The question of whether or not free will exists has occupied philosophers for thousands of years. It is a question that holds broad implications. Indeed, the denial of free will disrupts any notion of moral responsibility. Relatively recently, scientists have also begun contributing to this question by presenting hypotheses based on empirical research. Here, I will bypass any speculation of whether or not free will exists. Instead, I will assume a position, and explore some of the implications of that position. This strategy is designed to uncover if the implications of a position might shed light on its plausibility. The position I will assume is that there is no free will.
As a reference, I’ll cite Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza; a key figure in the history of western philosophy who, in part III of his 17th century manuscript “The Ethics”, wrote:
In the Mind there is no absolute, or free, will, but the Mind is determined to will this or that by a cause which is also determined by another, and this again by another, and so to infinity
Spinoza’s rejection of free will is posited on the laws of causality. Of course, any discussion on free will needs to define exactly what is meant by “will”. This is one of the ongoing challenges in the philosophical enquiry into free will (see this summary here). For the purposes of this discussion, I will define the notion of will as the following: the capacity to choose as it exists within the mechanism of thought. In other words: faced with a choice, the individual has a think and arrives at a decision. This definition is undoubtedly open to criticism but, again, this research endeavour is designed to move past the proposition to test its purported implications, not its perfectness. I will come back and revisit these definitions if the need so arises.
Here goes. If there is no free will then:
- The illusion of free will is extremely convincing.I believe that I am responsible for my actions, and that I choose to act in certain ways. Indeed, this belief lies at the heart of much of my human experience, for example: my self-respect depends on what I achieve. If there is no free-will then what I achieve is none of my doing and so the concept of self-respect no longer makes any sense. As mentioned above, the lack of free will also affects the notion of responsibility … but it doesn’t stop there. Emotions such as regret (‘why did I do that’?) and pride (‘I’ve done so well’) depend on the notion that I have some control over my will. So if there is no free will then, by God, the illusion is convincing.This raises the question, what is the mechanism for this illusion?
Just as a trompe-l’œil achieves the illusion of being real by approaching how the eye might see something, I ask: how might the illusion of free will function?
And, just as certain visual illusions (as in the example to the right) can be quickly denied by changing the perspective of the viewer, I ask: how might the illusion of free will be denied?
- I hold no responsibility for my actions.If there is no free will, then I cannot hold responsibility for my actions. Here, I will quickly move past any absurd suggestion that this assertion might lead to some kind of moral depravity.
Instead, I will ask: if I hold no responsibility for my actions, then who am I? And what does that ‘I’ do? If that ‘I’ does not act, does not make decisions, then what does it do?
- How might I pursue happiness?If there is no free will, then how do I, as a human being, pursue happiness? (whether it be, as Spinoza identifies it, through fame (or respect), wealth, or the pleasure of the senses (sex drugs and rock and roll!)).
- How does a philosopher, like Spinoza, come to the conclusion that there is no free will?This last question is very perplexing. If there is no free will, then how does a philosopher come to the conclusion that there is no free will? Again, assuming that the insight of the absence of free will is correct, then how does a ‘not-free will’ come to the conclusion that there is no free will? Read one way, this proposal seems to suggest that having such deep insights is mere chance. Could this be so? Or is there some kind of order, some kind of intelligence that lies elsewhere?