Free will vs. Determinism

Which Side of Philosophy Do You Reside On? Determinism vs. Existentialism

The idea of free will is important to most people in most societies.  In most places, free will is a key component of the law and social mores, which function based on the premise that individuals make choices liberally, and should thus, be held accountable for their actions.  However, the notion that we have free will is threatened by the deterministic perspective of philosophy.  It dictates that every action in the universe is the result of an inevitable chain of causation that could not have unfolded in any other way.  Meanwhile, existentialism, another perspective in philosophy, contends that free will is indispensable to the human condition because essence precedes existence.

In short, determinism stands against the notion of human responsibility and accountability, arguing instead that human beings do not will their own choices.  On the contrary, existentialists suggest that accountability is essential to basic human functioning.  One argument that helps resolve the tensions between these two philosophical ideals is that of soft determinism.  This theory affirms the reality of a deterministic universe, but does so without undermining the individual freedoms advocated by existentialists.  By examining determinism through the perspective of Baron D’Holbach ((1723-89), existentialism through the perspective of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), and the solution offered by soft determinism, and drawing upon a correlation with the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, we can argue that responsibility and free will need not be limited to the existentialist view alone.

According to D’Holbach, every event of the universe is necessarily caused by a preceding event such that the forces of all sub-atomic particles combine to dictate the unfolding of human action and thought.  In justification of his argument, D’Holbach contends that a complex network of forces of both nature and fortune unite to form the choices that individuals make.  He even notes that it is the intricacy with which these forces operate that causes humans to mistake their choices for instances of free will.

D’Holbach distinguishes between five essential accidents of nature and fortune—accidents of birth and fortune, psychological makeup, fears and desires, what an individual is taught, and the influence of parents and peers.  He uses these ‘essential accidents’ to define the ways in which circumstances beyond any individual’s control conspire to determine human behaviour.  For instance, when D’Holbach describes the attributes that lead a man to develop an attraction towards a woman by arguing that “[t]he lover does not give his mistress the features which captivate him; he is not then master of loving, or not loving the object of his tenderness; he is not master of his imagination or temperament” (2).  In this example, D’Holbach outlines the fact that the “desires and volitions” of humankind are always faculties beyond individuals’ control (2).

Overall, the deterministic view negates the notion of responsibility for one’s actions because it asserts that humans cannot logically be the masters of their own actions if they are already predestined.  In other words, the predictive powers of the universe unfold such that, in any given situation—whereby a person believes they are making a free choice—the laws of physics prove that those choices could not have been made in any other way, at any other time, or under any other circumstances.  Instead, humans develop an illusion of free will because they lack an understanding of the complex matrix of particles, which exert control over every action they take.

On the other hand, Sartre’s existentialist philosophy affirms that Man designs his own essence.  Unlike objects of the material world, human beings are ‘subject’ or ‘agent’; meaning any given action reflects an individual’s development towards self-understanding.  Therefore, in contrast to objects—which are valued in as much as their existence conforms to the essence of their design—human beings have the agency to define their own essences.  For instance, Sartre draws upon the example of a paper cutter (2).  Due to its material nature, the essence of a paper cutter is designed to conform to its function of cutting paper, and is otherwise considered useless.  Contrarily, human being do not have an essence to conform to because they freely act in ways that gradually build the schema of their essences.

In fact, Sartre argues that if Man’s existence truly were predetermined, then not only are his actions void of responsibility, but any moment at which he defies one option in pursuit of another serves as a simple proof for the failure of determinism.  Naturally, determinists would argue that Man’s decision to choose one alternative over another is also predetermined, but Sartre argues that this is evidence that Man has the freedom to choose otherwise given any decision he makes.  In consequence, Sartre’s position regarding free-will saves the issue of responsibility because “the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and he places the entire responsibility of his existence squarely upon his own shoulders” (4).

With that being said, the example of Oedipus Rex outlines the contention existing between determinism and existentialism.  Therein, Oedipus interprets a prophecy stipulating that he would share a bed with his mother and murder his father.  Unaware that he was adopted and keen on defying the unfolding of the prophecy, Oedipus flees his home and unknowingly encounters his biological father, Laius—King of Thebes—along his route.  The two men engage in a quarrel that ends with Laius’ murder.  Oedipus subsequently arrives in Thebes and is crowned King before marrying Queen Jocasta—his biological mother.  Throughout the play, Oedipus undergoes a metamorphosis, whereby he learns that the toxicity that has ensued in Thebes during his reign is a direct consequence of his unknowing fulfillment of the original prophecy.

