The dialogue between philosophers over the existence of free will versus the inevitability of determinism is a debate that will always exist. The discussion centers around the true freedom of humans to think and act according to their own judgment versus the concept that humans are intrinsically bound by the physical laws of the universe. Before I enter this chicken and the egg debate I need to quantify my terms: Free will is defined by the great philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas as “vis electiva” or free choice. It is the ability of man to contemplate and judge the effects of the actions he is about to take.
“…But man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment and retains the power of being inclined to various things. ” (Aquinas. Suma Theologica) Determinism is a complex notion but is best described by David Hume as the notion that something cannot come from nothing and that all actions have causes preceding them.
“I conceive that nothing taketh beginning from itself, but from the action of some other immediate agent without itself. And that therefore, when first a man hath an appetite or will to something, to which immediately before he had no appetite nor will, the cause of his will, is not the will itself, but something else not in his own disposing. So that whereas it is out of controversy, that of voluntary actions the will is the necessary cause, and by this which is said, the will is also caused by other things whereof it disposeth not, it followeth, that voluntary actions have all of them necessary causes, and therefore are necessitated.
” (Hume. Liberty and Nessessity. ) Philosophy and world religion alike were born of the same origins. Each of the two ancient disciplines arose from the quest for the answers to life’s ominous questions. These human questions, archetypical to people of all geographic locations; where did we come from; why are we here; where do we go when we die; unite us as a race. It is no coincidence that each religion and theology from all four corners of the earth tackles these black holes of human logic.
Each religion carves their own individual explanations of these unanswerable questions into their core belief systems, each one centrally different than others. However, they all share one common thought; each shares a belief in an afterlife determined by the choices made in life. Free will is the common denominator in all world religions, because all share the essential concept of morality. The widespread acceptance of the concept of morality implies that there is a choice to be had at each and every juncture or life. The choice comes from recognition of good and evil.
For good and evil to exist, then there has to be the ability to decipher between the two and also decide to accept one over the other. The existence of morality alone proves that free will exists, because without the freedom to choose right or wrong in any given situation there would be no qualitative measure of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of ones actions. David Hume comments on the origin of morality and its place in our everyday decision making processes, “Only when you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation” (Hume.Treatise of Human Nature).
In other words, there are no outside stimuli that can decipher good from evil; the line can only be drawn by internal thought. Hume was a naturalist in that his vision of the world and therefore stance of philosophy was based directly through the experiences of the senses. His stance on many issues directly originated from his ability to experience it with the five senses, and on the subject of morality he takes exception. Even he recognizes the existence of morality in everyday life, even though it cannot be explained through the lens of the senses.
It would seem that morality’s acceptance must therefore prove that free will exists, but there is one essential school of thought yet to weigh on this topic; science. Science was the latest bloomer of the three major disciplines of existential explanation and in the post modern era is becoming more and more popular. As the world becomes further secularized and the reaches of scientific logic continue to exceed their grasp, many of the world’s intellectuals identify “truth” on a scientific scale. Science does not support the theory of morality, because it can’t be proven to exist.
The notion of “free-will”, something which world religion and philosophies alike recognize as a fundamental part of our human anatomy, is called into question in a few simple and logical ways. Science supports the theory of determinism as the only logical explanation of the unfolding of the actions of our lives. First off, science has recently developed the discipline known to us as physics, in which the laws of the universe have been defined. In the short time in which humans have been graced by the scientific understanding of the laws of the universe, human kind has yet to fully step back and contemplate the magnitude of this discovery.
In generations past, humans believed that we were made special with “free will”, but now we know that like all things in the universe we are subject to the physical laws. This is a huge step forward in rational thinking because it allows us to understand that our previously God given concept of “free will” was really a result of a lack of understanding of the deterministic laws of the universe. For instance a law as simple and commonly accepted as “gravity” challenges the idea of free will.
