Over the course of the last five or six centuries, scientific developments and inquiry have
been able to disprove old beliefs about the state of the universe and the biological workings of life. Today, science tells us that the earth is not flat, that our world is not the center of the universe, and that our personality is not determined by the bumps on our head. It has taken us to the moon and beyond the edge of our galaxy, inside our body and into the depths of our brain. Along the way, we’ve uncovered – and continue to uncover – new information about how we and the world around us work. Despite all this, however, it hasn’t been able to disprove the existence of a free will. Why? Because, as Roy F. Baumeister put it in his recent article Do You Really Have Free Will?, there is a genuine psychological reality behind the idea free will – more specifically, behind the idea of having the ability to make individual choices that originate within the self. This is a reality that is impossible to divorce from the beliefs of the average person. Thus, even if we live in a deterministic world, we are fundamentally free to make our own choices because we do not feel or behave as if our lives were predetermined.
The ability or freedom to make individual choices is, essentially, the power to say yes or no, to select one course of action over another. The act of selecting one course of action is in itself a decision, and decisions are made and carried out willingly. In his explication on the idea of a free will and the role, or absence of a role, that it plays in Greek tragedies, contemporary French classical scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant uses the Aristotelian term proairesis to describe an “action taking the form of a decision” and the more common Greek term hekōn for an action that is “of one’s volition.” Vernant discusses these terms in the context of Greek tragedy in order to present a number of perspectives regarding the interpretation of Greek tragedy today, but his comparison of the two words is nonetheless relevant to a discussion of the contemporary debate about the human ability to make free choices and the implications of this ability on individual responsibility. Especially relevant is the distinction that he draws between the two when he contends: “while any decision (proairesis) is an action carried out of one’s own volition (hekōn), in contrast, what one does of one’s own volition is not always the result of a decision.” In other words, everything that we do is done freely and willingly, in the sense that we are not physically or psychologically compelled to act by external forces. Our actions and our choices are always of our own volition because they originate in the self and are thus entirely our own. However, it does not follow that everything that we do freely is necessarily something that we explicitly decide to do because we do not always consciously think and deliberate before we act.
The latter part of Vernant’s statement refers to actions driven by passion, desire, or other emotions; these actions are arguably not entirely free because they are carried out without clear and rational judgment or without deliberation and active choice. This distinction could be taken to suggest that we cannot be held fully responsible for acts of passion or emotion – even when they result in illicit or otherwise compromising situations – under the premise that we do not consciously and deliberately decide to carry them out. These actions are to an extent pardonable or excusable because they were not done with the intention of wrongdoing. However, the fact that an action is not done intentionally does not change the fact that the individual carrying it out did so of their “own volition” and was therefore, ultimately, free. Independently of whether it is a clear or fully meditated decision, it is nonetheless a choice, and a choice is, at least to some degree, a decision. From this, it follows that individuals are responsible for actions that they carry out willingly whether the actions are a result of premeditation or not, and regardless of whether their action can be considered excusable and therefore forgivable.
Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante encounters the soul of the impassioned Francesca while making his way through the second circle of Hell, provides an example of one such case. In her life, Francesca was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, the son of a medieval Italian ruler, and was killed by her husband when he caught her committing adultery with his younger brother, Paolo. During her exchange with Dante, Francesca provides a tender yet mournful account of her premature death. In her chronicle, she displaces the blame of her death from herself by personifying Love and characterizing it as the leading agent in her demise. She claims, for example, that Love “seized” Paolo, “seized” her, and subsequently “led” them both to “one death.” A number of lines later, when describing the story of Guinevere and Lancelot’s first kiss that she and Paolo were reading immediately before they kissed and were murdered, she describes how “Love beset” Lancelot in the tale. She further claims that “reading drove our eyes together; but one point alone was the one that overpowered us,” referring here to the shy glances that she and Paolo exchanged and how, eventually, their desire for one other overpowered them. In deferring the blame for her actions from both herself and Paolo – placing it instead on Love, the book, and the vigorous emotions evoked by the story – Francesca implies that there was nothing that she could have done to prevent herself from succumbing. She did not consciously choose to feel an attraction for Paolo, nor did she choose for the words of the book they read together to have such a powerful effect on her, nor did she initiate the kiss. Thus, because she did not consciously decide to kiss Paolo, but rather was under the influence of a powerful emotion or divine forces that she could not control, in her eyes, she is not responsible and therefore feels neither remorse nor blame.