Consequently, D’Holbach would argue that Oedipus’ fate was predestined to unfold as it did because he could not have done otherwise.  In fact, D’Holbach would contend that the very existence of the prophecy itself functions as proof for the inevitability of causation.  Moreover, despite the fact that Oedipus vows to defy the prophecy, it is fulfilled nonetheless, thus exemplifying the ways in which his illusion of freedom and willful action are overridden by the inevitability of the predictive powers of the universe.  In fact, when D’Holbach states:

The inward persuasion that we are free to do, or not to do a thing, is but a mere illusion. If we trace the true principle of our actions, we shall find, that they are always necessary consequences of our volitions and desires, which are never Good Sense without God in our power. You think yourself free, because you do what you will; but are you free to will, or not to will; to desire, or not to desire? Are not your volitions and desires necessarily excited by objects or qualities totally independent of you?

He outlines the ways in which Oedipus was predestined to fail at his attempt to defy the prophecy because of the inevitable forces of universal causation (3-4).

In contrast, Sartre would argue that Oedipus is free because he willfully chooses to defy the fate of the prophecy.  As such, Sartre might reason that Oedipus fulfills the prophecy despite his effort because free will is often contingent upon others.  In fact, Sartre describes the notion of contingency in stating:

I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me (7).

Herein, he explains the ways in which Man may will to choose one alternative over another, yet the choices that others make in regards to the same circumstance also have an effect on the outcome of the original choice.

Nevertheless, Sartre would argue that Oedipus’ choice to defy the prophecy was free because he displayed an intent to choose his own fate.  In fact, Oedipus abides by every function of the existentialist perspective because he challenges the prophecy directly and exerts his power of free choice.  However, Oedipus is unable to subvert the fate of the prophecy not only due to the contingency of freedom upon others, but also due to his own ignorance.  In fact, it is not because Oedipus’ actions are  unfree that the prophecy is fulfilled, but rather because he fails to investigate his familial circumstances more precisely.

Be that as it may, both the deterministic and existentialist perspectives display obvious limitations regarding the scope of responsibility.  The former is difficult to accept because the very absence of accountability negates the ways in which society functions both legally and morally, thus suggesting a failure of all social institutions.  Meanwhile, the latter suggests that Man possess an unfounded, seemingly mystical agency which gives him the authority to alter the fabric of the universe.

Consequently, the solution to this contention lies in the theory of soft determinism.  Mitigating the determinist issue of responsibility without attributing magical agencies to the practice of free will, soft determinism does not argue against the prescriptive nature of the universe, rather it suggests a clarification in the meaning of freedom itself.  Unlike determinists—who contend that freedom is attributed to whatever is uncaused—soft determinists argue that a choice, although pre-programmed, can still suggest freedom if that choice was deliberated in the ‘right way’.  In order to clarify this notion, soft determinist Theodore Sider defines freedom as a predetermined set of choices that “flow form who a person is” and which emanate from second-order desires to first-order desires [1](130).  Therefore, when determinists attribute freedom to an absence of causation, they suggest that free will is merely a matter of chance and probability, whereas soft determinism contends that freedom, although caused, may be deliberated willfully if its outcome is aligned with the desires and beliefs of the individual in question.

As such, soft determinists would argue that Oedipus’s actions are certainly caused, yet they are not free because they do not flow from ‘who he is’.  In other words, the fact that Oedipus does not know that he was adopted means that the choices he makes to defy the prophecy are not conducted in the ‘right way’ because he has a second-order desire not to kill his father and sleep with his mother, but he does so regardless, thus exemplifying the ways in which his pursuits are not free to begin with.

With that being said, soft determinism is the solution to the contention existing between determinism and existentialism because it saves responsibility without denying the inevitable circumstances of the universe.  In other words, this perspective combines the valid proof of deterministic causation with the human inclination to deliberate choices freely, by redefining the meaning of freedom.  As such, this philosophy offers insight into the human condition and the ways in which individuals can uphold freedom and responsibility for their actions, despite the inevitable causation of the universe.

[1] First-order desires indicate what a person actually does, while second-order desires refer to what an individual believes and wills.  When second-order desires flow from first-order desires, they are said to also flow from ‘who the person is’ because they are in line with their intrinsic desires and volitions.

Featured Image Credit: Matthew S. Bailey 2008

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