The problem of free will refers to the examination of whether or not we as conscious beings have control over our own actions. French philosopher Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach argues that all acts are caused by past events and conditions, a belief known as determinism. Physical laws shows us that all events in time are determined by prior events, but the belief in free will implies that our actions are results from what we perceive as choice, are undetermined random events in time.
Therefore, I argue that there can not be free will because if our actions were random it would defy physical and natural laws. Every event in nature occurs because of a prior events, following back all the way to the big bang or the beginning of the universe, our actions are of no exception. Consider my “choice” to reach my arm out and pick up a cup of coffee. This action is determined by physical laws starting from neurons firing in my brain, electrical signals sent to my muscle fibers as well as chemical reactions that occur during these states.
The initial cause here is the will to perform this physical action, however even will is determined by motives and desires which are influenced by my collective experience and memory, in this case the desire to taste coffee. Holbach refers to will as the initial action that gives play to the organs (Holbach 285). This “choice” to perform this action was not a random occurrence, but determined by events leading up to it. I believe if Holbach were aware of genetics as well, he would conclude further that our genes play a crucial role in determining our actions as well.
Nature has endowed all of us with the genes which pre determine part of our behaviour. Everyone has different idiosyncrasies which determine how we will act or react in certain situations. Holbach argues that all of our actions is the result of having one motive being stronger then another (Holbach 286-289). Considering the fact that not all people have the same motives nor do we all place them in the same priority. Holbach uses the example of a thirsty man who choices not to drink poisoned water because the motive of self conservation is stronger then that of his thirst (Holbach 285-286).
He also considers that a different man may foolishly drink the poisoned water, placing the desire to remedy thirst above self conservation. The question Holbach fails to acknowledge, is what determines this priority of motive? What influences these motives to be stronger then the other? I argue that this is in part influenced by genetics as it is a direct impact on our behaviour. The idea of all events determined by a prior events leads us to the question of how far does this line of causality continue?
In reference to the cosmological argument which attempts to prove the existence of God by recognizing God as the first cause (Aquinas 242). We can understand the a phenomenon known as the big bang that set in motion the determinist events which now occur still in our expanding universe. However, the question still remains, what event occurred prior to this event? How can something occur from nothing? This first cause, or first event, would be a random event, with no deterministic factors.
If this is the case then, random events can occur, therefore choice, being a random event as well, is indeed possible. However it is equally feasible to say that there is no first cause, which means we are presented with an infinite series of casually related events which is itself an event, thus negating the possibility of random events, the possibility of choice. The problem of choice, is that it implies a sense of randomness that does not fit into the system of reality that we exist in. Where does choice come from?
Holbach argues that choice is an illusion, that we think we have control over ourselves because we are completely ignorant of all the factors that influence our conscious thought (Holbach 288-289). If there was an entity that knew every possible factor in the universe and how these factors influence people, then this entity would then be able to predict exactly what would happen (Holbach 284-285). In other words, there are extremely abundant amount of variables that influence our actions that our minds can not conceive of, this is what gives us the perception of choice, when we are actually bound by these variables.
For a random event to occur, something must occur without any connection with any prior event. For example, a random event could be that my glasses float of my face, turn into a small rodent and then disappear, all of which defies gravity and the conservation of energy. As ridiculous as that may sound, I argue that it as equally ridiculous to assume that our actions are a product of choice that is a random event. Choice must come from something, it must be in a caused by something else for it to occur, and if that is the case then it is no longer choice, but a determined action.
One major question that arises from the free will debate, is question of can one be morally blamed if all acts are determined (James 298-300). Firstly I believe it is important to distinguish the direct act itself and the factors the influence the act. For example, when someone commits an act of murder, one can blame that person for such an act, but one can also blame the factors that lead this person to commit such an act.
Factors such as what motive would drive a person to kill, or what influenced this person to kill, these are also to blame as well. However, the question of moral blame is difficult in deciding whether to punish someone if their act was determined, since you can only place blame on a person, not on the elements that lead up to it the specific action. My response to this is that, punishment and blame is necessary as another influential factor which deters others from doing the same action.
Given the situation, perhaps, the motive to not kill is in a sense over ridden by the stronger motive of not being punished, or morally blamed because this has already happened to others. When choice is determined by genetic, environmental, biological, physical influences, there isn’t much room for free will at all, and it we can no longer call it choice. It is clear that will is not a random occurrence, but results in an action that was determined by numerous causes, more causes then we are consciously aware of.
The deterministic complexity of our universe is that gives us the illusion of choice. To accept this idea and exist in a universe where everything is determined poses a lot of questions. Consider our conscious thoughts as well, are those determined? Are we powerless in what we think as well? Are consciousness and self awareness mere products of physical natural laws that govern our brains? If so then, determinism threatens our individuality as persons, and makes us seem more like machines operating under sets of rules and parameters.
Works Cited Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry. “Humans are determined. ” Classic Philosophical Questions. 11th ed. Ed. James A. Gould and Robert J. Mulvaney. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 283-292. James, William. “Humans are free. ” Classic Philosophical Questions. 11th ed. Ed. James A. Gould and Robert J. Mulvaney. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 293-302. Aquinas, St. Thomas. “The Cosmological Argument. ” Classic Philosophical Questions. 11th ed. Ed. James A. Gould and Robert J. Mulvaney. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 242-247.
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