By Andrew Ntim
Freedom. Even the casual mention of this slippery, amorphous term among philosophers, theologians, or scientists is likely to spiral into a contentious debate. Are our minds free? Do we control our choices? Can we be morally responsible for our actions? For biology professor Jerry Coyne, the answer seems all but clear: free will is nothing but an illusion, and our world is purely deterministic. Or is it?
In order to answer these questions, we must first take a moment to formally define what is meant by “free will.” According to Maher’s entry in The Catholic Encyclopedia, the concept encompasses “genuine moral freedom, the power of real choice, a true ability to determine the course of our thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail within our minds, [and] to modify and mould our own character” (Maher 1). Those with an opinion on our possession of this will fall into one of three camps: determinists (such as Coyne), who believe both that our biology entirely predetermines our fate and that the mere concept of free will is incoherent; indeterminists, who reject the notion of predetermination; and compatibilists, who accept the determinist view of the mind but reject the conclusion that such a view invalidates free will (The History of the Free Will Problem 1).
Coyne’s essay, “You Don’t Have Free Will,” offers up one compelling argument in favor of determinism.
“Recent experiments in cognitive science show that some deliberate acts occur before they reach our consciousness (typing or driving, for example), while in other cases, brain scans can predict our choices several seconds before we’re conscious of having made them. . . . Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made” (Coyne 2).
The experiment Coyne describes here, where an individual is told to lift their finger and an EEG is used to measure “readiness potential” – that is, the difference between our conscious decision making and the spike in brain activity that precedes it – is known as the Libet experiment. When first carried out in the 1980s, its findings were astonishing; there was often a difference of up to one second between when an action registered in one’s brain and when one recognized it in their conscious mind. The experiment also raised an important question about free will: if our brains determine the choices we make before we are conscious of making them, how can our conscious minds have control over our actions? For many, this seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for adherents to the indeterminist and compatibilist views.
In the time since, however, many of these findings have been proven to be wrong. In their study, “Biases in the subjective timing of perceptual events: Libet et al. (1983) revisited,” researchers Danquah, Farrell, and O’Boyle found that Libet’s method, where a participant points to a clock to mark the point at which they were cognizant of making their decision, led to invalid results. By introducing auditory or visual stimuli to determine the moment of consciousness instead, this “readiness potential” was reduced nearly to zero. The idea that it was our brain that somehow made our decision for our conscious mind, rather than the other way around, was completely ungrounded in fact. Rather, our brains and conscious minds seem work in parallel, willing our decisions into reality as we think them. It then follows that, on a purely neurobiological basis, there are no obstacles to our freedom of will.
But knowing that it is possible for our minds to freely will an action into being is meaningless if outside influences prevent this will from being fully exercised. One of the most significant obstacles in this regard is that of society itself. As Rousseau famously proclaimed in his treatise on society and social contract theory, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau 1). Indeed, the societal limits on our freedom are sizeable. From birth, our actions, thoughts, beliefs and values are shaped by what society demands, a serious obstacle to the ability to “modify and mould our own character,” which is demanded of true free will. Similarly, our early conception of reality can predispose us towards certain modes of thought. According to French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, throughout childhood “human inventions, words, customs, and values are given facts, as inevitable as the sky and the trees” (de Beauvoir 35). Only when we traverse the treacherous chasm of adolescence do we see that these irrefutable truths are fallible. Yet – either by our own cowardice or nostalgia for the innocence of youth – we often “[turn] back toward the world of [our] parents and teachers” rather than embracing the responsibilities of truth and objectivity that freedom entails (47). This observation raises a vital question: with such pressures to accept these false truths weighing down on our conscious mind, is it possible for us to truly be free?
Simone Weil, in her essay “Attention and Will” in Gravity and Grace, takes it upon herself to tackle this pressing question. In her view, it is only possible to escape from the shackles of society’s influence if we devote our time and attention towards doing so, an act some in the contemporary world may term mindfulness. Weil believes that “if we turn our mind towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself” (Weil 117). From this repeated, contemplative work, we “little by little” move our soul towards the good, or the true. In the process, we cultivate our freedom, and endeavor to free our minds from the shackles of society “in spite of itself.” These incremental steps towards freedom Weil describes are ones that take both considerable time and effort; for that reason, it is exceedingly difficult – but not impossible – for an individual to achieve genuine freedom. As Immanuel Kant once said of enlightenment, “only a few have succeeded by cultivating their own minds,” and this cultivation is essential for the development of freedom (Kant 3).
