Sunday, August 14, 2005

Column on Free Will (sans Typo)

Is Free Will Real?

Tibor R. Machan

Here we have one of the all time favorite philosophical topics, one
rarely omitted from any thinker?s agenda, yet one, also, that?s constantly
revisited, by thinkers of every generation. And that?s for good reason.

If what I am doing when I write these lines of thought is
something I must
do, just as the rain has to fall when it does, though involving more
complicated processes, the issue of whether it is true that there is free
will cannot even be established. For establishing anything at all would be
no more than behaving as one must?there could be no right or wrong about
the matter. One cannot sensibly consider whether it is right or wrong that
a river flows as it does, or a virus kills as id does. What must be isn?t
subject to right versus wrong. At most one can ask whether it is
beneficial or harmful to some life form. (This is why scientists need to
be objective, think independently, as do juries or indeed anyone who seeks

What hangs up the case for free will so persistently seems to me
to be
the idea of causation. Ever since the beginning of recorded human thought
there has been a dispute about what kind of stuff exists and there have
been very influential thinkers who have answered that there is just one
kind of stuff, namely, bits of matter (specifically, the candidates have
been atoms, strings, monads, you name it). If this is so, then there could
only be one kind of causation in the world, since a cause is dependent on
the identity of whatever is involved in a causal relationship. If there is
just one kind of thing, then, there is just one kind of causation. So
since bits of matter exhibit the causal relationship of mechanical or
similar interaction?a movement here causes a movement there?any novel
movement, initiative or free action is out of the question.

But there is the contrary view that there are innumerable types
and kinds
of things in the world. As the world evolves, new types and kinds of
beings emerge and, so, different causes, too, emerge. Once a human being
has emerged in nature, given its unique nature?especially that of its type
of consciousness?a new kind of causation also emerged, which involves, by
all accounts, being a first cause, an agent. This is what makes sense of
personal responsibility for what someone does or fails to do; it also
makes sense of being able to be right or wrong not just in ethics or law
but, also, in science or philosophy; it is also the basis for the vast
measure of human creativity and destructiveness in evidence throughout

Some who object to this kind of free will claim we can have it
both ways,
namely, personal responsibility along with unavoidability or determinism.
Yes, they say, we are responsible, but only in the sense that, say, a
rainstorm is responsible for a mudslide. Such an event was unavoidable, in
the sense that if the circumstances lined up in a certain way, it had to
happen, no choice about it could exist. Applying this to people, it means
they do have an intermediary role in how some things happen in the world.
But they couldn?t have acted other than how they did?only if some of those
circumstances or factors had been different could they possibly have done
something else. Que sera, sera, is the real situation for us all?what will
be, will be. That kind of ?responsibility? isn?t what free will, morality,
law and creativity are about?these all assume people could act
differently, all things being equal apart from their self-produced choices.

The ?couldn?t have done otherwise? position, I take it, rests on
notion that everything is the same kind of thing, ultimately, so is
governed by the same kind of causation which leave no room for initiative
or agency. But that everything is the same kind of thing goes against what
we have in evidence around us throughout the world. Is a pebble the same
kind of thing as a human heart? Is a reflexive movement of the eyelids the
same kind of thing as the creative movement of Mozart?s composition of his
music? Is a mathematical equation the same kind of thing as a volcano?

It is patently obvious that there are major differences between
things or processes and to contend otherwise is very odd. Robert Laughlin,
the Stanford University physicist argues against the idea of just one kind
being making up everything even in the field of physics, which is a
place where it is advanced. See his A Different Universe (Basic Books,

OK, we will not resolve the matter here and probably never reach
consensus on it, being as it is one of the most ancient debates. But
consensus isn?t a requirement for truth. For my money there is no
reasonable doubt about it, human beings, unless crucially incapacitated,
have the capacity to initiate some of their conduct. Which is what
morality, law, art and even simple inquiry into the nature of things

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