A schoolboy is in a bitter quarrel with his parents over his academic future. With fists clenched tight, they argue whether he should brazenly pursue his dreams and study the unmarketable field of philosophy and attempt to acquire a professorship in the years to come, or join the mass of students studying the much more marketable field of computer science and acquire a programming job right out of his undergraduate education. A crucial choice must be made; and an answer to the debate between free will and determinism solves absolutely nothing. Assuming there even is a solution to this ancient philosophical dispute, we can proceed by two cases. Let the first case be that there exists free will. In this case, then each agent on the scene maintains his or her sense of freedom and responsibility in deciding the schoolboy’s future. Let the second case be that human choices and actions are fully determined and all that life is is this unraveling of what was set in motion at the beginning of time. In this case, then the sense of freedom and responsibility each agent feels is the result of determinism. In either case, the talk of objective free will and determinism brings nothing of value to the table; we must move beyond these futile quarrels within philosophy and reshape the question.
The proper question to ask is not “Are we free?” but rather “What does it mean to be free?” In other words, what are the hermeneutics of freedom? The answer to the endless debate between determinists and nondeterminists is fundamentally unknowable. Although the majority of scientists have reduced the issue down to biological, chemical, and physical interactions and declared free will to be an illusion, nondeterminists tenaciously hold on to their faith in free will and the debate persists. However, to evaluate our freedom objectively, we would have to extract ourselves from our own subjectivity and observe from an objective point of view, one granted only to a hypothetical God. Thus, we see that our subjectivity is inescapable, and our objective free will is contingent upon the possibility of a God that grants or denies this free agency. The agnosticism surrounding the existence of such a God spreads to agnosticism on the issue of free will. Therefore, one must opt for a more pragmatic approach to the issue by dissolving the problem of determinism vs. free will just as one must dissolve the problem of objectivism vs. subjectivism. We must continue to avoid asking the wrong philosophical questions, for they distract us from the more pertinent philosophical inquiries that lead to progress in the political sphere and in the authenticity of man’s existence. Freedom as freedom from and freedom to is what must be analyzed, which is not contingent upon any solution to the ancient free will dispute.
I am shaking my leg right now, which has been, till now, taking place unbeknownst to me. There is no thought going into this action, and that can be declared fully determined by biological processes. I crack my knuckles, I scratch my nose, I crane my neck – these are all impulses, and humans by default live impulsively. We do this and that, we say things we don’t mean; this is the thoughtless human being. The human being is always acting, whether he be directing consciousness or sipping coffee. It is clear that propaganda and advertisements function through manipulation of this fundamental passivity of the citizen and consumer in the public sphere, where the dialectic between impulse and reason holds some significance. By default, we live as machines do – we accept input and our default function interprets the input to create a certain output. Thus, the role of philosophical contemplation on this issue of free will is to enlighten the individual’s potential in overriding his or her default function by means of rationality. Through this heightened awareness, we come to understand that which is attempting to control us, and then we can either accept or rebel to the best of our abilities. In refutation of the determinist claims, the omnipresence of natural causal laws does not nullify the prospect of freedom – in the same sense that mathematical laws do not nullify the freedom in mathematical genius nor do the bar lines in a composition nullify the freedom in musical genius. It takes Isaiah Berlin to understand this subtle refutation, for he tells us:
“If I am a schoolboy, all but the simplest truths of mathematics obtrude themselves as obstacles to the free functioning of my mind, as theorems whose necessity I do not understand; they are pronounced to be true by some external authority, and present themselves to me as foreign bodies which I am expected mechanically to absorb into my system. But when I understand the functions of the symbols, the axioms, the formation and transformation rules…and grasp that these things cannot be otherwise, because they appear to follow from the laws that govern the processes of my own reason, then mathematical truths no longer obtrude themselves as external entities forced upon me which I must receive whether I want to or not, but as something which I now freely will in the course of the natural functioning of my own rational activity…What applies to music or mathematics must, we are told, in principle apply to all other obstacles which present themselves as so many lumps of external stuff blocking free self-development. That is the programme of enlightened rationalism…Sapere aude” (Berlin 14).
