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What is human freedom?

The following is a paper from an intro to philosophy course I took at OWU.

What is human freedom?  Most people claim to possess it, but few, if pressed, can even clearly define it.  If hundreds of years of science and philosophy have failed to provide a definition that is well known or ubiquitously accepted, one question immediately comes to mind: are we truly free?  Does free will, with all of its consequences, exist, and what are those consequences?

Though Rousseau did not believe that there was such a thing as human nature, he did provide two possibilities he found most reasonable.  The first, freedom, relates directly to our question; the second, a capacity for self-perfection, also supports it.  Rousseau saw animals as slaves to instinct.  Though they could think in that they could form ideas from observations, all of their motivation was due to inherited programs that worked effectively in the same way as the laws of physics, deterministically.  Humans have instincts too, but often override them.  In that ability to override instincts lays Rousseau’s definition of free will.  For instance, a boy may skip lunch during an intense session of video games.  Though the instinct to eat is present and food is readily available, he overrides it in order to do something which instinct provides him no reason to do.  According to Rousseau, an animal would not do so.

The second candidate for human nature, the ability to advance as a species and as and individual, also supports human freedom.  Inanimate matter cannot advance; it has no such goal as survival so it cannot become better at surviving.  Animals can, to a very limited degree; most grow to a better-adapted adult stage and all are able to learn to a limited degree through conditioning.  But humans are able to make huge leaps and bounds, far surpassing their “natural” abilities, inventing agriculture and factories and CD players.  Unless we are to say that humans have an instinct for creativity, using a term that denotes an unchanging motivation to rationalize the human capacity for change, we must question if free will does not perhaps lie behind the human capacity for advancement as well.

Even in Rousseau’s refutation of freedom as human nature we find support for the existence of this type of free will.  Freedom means that all individuals are able to act differently and against instinct.  Thus, the only thing we have in common is that we’re different.  For Rousseau, this is logically unsound; for us, it is a both reaffirmation of free will and new observable evidence of it.  We see quite often that different people will act differently in very similar circumstances.  So often, in fact, that it seems ludicrous to attribute it all to the effects of tiny physical differences, like room temperature and body weight, rather than the influence of a “free agent” motivation which we have yet to prove improbable, let alone impossible.

Hobbes, on the other hand, was a materialist.  He believed that the mind and body were made of the same thing and subject to the same physical laws.  Humans have no soul, and though they are very complicated, they are like clockwork-everything that one does is the result of some “motion” in the brain.  Hobbes’ model of these motions assumed that humans were selfish by nature and therefore acted not from free choice but instead for one’s best interests.  Unfortunately for Hobbes’ psychological egoism, there are examples of altruistic behavior in society.  The only way to reconcile the two is to imagine a controlling subconscious mind, which cannot be observed-much like Descartes’ dualistic self.  There is one difference, however; Descartes’ self, soul or mind is virtually another word for free will, whereas the subconscious required for this reconciliation is merely a higher level of control, still based on the unchanging principle that people always do what they think is in their best interest.

Materialism seems to destroy the possibility of free will altogether.  Descartes, though not speaking for free will specifically, argued against materialism.  His method of doubt led him to believe that everything learned from the senses were subject to doubt and that only one primary fact can be known: I think, therefore I am.  In order even to question whether or not I exist, I must exist in order to think about it.  The self is a thinking thing; and since the existence body is not so self evident, it is doubtable, and therefore the mind and the body are two separate things.  This opens the door for the existence of free will.  If we are to assume that the true self is separate from the physical world, it is not hard to suppose that the mind is also not subject to deterministic laws like the physical world.  Any child can tell you what will happen when you drop a baseball, and any high school physics student can tell you it’s speed before it hits the ground if you let him examine it.  But the mind is not subject to such laws, and physics, no matter how advanced it becomes, is based upon observation-and the very existence of Descartes’ self hinges on the idea that it is unobservable, but logically evident.

