Well, today we continue on that same line of inquiry. Some of you might be a bit nervous. After all, your understanding of yourself as a conscious being hangs in the balance. Are we really free? Is everything predetermined? Will we ever have the answers!?
To those of you mulling over such thoughts, I would like to answer your fears with a resounding “eh…maybe”.
That’s the problem, or perhaps the wonderful thing, with philosophy. The more you seek to know, the less you inevitably do know. But think about it; would you really want to live in a world where you know everything? Socrates certainly wouldn’t. At the very least, it would be incredibly boring.
So let’s not distress too much if we haven’t exactly unlocked the truth, or fallacy, of human free will. Our last two philosophers gave it a pretty good shot.
In the end, however, Aristotle does not give us a concise answer, partially because the question we are considering was not known during his time.
Epicurus did come face to face with the question of determinism and indeterminism. However, his solution involves the proposition that atoms often swerve and redirect themselves whilst falling through the void of space. As a result of this chaos, we are given different causal chains and the determinism of the universe is broken.
Now, if you are dubiously scratching your head over that last one, then don’t worry. You’re not the only one.
In her book Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, Julia Annas writes…
“..since swerves are random, it is hard to see how they help to explain free action. We can scarcely expect there to be a random swerve before every free action. Free actions are frequent, and (fairly) reliable. Random swerves cannot account for either of these features.”
Okay, so that seems to be out. What’s a philosopher to do? Perhaps we ought to just give up, bow to the will of the universe and just go along for the ride.
Zeno of Citium certainly thought so. Credited as being the founding father of the Stoic school of philosophy, Zeno, along with the early Stoics, held a very strict view of determinism.
While Epicurus attributed very little significance to the universe, everything is just atoms and void after all; Zeno and the early Stoics believed that the universe was just about the greatest thing ever.
The Stoics believed that the universe was expertly designed and operated in a way that was perfectly logical. Taking a page from the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, the Stoics believed that a divine logical force that touched all things and admitted no exceptions governed all of existence.
Basically, just don’t worry. The universe has a plan for you, and, whether you believe it or not, it’s a really good plan. Nothing happens without cause, and nothing occurs without meaning.
The early Stoics believed in what we might call “strict causal determinism”. That is to say that they believed that all events were a result of antecedent causes.
We might take this to mean that early Stoics were fatalists, or that they believed that future events were predetermined and unavoidable. However, this is not clear to us.
The idea that events cause other events does not necessarily rule out human will as a driving force for events. However, given that the early Stoics attributed great importance to the grand design within nature and that they believed all events were merely an effect of this master plan, we might hesitantly conclude that Zeno was what we would call a determinist, or perhaps a theological determinist.
The bottom line is that the universe is ordered in a deterministic way, and since we are part of the universe, we are also ordered in a deterministic way.
A problem arises from this. You might have already picked up on it yourself.
If all of our actions are predetermined, how can we attribute praise and blame to human events? The virtuous man is not virtuous by choice; his virtue is a result of forces outside of his control. Similarly, the wicked man is not wicked by choice. He is merely a slave to the divine logos.
Since Stoicism is, largely, a philosophy of ethical rigor, the Stoics must find a way to leave us accountable for our actions without being inconsistent with the deterministic nature of the universe.
That’s no easy task, as I’m sure you can tell. Chrysippus, however, might be up to the challenge.
Chrysippus, a Stoic philosopher who practiced one generation after Zeno, claimed to have found a way to reconcile the deterministic nature of the universe with the need for human beings to be accountable for their actions.
Chrysippus argues that while the universe might have a predetermined course, we still possess the means to assent to this path. This is perhaps best described by the following allegory:
Imagine a dog that is tied to a cart with a rope. When the master gets in the cart and rides to the marketplace, the dog, being the loyal sort of creature that he is, will obediently follow. If the dog had chosen to not follow, he would have been prompted to by the tug of the rope.
However, the dog, given its undying eagerness, will always follow the cart. If we were to
imagine the dog without the rope, the creature would still always assent to follow his master.
In this little parable, you are the dog, the universe is the cart, and determinism is the rope. You might not have any say in whether or not you follow the cart, but should that matter if you have already willingly assented to do so?
I will give one more example.
Let us assume that I am faced with the decision to either go to the movie theater or stay in my apartment and write philosophy articles. As luck would have it, I decide to stay put and write.
However, unbeknownst to me, someone has put chains on the outside of my door, effectively barring me from leaving and going to the movies. It would seem that leaving was never really an option, but should that matter if I never wanted to in the first place?
The question then becomes, is it still free will if our choices and the direction of a predetermined universe coincide?
Some say no. Without the possibility of an alternative outcome, there can exist no free will. We do not possess freedom, merely the illusion of freedom.
And so the questions continue to plague us. Are we free? Or are we slaves to necessity, just one more pawn in the design of the universe?
Well, if you were looking for a definitive answer, then I would refer you to my previous assertion.
I don’t know, and I probably never will.