by Danielle Katz
The concept of free will seems to be going the same way as geocentrism and the Flat Earth model. As scientific research brings to light more and more evidence that our genes and unconscious mind exert significant influence on our actions, it generates the image of man as a puppet led along by invisible biological strings, guided along a course that he does not create and over which he has no control. This new understanding of the internal forces guiding our behavior, in conjunction with the more obvious fact that we cannot control the circumstances into which we are born, all but demolishes the validity of freedom. Yet the freedom of thought that we find in Descartes’ Discourse on Method remains as vibrant and relevant as ever in spite of its ostensible contradiction of current knowledge. Descartes argues that man is a dualistic being and his mind is composed of the physical brain as well as an eternal soul. Completely separate and free from the body, this soul is the source of awareness, reasoning, and morality. As the empowered faculty, this soul is subject to neither the influences of the body that houses it nor the environment that surrounds it; it acts independently. Can we reconcile this Cartesian concept of the free-acting soul with scientific and social knowledge of the constraints on man’s freedom of choice? If it is, indeed, possible that these two theories are not mutually exclusive, do these constraints exempt us from moral responsibility to a certain degree? Contemporary authors Anthony Burgess and Kurt Vonnegut offer scenarios within their popular works that suggest that a certain degree of free will, however limited, is always present as a condition of humanity. It thus follows, in accordance with Cartesian philosophy, that although we cannot fully control our circumstances, we must not abdicate our sense of moral responsibility.
The first problem that arises is the fact that each individual is born into specific circumstances that may severely restrict his or her choices of action or even of thought. For instance, somebody born under a totalitarian regime, or even into an oppressive family setting, will suffer a reduced number of possibilities with respect to action compared with one who is privileged and born into a democratic society. Those who more frequently face choices in which no option is ideal will likely have a much-diminished sense of freedom, as they are repeatedly required to compromise one value or another. However, while it is undeniable that one’s background is a powerful factor in determining one’s future, there is nevertheless an element of freedom within this confinement. Alex, the degenerate adolescent protagonist of Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, lives in a dystopian society under an oppressive government. As punishment for his extensive criminal record, this government forces Alex to undergo a Pavlovian “reclamation” therapy by which he is conditioned to abhor violence and theft. Having been stripped of his rights to his mind and body, Alex is released back into society and shortly thereafter suffers a concussion that reverses the effects of his conditioning. In the wake of all that he has suffered at the hands of this cold, utilitarian government, Alex chooses to revert to his old habits. Yet ironically, in the end, he meditates on his immaturity and makes the conscious decision to resign from his life of crime and assume the responsibilities and values of an adult. Despite pressure from a government that attempts to control his actions and impose upon him a new moral code, Alex makes the conscious choice to resist until he can freely decide to adopt a new outlook. Reflecting on his waning youth, he compares the adolescent to a wind-up toy that “(travels) in a straight line and bangs straight into things…and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being one of these…machines” (Burgess 211). Alex makes this comparison with the realization that he is not one of these “machines” anymore; he is no longer immature enough to claim exemption from the responsibility for his actions. As an adult, he will take control of his own path. In her essay “What is Freedom,” Hannah Arendt posits that “…man is free because he is a beginning and was so created after the universe had already come into existence…In the birth of each man this initial beginning is reaffirmed” (166). Alex’s emergence as a mature person in the aftermath of his traumatic experience marks his spiritual rebirth, and both the spontaneity and the irony of this event suggest that something unprecedented has happened; Alex has experienced Arendt’s concept of freedom, or the ability to begin again. Within the confines of his totalitarian society, Alex finds the freedom to evolve.
In his Discourse on Method, Descartes evokes a parallel but contrasting image of movement in a straight line. While this mechanical movement that Alex describes is indicative of a being who lacks free will, Descartes’ ‘straight line’ suggests a remedy for the restriction of intellectual freedom. He compares the profusion of ideas and opinions that threaten to influence one’s modes of thought to a dense, disorienting forest. He argues that, when one is lost in this ‘forest,’ meaning that one is unsure of how to proceed in an unbiased, free-thinking manner, one must
…not wander about turning this way and that, nor, worse still, stop in one place, but should always walk in as straight a line as they can in one direction and never change it for feeble reasons, even if at the outset it had only been chance that made them choose it, for by this means, even if they are not going exactly where they wish, at least they will eventually arrive somewhere where they will probably be better off than in the middle of a forest (Descartes 14).
It is thus that Descartes acknowledges the presence of factors that inhibit a person’s freedom of thought and action—namely, the various doctrines that impose themselves upon us through educational institutions, our parents, and public opinion, that, even if we do not accept them as truth, penetrate us on a subconscious level. These multitudinous dogmas and ideological frameworks compose the “forest” that threatens to suffocate one’s own, original thoughts and ideas. But Descartes maintains that this forest is not all-consuming, and that if one can ‘walk in a straight line’ by actively choosing a distinct and logical path of one’s own, one can free herself from thought-restricting influences and act with autonomy.
