It quickly became a spirited debate… after all, there is a lot on the line and it’s certainly not a point to be conceded without a fight.
We were discussing the concept of free will… and whether we have it… or not.
My interlocutor was steadfast and impassioned.
No, he said. None at all. Zero free will.
He was quick to quote others.
“The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.” Writes Stephen Cave in the Atlantic.
“The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat.”
He continues, “Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”
It is this understanding of neuroscience that has led many to relinquish their fundamental belief in the control of our own choices.
But where does insisting on a diminished Free will leave us? How does it affect our moral codes, criminal justice systems, religion, and indeed, our very understanding of life itself?
If every moment in life is simply the result of predictable outcomes of mechanical laws, what’s the point of it all?
Of course this debate has been raging since the birth of philosophy. Early myth-makers were, in their fear of the gods, more than ready to submit themselves to the Moirai (the Fates), who were thought to determine every person’s destiny at birth.
The pre-socratics (or as I like to term them, the first philosophers) wrestled control from the gods to nature. Thinkers like Anaximander and Heraclitus believed in the logos behind nature, while the materialist philosophers Democritus and his mentor Leucippus claimed that all things, including humans, were made of atoms in a void, with individual atomic motions strictly controlled by causal laws.
Socrates famously claimed ignorance was the cause of evil (since no man does wrong willingly) rather than individual agency whereas Aristotle, in his Physics and Metaphysics, said there were “accidents” caused by “chance (τυχή)”, though this is a gross simplification of Aristotle’s more nuisance exploration into the inquiry.
Nonetheless, so far it appears Free-Will isn’t storming ahead.
Then Epicurus and the Stoics came into the scene and formulated clear indeterministic and deterministic positions.
One generation after Aristotle, Epicurus builds on the Macedonian’s understanding of why things happen by adding a few other causes;
“…some things happen of necessity (ἀνάγκη), others by chance (τύχη), others through our own agency (παρ’ ἡμᾶς).”
…necessity destroys responsibility and chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.”
It wasn’t until the Peripatetic philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 150–210) defended a view of moral responsibility, that we find something that we would call libertarianism today. While Greek philosophy had no precise term for “free will” as did Latin (liberum arbitrium or libera voluntas), Alexander termed the discussion in regards to responsibility, what “depends on us” (in Greek ἐφ ἡμῖν).
Man is responsible for self-caused decisions, Alexander argued, and can choose to do or not to do something, adding to the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus.
So where does this leave us, dear reader? Sorting through the wisdom of the past and the science of today, we have to take a step back while looking deep inside our own thoughts and decisions and ask:
Do we have free-will? And if we don’t… Or if we do… What are the many consequences?