The implications of recent developments in neurology and physics escalated the debate of free will, wherein scientific scholars adopted and reinforced determinism in our universe. Jerry A. Coyne in You Don’t Have Free Will asserts, “I construe free will the way I think most people do. At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different” (Coyne). From the perspective of the universe—entity that contains the past and the present, and comprehends every interaction of its components from micro to macro—the future is a single known path. As Coyne reveals later in the article with a hint of elitism, expecting a different outcome from the same situation is “simply and decisively” impossible.
Despite the aura of infallible novelty that this article and many others of the kind strive to radiate, the discussion of free will is a timeworn debate. Determinism has been a part of history long before the discovery of genes or neurons, as Bloom points out in Free Will Does Not Exist. So What? (Bloom). An early example is theological fatalism, the clash between the belief in omniscient deity and free will. Foreknowledge of God and human free will collided time and again, and many schools and philosophers refuted or defended the compatibility of the two. Aristotle defends by defining omniscience as “the property of knowing the truth value of every proposition that has a truth value.” Boethius defends by refuting the temporal nature of deity that the term foreknowledge imposes on it (Zagzebski). A millennium later, one of the most influential Torah scholars Moses Maimonides still asks, “If God already knows what you will do, how could you be free to choose?” (Bloom) The question of free will in recent debates supported by genes and neurons is a modern rendition of a question several millennia old, not a novel inquiry.
Let us sit back and recognize the complexity of this issue and the timeless effort wise men have spent in an attempt to provide an answer. Let us, however, also realize what the discussion has come to, or the outcome of this grandiose debate. Suppose a student of philosophy spends an evening researching free will, looking to Aristotle, Boethius, physics, neuroscience, the Bible, and perhaps his roommate. At the end of the evening, he sleeps, and the morning thereafter he continues to wrestle with this fascinating complexity. But as soon as he starts up a conversation with a classmate or writes that chemistry lab report, thus returning to his physical world, he realizes that this debate provides little to no insight into his real life. It was merely a question of intellectual inquiry, of theory, of pure enjoyment. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius jabs at our love for the theoretical: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one” (Marcus Aurelius).
To understand the distinction between theory and practice in this matter, we must look to Buddhism. B. Alan Wallace writes in A Buddhist View of Free Will,
While the question of free will does not figure as prominent in Buddhist writings as it does in western theology, philosophy, and psychology, it was a topic that was addressed in the earliest Buddhist writings. According to these accounts, for pragmatic and ethical reasons, the Buddha rejected both determinism and indeterminism as understood at that time. Rather than asking the metaphysical question of whether already humans have free will, Buddhist traditions take a more pragmatic approach, exploring ways in which we can acquire greater freedom to make wise choices that are truly conducive to our own and others’ genuine well being. (Wallace)
After two millennia of wrong questions, we must now ask the right questions to achieve the goal of every human being: to pursue his or her own happiness and the happiness of others. To fulfill this goal, we must have good judgment. To have good judgment, we must have freedom to make wise choices. This freedom does not indicate political freedom or that of speech, though they may facilitate the growth of this particular one. This is freedom of thought, which encourages the use of our own understanding, principle of reason, rather than a presupposed opinion. It involves empathy and humility more than doggedness and self-love, since freedom of thought is to critically analyze the thoughts both of others and the self. For men with freedom of thought often discover the wrong in their beliefs, they appreciate the critique of others and seek to be enlightened by them. They listen, not superficially but intently. They understand other perspectives and perceive others’ definitions of happiness; good judgment often follows genuine understanding of others. Freedom of thought is enlightenment, whose motto as defined by Kant in What is Enlightenment is “Have the courage to use your own understanding” (Kant). Through enlightenment, we employ good judgment and make wise choices that are conducive to our own and others’ genuine well being. To gain a greater understanding of an enlightened man, we examine Haemon from Antigone of Sophocles, a man who even in times of emotional tyranny stood strong rooted in reason. Therefore by the cultivation of freedom of thought Haemon employed good judgment, bettering a situation otherwise swept away by waves of emotional distress.
Despite living in a society filled with dogma enforced by means of fate and authority, Haemon is not a man who will blindly abide by decrees; he appeals to reason and challenges groundless doggedness. In Antigone, he is neither an observer nor a bystander of the conflict. He is an active participant of this tragedy, being the fiancé and a cousin of Antigone and the son of Creon. He feels quite mad at Creon for acting against his roles as a leader and a father. For Haemon who recognizes Creon’s mistakes, to see him throw away his reputation, mock the political sphere, and ignore the people of Thebes is heartbreaking both as a citizen and a son. For his own father to decree the execution of his dear fiancé is undoubtedly a hazard to Haemon’s emotions. While Sophocles does not clarify the extent of emotional connection between Haemon and Antigone, the relationship seems to be one of love for Haemon. His loss of control at the grim moment of Antigone’s death mentioned by, “raging mad with his father for the death” (Sophocles, 119) shows that he indeed was invested in the relationship. Despite his emotional toils, Haemon maintains tranquility and makes rational judgments, as he knows that only by upholding this calm state of mind he can help dissolve this conflict. He is an enlightened man; he does not yield to tyranny of emotion.