Even if we are but puppets in the greater scheme of things, there is a crucial difference between the puppet unaware of the strings, and the one who understands the strings. The difference is the difference between oppression and freedom, for we as puppets are not entirely helpless, and our liberation is dependent on our faculty of reason. Again, it is here that we must rise above the useless banter of free will and determinism, and analyze our heteronomy in order to maximize our freedom from. Berlin explains, “Heteronomy is dependence on outside factors, liability to be a plaything of the external world that I cannot myself fully control, and which pro tanto controls and ‘enslaves’ me. I am free only to the degree to which my person is ‘fettered’ by nothing that obeys forces over which I have no control; I cannot control the laws of nature; my free activity must therefore, ex hypothesis be lifted above the empirical world of causality” (Berlin 11).
We must learn to see our strings, to see truth within the currents of causality beneath the surface by means of a rationalist method. Propaganda, the manipulation by advertisements can be seen through, for as philosopher Simone Weil writes, “We do not have to understand new things, but by dint of patience, effort and method to come to understand with our whole self the truths which are evident” (Weil 105). Through patience, effort, and our method, we enlarge the aspect of our freedom-from, thus opening up the possibilities of our freedom-to. A potential method is the one innovated by Descartes in his Discourse on Method, explained by him to be: “not to believe anything too firmly about which I had been convinced by example and custom alone” (Descartes 11). By means of this method, we can recognize and thus weaken oppressive ideologies and become “gradually freed from many errors that can cloud our natural light and make us less capable of hearing reason” (Descartes 11). Propaganda, culture, tradition, and other controlling factors that cloud our natural light all easily fall under these categories of example and custom outlined by Descartes. Equipped with patience and scrutiny, the individual can liberate himself, come to his own conclusions, and act not out of thoughtless impulse. Perhaps still, we choose to go with the dominant current, but at least at the end of rational evaluation, we can give consent.
In the constant activity of guiding our actions through principles of reason rather than passivity or emotional impulse, our freedom from cultural ‘enslavement’ results in a greater realm of possibilities as well, just as the loosening of shackles allow for activities that call for greater dexterity. Because democratic institutions depend so heavily upon the reason of the governed, it is paramount that the governed constantly strive toward enlightenment rather than fall prey to oppressive laws, for the greater the freedom-to of one institution, the lesser the freedom-from of the individuals. It is in the public sphere that the two freedoms become intertwined, and the extent of one freedom necessarily steals from the freedom of another; thus, a careful balance must be maintained. According to the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” This system of consent of the governed relies upon a citizenship enlightened enough to be able to discern the harmful aspects of governments rather than be passively controlled by them. Whereas Plato proposed the reign of the philosopher king in opposition to democracy, democracy can in fact function as planned so long as it is under the consent of the philosopher-citizen. Thus, it is of utmost importance that the individual learns to free himself from the torrent of cultural custom and example, find his own way through reason, devote himself to the truth and nothing but the truth, and ensure that social institutions and government serve rather than oppress.
Freedom comes in awareness, understanding that which we are subject to if we live passively without attention. And once we come to terms with what we are potentially subject to, we have found something to question, to doubt, and to “carefully avoid prejudice, and jumping to conclusions” (Descartes 16). If we focus on the tangible consequences of the two concepts of liberty rather than address unreasonable and impossible question of free will and determinism, then we are one step closer to ridding ourselves of irrational desires and emotions, and making decisions with an open and unprejudiced mind. “Knowledge liberates, as Epicurus taught long ago, by automatically eliminating irrational fears and desires…We are enslaved by despots – institutions or beliefs or neuroses – which can be removed only by being analysed and understood” (Berlin 14-15).
Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. N.p.: Oxford University, 1990. Print.
Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and Related Writings. London: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.
Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. London: Cox & Wyman, 1995. Print.