However, returning to the Greek understanding of the relationship between action and responsibility, the act of succumbing to desire and allowing herself to be carried by the heat of the moment was in itself a willful act (hekōn); she essentially said, “yes” to Paolo. By not resisting the kiss that Paolo initiated, Francesca willingly surrendered herself to her love and her feelings, even if she did not necessarily deliberate before making a conscious decision to respond to Paolo’s kiss. This was a freely selected course of action on her part, fully of her own volition because it originated within herself and because, by participating in the act, she gave her consent to these “external” forces. Although acting upon feelings of love could be considered an excusable and morally acceptable action, in the religious and moral context of Dante’s universe, adultery and lust are sins and she must face the consequences of her actions for eternity. With a Greek understanding, the fact that Francesca’s actions were committed willfully but not necessarily decisively (hekōn but not proairesis) would be reconciled by the fact that Dante places her only in the second circle of Hell as opposed to one of the lower circles that punish more severe or grievous sins. Ultimately, regardless of the severity of her transgression, Francesca was a free agent in the matter – a free agent being an autonomous being who takes an active role in his or her circumstances. She could have refused Paolo’s initiative at any moment, but she willfully opted not to. Thus, because of this, she cannot be absolved of her responsibility – the responsibility that comes with all manifestations of human will.
In the same manner, on a day-to-day basis in our contemporary world, we as individuals have this same power to say “yes” or “no” to one course of action over another, in whatever situation we may find ourselves. Independent of living in a world determined and ruled by physical law, by neurological processes, by genetic conditions, by social restraints, and by conditioning during our upbringing, we still have a choice in everything that we do. This is not to say that we are in some way “exempt from physical law” or that we “exist outside of the material world,” as Paul Bloom incorrectly describes the beliefs of proponents of free will or free choice in his article Free Will Does Not Exist. So What? To have freedom of choice is not to have the ability to override what the laws of physics or neurological processes or genetics. To have freedom of choice is, instead, to feel and believe that you have the ability to independently select a course of action, assuming that there are no external factors (such as physical inability) to limit or hinder us, especially when we are making choices where there is something at stake for us. It is, moreover, to have the ability to think and “mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion” – or a decision. This is essentially the same conclusion that Blooms comes to at the end of his argument against free will – he simply, and incorrectly, contends that this inherent ability does not constitute free will. So long as we retain the ability to think and to carry out actions of our own volition (hekōn), actions that originate in ourselves, we have the ability to choose freely.
With this possession of will comes a degree of responsibility, as in the case of Dante’s Francesca. Although forces outside of our own power and situations determined outside of ourselves may, in the end, govern our lives, we are nonetheless liable for what we do. Ultimately, when we are faced with a situation in which one course of action must be selected, we ourselves are the ones who make the choice. When that choice has consequences, whether we know at the time or not and whether our actions agree with our intentions, we must face those consequences accordingly and must accept and respond to the implications of our actions, because those actions originated in ourselves and we consider ourselves to be free. By the same token, returning to Baumeister, because we consider ourselves free, we must also consider ourselves responsible and take accept responsibility even for our impulsive and instinctual actions. When we make a decision, whether in the end we had a choice in making that decision or not, the decision is ours because we will believe that it is ours, and we must accept responsibility for that decision.
This, in short, is the psychological reality of the state of our freedom to choose. In the end, although science and new research may tell us over and over again that our lives are determined, that we never really have a choice, that is not the way we see it. The true reality is that we always have a choice and we will always be compelled to believe that we make that selection – that we are the ones that say “yes” or “no.” Whether or not this can be considered an objective truth is irrelevant as long as we believe and feel that we are free agents.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy f Dante Alighieri: Inferno. Trans. Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
Baumeister, Roy F. “Do You Really Have Free Will? Of course. Here’s how it evolved.” Slate. The Slate Group. 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
Bloom, Paul. “Free Will Does Not Exist. So What?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
Dawkins, Richard. Interview. Faith and Reason. Print.
Mele, Alfred R. “The Case Against the Case Against Free Will” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.
Strawson, Galen. “Free Will.” Routledge Encycolpedia of Philosophy, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013
Vernant, Jean-Pierre and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. “Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece.” Imitations of the Will in Greek Tragedy. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone Books, 1990. 49-63. Print.