This levelheaded attitude is unlike Creon who cannot control his emotions, as shown by phrases such as “spit her out, like a mortal enemy!” (Sophocles, 93) and “no, I’m going to kill her!” (Sophocles, 93) He utters the words of anger that further fuel his hate towards Antigone—his unbridled emotions further distance Creon from making logical choices. His adversary Antigone claims, “I was born to join in love, not hate” (Sophocles, 85), but she is no better. In her encounters with her sister Ismene, Antigone fails to empathize with her sister and remains a blind fanatic of her idols. Ismene finally musters up the courage to join Antigone’s mission of honoring the dead, but Antigone responds, “Who did the work? / Let the dead and the god of death bear witness! / I have no love for a friend who loves in words alone” (Sophocles, 87). Antigone feels spiteful of her sister’s reluctance to join her in the first place, but instead of admitting to her personal grudges, she turns to the gods of death as the detached judge. In a highbrow manner Antigone intimates her importance as the one who did the work, her honor as the one who still holds allegiance to her beliefs, and her heroism as the one who took action instead of remaining complacent. Yet Antigone seems more concerned with talking about her deeds than silently acknowledging her honorable act. To a man or a woman of true honor and principle, the deed is most important; to a man or a woman who wishes to be a hero, speaking of the deed is most important. Antigone speaks, “Courage! Live your life. I gave myself to death, / long ago, so I might serve the dead” (Sophocles, 88). Why didn’t she stop her sentence after “long ago”? By that point she had finished giving Ismene an advice and a sufficient reason to take that advice. The phrase that follows is a side note, one that a grammar expert might slide in after a misuse of a pronoun to subtly demonstrate his superior knowledge. The audience of Antigone’s speech understands her ideals and her gods, why repeat it? To get at the heart of the matter, why did Sophocles add this phrase that serves little purpose in the context? I suppose he wanted to depict her self-absorbed self and her subtle desire to be a hero. In fact, the public is on Antigone’s side according to Haemon, which can further stage her as one. She is, much like Creon, influenced by her emotions and desires more so than by a noble goal, unknowingly injuring people around her like Ismene.
Even in this conflict of stormy emotions, Haemon’s freedom of thought allows him to understand others’ perspectives and thereby employ good judgment. In providing counsel, he perceives what Creon needs: some flattery to break through the emotional barrier, and a useful advice rooted in his vision of city preservation. He first cements his father’s reputation as a parent and a king. He asks, “What medal of honor brighter to his children than a father’s growing glory? Or a child’s to his proud father?” (Sophocles, 95) to reestablish why Creon matters to Haemon as a parent. Then, Creon’s position as a king is acknowledged when Haemon says, “Of course it’s not for you, in the normal run of things, to watch whatever men say or do, or find to criticize” (Sophocles, 95). Haemon recognizes Creon’s position as the leader who must deal with matters of greater importance. One of America’s most profound philosophers John Dewey said that the deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important (Carnegie, 17); Creon got exactly that from Haemon. Creon gladly accepts the feeling of importance and is now more willing to listen to what Haemon has to say.
Haemon is now able to commence his argument; he provides hard evidence of the city’s opinion to Creon: “No woman,’ they say, ‘ever deserved death less, and such a brutal death for such a glorious action” (Sophocles, 95). Haemon knows of human nature well; even in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People considered as the first and the best self-help book, “Talk in terms of the other person’s interest” is one of its six ways to attract people’s attention (Carnegie, 93). Preservation of the city is one of Creon’s core values, so Haemon exploits this particular interest of his father. After Creon sees that Haemon’s advice will help him preserve the city, Haemon subtly speaks his mind about what Creon should change about himself: “No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man, to learn many things and not to be too rigid.” (Sophocles, 95) When mentioning Creon’s mistake Haemon treads lightly; rather than telling Creon of his mistakes, Haemon intimates a possibility of Creon’s misstep to help Creon reform his beliefs on his own. 18th century poet Alexander Pope wrote in his An Essay on Criticism, “Men must be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot.” Haemon subtly affects Creon’s thoughts to help him come to his own conclusions. Haemon, a man of great reason and therefore wise understanding of the world, makes good judgments and provides a convincing counsel.
Although Haemon lives in a society that is governed by strong ideals and enforcing authorities, he chooses to be free from presuppositions with the aid of reason. In terms of gods that are so prevalent in this culture, he mentions a divine power once in his speech, and only then to assert, “only the gods endow a man with reason, the finest of all their gifts, a treasure.” In a play where every character mentions a god-Zeus by Creon (Sophocles, 112), or Persephone by Antigone (Sophocles, 105), the lack thereof in Haemon’s lexicon is impressive and telling of freedom being a choice more than an obvious consequence of the environment. Whether free will exists or not is not a question I can sufficiently answer, but in mankind’s perspective the future looks just as uncertain whether or not we have free will. Within the scope of our view, we cannot know every molecule, let alone comprehend the implications of their interactions. We are stuck in the present, thankfully, so we can make choices in dark of the future. That choice we make might be the only choice that we could have made, but the answer to this tedious debate of free will would not change a thing about making this choice. Whether it’s between pancakes and cereal, Antigone and Creon (I respectfully decline both choices and pick Haemon), or philosophy and computer science, this choice is more real than string theory or neurotransmitters.
Bloom, Paul. “Free Will Does Not Exist. So What?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends & Influence People. (p. 17) New York, NY: Gallery, 1981. Print.
Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
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