free will is superfluous, even though we have not, strictly speaking, refuted it. That is not the goal of a neurophilosophy of free will anyway. Our goal is to find out how we must alter the traditional libertarian concept of free will so that it is compatible with our knowledge about the brain.” Heavens to Murgatroyd! As I have shown above, the traditional libertarian concept of human freedom is in line with what we currently know about the brain.
© 2023 - E. A. St. Amant