One of the ideas often used to defend materialism is Ockham’s Razor, the idea that all things being equal, the explanation metaphysically simpler is most likely the correct one.  This principle can be applied to the question of free will.  Can science (the metaphysically simpler model) completely explain people and their actions without free will?  If materialistic science can explain why people act the way they do without including a dualistic soul, then it is most likely correct.  On the surface, this seems so, because psychology and sociology have made great advances in doing just that.  Unfortunately, every advance has been statistical in nature.  Psychology can describe what the average reaction to a stimulus is, but it cannot say what one individual will definitely do in even the most controlled situation.  Recent scientific discoveries support the idea that science has definite limits.  The Uncertainty Principle in physics, for instance, states that one can only know so much about a particle’s position and velocity at the same time; the more you know about one, the less you can possibly know about the other.  Modern science must admit that most likely, it can’t know everything.

To put it in calculus terms, the limit of psychology’s ability to completely describe and predict an individual or group of people may be at total understanding, but scientific advancement will go on ad infinitum, ever approaching, never reaching that explanation.  And it is quite possible that the limit lies well below total understanding.  Thus, Ockham’s Razor can’t fully support scientific determinism.  Though metaphysically simpler, science cannot fully explain everything.  Free will is possible.

So far I have only discussed two options, free will and materialistic determinism.  But in most cases where determinism seems improbable, there lies another possibility: divine design.  In every case where one person has said “that action happened because of human freedom,” there has been someone quick to say, “that action happened because god wanted it to.”  If this notion is correct, then the non-physical aspect that Descartes speaks of is merely god’s will–most likely unknown to the thinker in question.  Our seeming individuality or ability to change may be nothing more than a puppet show, with god pulling the strings.  Sartre, however, argued that even if an omnipotent, omniscient god existed, it does not matter.  Free will, and all the responsibility it includes, exists.

Sartre’s existentialism relied on the existence of free will.  According to the system, existence precedes essence for human beings.  That is, human beings are created without a set definition or meaning of life, whereas everything else, from a rock to a hammer to a dog only exists as it has a definition.  How can this be?  For Christians, god gives us a purpose and defines us before we are born.  But for existentialism, everything is relative to the self.  They assume the Cartesian definition of the self is true.  Then it follows that everything outside the self only exists as it relates to the self-the rock, hammer, or dog, only exist after they are conceptualized by the self, and the very conceptualization provides the definition and purpose of the thing.  Essence must precede existence for everything except the self; the self we must first recognize as existing before we can even begin formulation an essence for ourselves.  This makes possible the reality of human freedom.

This view can be considered in accordance with most science.  A scientist cannot talk about anything until he has clearly defined what he is talking about; essence precedes existence.  But what of god?  Existentialism explains that believing in god is a choice in and of itself.  Think about it-you’re a devout Christian, and one day the clouds open, trumpets blare, and a voice booms out to you.  Do you do what it says?  You have no proof that it’s god and not the devil talking to you.  In fact, you have no proof it’s not someone with a loudspeaker and good timing.  If you do as the voice says, even though you may be able to say you were only following god’s orders, you chose first whether or not to believe that that was god speaking.  Even if god exists your choice precedes your actions.  That choice is free will.

The most important consequence of free will for Sartre is responsibility.  Since everything you do is ultimately because you chose to do so, you cannot but accept the consequences of your actions as your fault.  Thus he defines freedom not as the ability to make choices, but the requirement that you decide all of your actions and the responsibility one has for all of his actions.

John Locke provided two definitions of human freedom, strong and the weak.  Strong freedom is the ability to choose any option; we may do what we’re doing or we may choose not to do what we’re doing.  This is Sartre’s concept of human freedom.  Freedom in the weak sense means merely that we can do what we want.  The two definitions seem similar until you think of it this way: if a prisoner wants to be in jail, he is free in the weak sense and not the strong.  For Locke and Sartre, weak freedom is no freedom at all; the prisoner is not free, he is just lucky.  Hobbes’ materialism may even be considered freedom in the weak sense; people are free to do what they want, but what they want is determined by laws just like the laws of physics.  Rousseau’s definition of freedom is harder to classify.  Though he does not address the ideas directly, the ability to go against instinct seems similar to the ability to choose to do anything (or the ability to choose against doing what we’re doing whether we like what we’re doing or not).  Though they are not exactly equivalent, Rousseau’s definition of human freedom is at least weak and most likely strong.