Gravitational pull determines that no matter the size of an object, once separate from the surface of the earth will be dragged back down at the same force every time. This is a simple concept that we take for granted, but it works in the free will v. determinism argument. We are ruled by gravity, and therefore all of our lives activities answer to it. We can’t choose to jump off a building and float in the air because we’ll be pulled back to the ground to our imminent deaths. We can’t choose to stay younger and keep our skin tight to our faces because gravity’s long-term effect causes our skin to droop down towards the ground.
The choices I just listed may seem farfetched to some, however, if we examine the notion that we have “free will” in the empirical sense of the word we see that not all of our decisions are controlled by us, and that we fall victim to the tyrannical rule of the physical laws of the universe. We aren’t truly “free” to create our own actions in life. Albert Einstein offers a particularly apt synopsis, “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star.
Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper. ” (Albert Einstein) The rule of physical law aside, which hinders us from truly being “free” to choose our own actions in life, is a much more simple scientific argument that dispels the notion of free will. For example: Say a 20 year old man murders another man in cold blood. They have no affiliation, no prior knowledge of who each other is, or reason to dislike each other. Man A walks up to random Man B and shoots and kills him. Was this action of Man A a result of “free will”?
To examine the notion fully you need to look at his action coming from two sources. Either Man A was born with the moral flaw to allow himself to find killing another human acceptable, or that Man A was influenced during the course of his life by interactions and actions of others and came to that conclusion based on his own experience. There is no other explanation for Man A to willingly choose to open fire on Man B and kill him. If we look at the first option, Man A’s natural moral compass was skewed, allowing for him to conceive the notion that killing another is okay.
This speaks to the determinant nature of our chemical makeup. Its possible his DNA made a mistake coding somewhere and he developed overtime and understood that killing another is “wrong” or maybe that his entire sense of “right from wrong” was skewed inside his mind. This would lead Man A to lead a life normally on the outside, and yet without regard for consequence, open fire on another man and kill him as easily as he could have held a door for him. This is the idea that he naturally had the capacity to kill, and that he could not control it.
Eventually one of his animalistic impulses would finally stick and he’d be in the right place at the right time, and that it was only a matter of time until he killed someone. If you don’t subscribe to that theory and believe that he chose to kill Man B that day, try and consider that the results will still be pre-determined. If Man A killed Man B due to his choice, then his own “free will” and judgment that he finds reprehensible to kill another man can’t be attributed to truly “free” will of choice. Not every human kills others as part of their natural lifestyle, as they might kiss or mate with another.
In fact a very small percentage of people in the world murder other humans, and this begs the question of why? What makes this small percentage of people “choose” to kill another person? The answer is that if they choose to do it, and they weren’t previously miswired so as said in the prior paragraph, then they must have been influenced by their surroundings. When Man A was six years old he didn’t choose to murder Man B, the events of his life led him to make this decision about whether or not murder was okay. This is yet another reason that he wasn’t truly free to choose; outside influence hinders the ability to choose freely.
Whether he was abused, molested, lost a loved one, or just plain fed up with the monotony of everyday life in society, something pushed him over the edge. Something allowed for him to justify his actions; that something is outside influence. This deterministic train of thought explains why people do what they do, but not when. What makes us actually hit the point of no return, or when will the right opportunity hit the right mood leading the right action? (In our example the murder of Man B) The paradox between “free will” and “determinism” exists because of the influence of the different schools of thought.
If one aligns his personal truth based on religious fervor, then an understanding of “free will” can exist logically and on the other hand if one bases his logic around science then “determinism” seems to be the only answer. So where does that leave philosophy, the great bridge between the two polarized schools of thought? It leaves philosophy somewhere in the middle, examining the validity of both sides of the argument, and helping to shed light on the debate over whether or not we truly are free to make a choice or if we are merely floating along the currents of the universe.
Personally, I’m lost somewhere in the middle, hoping that the answer to this time-old question will be revealed. Works Cited: * Aquinas, St. Thomas. Sancti Thomae Aquinatis … : Suma Theologica … Parisiis: Apud Sebastianum Et Gabrielem Cramoisy, 1640. Print. * Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature: in Two Volumes. London: Dent, 1934. Print. * Hume, David. Liberty and Necessity: an Argument against Free-will and in Favor of Moral Causation. London: Progressive Pub. 1890. Print.