“Harrison Bergeron”, a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961, proves that free will can exist in a society in which governmental restriction of human rights is even more extreme than in Alex’s world. In Vonnegut’s nightmarish vision, all people are forced by law to wear handicapping mechanisms that prevent them from exhibiting intelligent thought, physical strength, talent, or beauty. As a result, all people are forced onto the same plane, with the intention of preventing anybody from claiming any superiority over anyone else. Yet within this confinement, there are those who submit and those who rebel. George and Hazel, parents of protagonist Harrison Bergeron, yield to the laws of the Handicapper General because, as it initially appears, they have no choice but obey or face severe punishment. Just when it seems that exercise of freedom is impossible in this context, Harrison Bergeron enters the picture, equipped with an absurd number of physically and mentally handicapping devices, and proceeds to denounce his government on public television. Due to his continual defiance, fourteen-year-old Harrison has been punished with more handicaps than anyone else, but they have only served to strengthen both his body and his will. Though he is tragically shot down in his attempt to overthrow the government, Harrison proves that one always has the choice to act with courage and exercise free will no matter how dire the situation. In response to a television announcer’s attempt to speak despite a severe artificial handicap, Harrison’s mother Hazel points out, “He tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him” (Vonnegut). Hazel’s simple and poignant declaration is a reminder that more important than context is the way in which one responds to this context, and one possesses the freedom and responsibility for doing so in a way consistent with one’s values.
A second component of the barrier to freedom is the continually developing and popular theory that our thought, actions, and beliefs—which Descartes claims to be products of the soul—in fact originate as chemical processes in our brains over which we have no control. Since the construction of our brains is determined by our genetic makeup, it follows that our genes determine not only our physical traits but our mental dispositions and thought patterns as well. University of Chicago professor Jerry A. Coyne argues that this negates the concept of free will: “Free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics. Your brain and body, the vehicles that make ‘choices,’ are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment.” But Coyne’s argument that our actions are “entirely” determined by our biological processes no longer stands when one considers the experience of Burgess’s protagonist Alex. As Alex undergoes conditioning, his body learns to associate the stimulus of a nausea-inducing medicine with the stimulus of violent images so that eventually he automatically feels nauseated upon witnessing violence. This is sufficient to restrain him from committing criminal acts, but his disposition has not changed; he still craves brutality but cannot bring himself to think about it due to his body’s aversion. While Alex’s physical freedom has been limited, his will remains unchanged and as free as ever; it simply lacks the means to actualize its desires. His mind thus exhibits a sort of Cartesian dualism; his brain and body are programmed toward a certain course of action, but his will, entirely separate, has designs of its own. Though this will itself cannot bring about action due to its conflict with the agent which enacts, namely Alex’s body, it is free to think and imagine without limit. This is evidenced by Alex’s first-person narration, in which he expresses to the reader an attitude that remains virtually unchanged until the very end of his story, after his conditioning has been reversed. Thus it seems that the will, though limited in its ability to bring about action due to its dependency upon the biological brain and body, is not inextricably linked to the physical being; perhaps, as Descartes suggests, it is “entirely distinct from the body and even easier to know than the body” (19).
Vonnegut’s tale also provides a scenario that subtly negates the validity of the biological explanation of the will. Vonnegut presents Harrison and his parents as two opposite ends on a spectrum of complacency; while George and Hazel are content to submit to the authority of their totalitarian government, Harrison does everything within his power to attempt to reclaim his rights and freedom. The fact that bold, willful Harrison is the son of these two passive, meek individuals, that he is the product of their genes, casts doubt upon the idea that a person’s genetic makeup is responsible for his or her actions. When Harrison rips off his handicaps and experiences a moment of freedom before his death, Vonnegut’s description of this freedom seems to mock Coyne’s faith in scientific laws as governing man’s will: “Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well…And then, neutraling gravity with love and pure will, [Harrison] remained suspended in the air.” Vonnegut, like Burgess, asserts that there is a certain free will that exists within even the most severe biological and environmental constraints, but that paradoxically is able to transcend these limitations and actualize itself, whether in thought or action. This results in a type of modified Cartesian dualism in which the body and soul are necessarily merged with each other, yet the soul, or the mind, can dissociate itself and move autonomously in critical situations.
In which types of situation is this possible? If rational thought processes that lead to increased chances of survival and success can be considered products of evolution and thus genetically determined, what is left is moral decision-making. The “soul” that Descartes describes can be thought of as the moral agent, the element of the will that comes into play when no knowledge gained from the experience of our ancestors or our own experience can prepare us for the decision we must make. One might argue that moral values are just another evolutionary adaptation resulting from the increased survival rate of those who helped others and received help in return. If this is the case, then our moral choices are merely reflections of the ways in which we are biologically programmed. But situations arise in which there is moral ambiguity—in which each course of action involves some sort of ethical compromise, and it is not apparent which path is the better. The advance of modern technology contributes to the proliferation of these morally ambiguous situations as it presents us with exhilarating new choices that often carry insidious risks. Since we are not biologically equipped to deal with these choices, and since our environment has not presented any model upon which we might base our decision, we are entirely alone. It is then that we must call upon the mind to see us through this crucial moment; we rely solely on our freely acting selves to choose purely and virtuously.
It follows that, as a result of this capacity of the free will to coexist within biologically and environmentally-imposed restrictions, the individual must have a sense of moral responsibility, and this should not be discarded simply due to the limitations of free will. As Hilary Bok of Johns Hopkins University writes, “All behaviors have causes, and all choices are constrained. We need to accept this and adapt.” Only once we can acknowledge these constraints, as well as the degree to which they are limiting, can we achieve the courage to experience our own freedom.
Arendt, Hannah. “What Is Freedom?” Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, 2006. 143-69. Print.
Bok, Hilary. “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2012): n. pag. The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W. W. Norton &, 1986. Print.
Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle of Higher Education(2012): n. pag. The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Harrison Bergeron. N.p.: Wordfight.org, n.d. Print.