So where are we left?  Are we free?  Fatalism provides two arguments against free will, and Jonathan Edwards provides another.  First, there’s religious predestination.  The idea is that an omnipotent, omniscient god knows everything, always.  God knows all that someone has done, is doing, and will do.  If god knows now what someone will do in the future, how can that person do anything but what god knows he will do?  Though the person thinks he is making a free decision (and he or she is, in the weak sense), all his actions must have determined if god knew about them beforehand.  There are two ways to refute this argument.  First, if there is no god, the idea doesn’t apply.  Second, there’s always the possibility that the way in which god knows things defies human logic.  He is, after all, god.

But there is a similar argument that leaves god out of it.  If every factual statement is either true or false, then statements about the future are either true or false as well.  Though I don’t know if I will be alive tomorrow, I either will or will not.  If the statement is true, then there’s nothing I can do tomorrow to stop it from happening; to do so would be to change the past.  This also allows for freedom in the weak sense.  Since I do not know whether any statement about the future is true or false, I act as though I have free will; but things must be as they must be, and I cannot choose otherwise.  Aristotle disagrees with this argument on one point: statements are not true or false until they have happened.

Jonathan Edwards gives a very different criticism of free will.  Let us define willing something as making a choice.  An act of will is a volition.  Now, if I choose something, there are two possibilities: I may have done so voluntarily or involuntarily.  If I did so involuntarily, then that is the end of it; I chose it because I had to.  If I did it voluntarily, then it must have been an act of will.  Now, was that act of will a voluntary or involuntary choice?  If it was voluntary, it was by another act of will, and so on and so on.  By this argument, an involuntary act makes perfect sense whereas the existence of free will leads to an infinite spiral of choices.  There is one major flaw with this argument though-let us say I make a choice.  If it is involuntary, it does indeed stop there, and that is why I did it.  But if it is voluntary, then yes, it is an act of will.  As for whether that act of will is voluntary, we have already answered that question.  That “second” act of will is merely the first; if you make a voluntary decision, the act of will that decision results from is the original act of will.

So where do we stand?  Does free will exist?  What is free will?  I believe that we must accept at least the weak definition of freedom.  There is not a single convincing argument above that rules out the ability to act as you choose without knowledge of the fact that you cannot do otherwise.  In fact, since by the definition of weak freedom we don’t know that we are not free, then how can humans figure out that they aren’t?  Even if we take predestination as fact, we do not know our future and therefore may act like we have free will anyway.  Materialistic determinism is not convincing and modern science is not necessarily deterministic.  None of the arguments for fatalism even rule out freedom in the weak sense.  Furthermore, I think there is enough doubt in every argument against freedom in the strong sense to say it is quite possible, if not probable.  That is to say, we haven’t dis-proven free will in the strong sense, so there is no need to throw it out.

What are the consequences of this resolution?  For one thing, if it is true we have freedom in the weak sense, it seems nearly impossible to prove or disprove the existence of freedom in the strong sense.  If we are able to choose what we want to choose, or are made to think we have made a choice when we have in fact done the only thing possible, how can we ever know if we could have chosen otherwise?  We cannot go back into the past and try again.  As close as circumstances may be, not two decisions or acts of will are exactly the same.  My very decision to write this paper was unavoidable, but I can never know that.  If I knew it, I would not be free in any sense; if we can predict the future, then we cannot change it and are knowing prisoners of what will happen.  If I know I could not have chosen the other topic, then I effectively haven’t made any choice at all.  Just like predestination, I am not responsible for any of my actions-I, and everyone else (save perhaps god) are victims of circumstance.

That is why I choose to believe in my own freedom in the strong sense.  I would rather think that my actions are wholly mine to control and that I am responsible for them, as attractive as total lack of fault sounds.  I have yet to be convinced that it is impossible, and so I choose it (hopefully freely) because it is the most appealing and logically sound argument to me.