Much in the same way that attention can help us to overcome external influences, so too can it help us overcome influences conferred by our personalities. We can all imagine a time when we saw our inborn inclinations compel us to act a certain way. Perhaps an addict feels compelled to have yet another drink, or a procrastinator is compelled to wait until the day their free will essay is due to fully formulate his ideas. To some, the mere fact that these personality traits exist – and on occasion seem to dictate our actions – undermines the notion of free will. If our actions are the result of our personalities, rather than our choices, how can we be free? Dante, in Canto 16 of his Purgatorio, discusses this matter in depth – and the role that attention plays in it – via the character of Marco Lombardo. A courtly, generous man whose irate nature led him to the terrace of the wrathful in Purgatory, Marco serves as a sounding board for the opinions of Dante (author), particularly in regards to the papacy and the poet’s moral philosophies. After piercing the veil of smoke that surrounds the terrace (an allusion to how the wrathful are often “fuming” with rage), Dante the pilgrim encounters the shrouded visage of Marco. When he questions Marco about the reason for the abundance of sin in the temporal world, Marco responds thusly:
“The heavens set your impulses in motion —
I don’t say all of them, but suppose I did,
A light is dealt you to tell good from evil
And know free will, which, though it be worn out
In its first struggles with the heavens, later
It shall yet conquer all, if nourished well.
To a mightier power and a higher nature
You, though free, are subject, and that engenders
The mind in you the heavens do not sway.
If, then, the world today has gone astray,
In you the cause lies, in you it’s to be sought!” (Purgatorio 16.73-83).
In this passage, much like Weil in Gravity and Grace, Marco (and, by extension, Dante) argues that the influences on our will can be overcome with work and practice, and that furthermore, it is our personal decisions that have led to the glut of sin on earth. These “heavens” that Marco describes (which can jointly refer to our fated path in life and the disposition and proclivities to which we have been arbitrarily assigned) are not fixed, unyielding, and predetermined, but instead are merely “set in motion” by God. Following our “first struggles with the heavens” – that of our journey out of adolescence – we soon obtain the ability to think for ourselves and free our minds from pre-conceived notions of the world, working towards the truth instead. But, as stated previously, the mere capacity to express freedom is not enough. The essential thing, according to Marco, is instead that our freedom is “nourished well.” In the process, it can rival the strength of internal and external influences, eventually coming to “conquer all.”
What makes this argument all the more powerful, however, is the man who speaks it. Marco Lombardo is a man with an incredibly wrathful nature, who has been “fuming” his entire life with rage. Yet, even despite these overwhelmingly negative personality traits, he still acknowledges responsibility for his actions: “If, then, the world today has gone astray/In you the cause lies, in you it’s to be sought!” Though Marco may not be in heaven yet, his efforts in Purgatory to “[nourish] well” his freedom have led him in the right direction, just as with Weil and her efforts in applying attention. This example serves to explain why – and how – Dante believes us to be responsible for our actions.
Sinners, in Dante’s eyes, have the free choice to nourish their own will, and thus save themselves from the outside temptations to sin, but choose not to. Thus, they must be held fully responsible. The story of Guido da Montefeltro in Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno further underscores the concept of this nourishment of freedom, and provides a contrary example to Marco Lombardo’s story. After Pope Boniface VIII promises him salvation, on the condition of providing evil counsel to Boniface’s enemies, Guido resumes his personal “works . . . [of] a fox” – the same works that drove his success on the battlefield in a past life (Inferno 27.74-75). Though it may have seemed like a situation with no other choice – Guido himself describes this false counsel as “that sin into which I now must fall” – it is still an act worthy of the damnation that follows it (109). In Dante’s eyes, Guido had the opportunity to develop and nourish his will, and in doing so endeavor to overcome the fox-like inclinations of his nature, along with the pressures of society. However, unlike Marco and his wrathful nature, Guido instead let his personality fully overtake his freedom, believing that trickery and deceit could substitute for attention. For this, like for so many others in Inferno, he was forced to pay the ultimate price.
As we have seen, the concept of free will defined by The Catholic Encyclopedia is far more than a static entity, but is instead fluid, changing as we progress in our lives and apply attention to the world around us. Contrary to Coyne, it goes far deeper than mere electrical signals coursing through our brains, and is in no way proven inaccurate when considering popular neurological arguments against it. However, true “freedom” is something few of us will experience, and even fewer of us will attain. Even Marco Lombardo, with hundreds of years in the afterlife spent overcoming his wrath, has yet to ascend even a single terrace towards heaven. But this does not mean we should not turn our back on the pursuit of freedom. If nothing else, the toilsome task of venturing towards the preposterous – towards pure happiness, true love, absolute fulfillment, and yes, even genuine freedom – is the best definition of what it truly means to be human.
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Beauvoir, Simone De, and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Print.
Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
Danquah, Adam N., Martin J. Farrell, Donald J. O’Boyle, Biases in the subjective timing of perceptual events: Libet et al. (1983) revisited, Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 17 Issue 3, September 2008, Pages 616-627, ISSN 1053-8100, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2007.09.005.
Durling, Robert M. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
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Maher, Michael. “Free Will.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 30 Oct. 2014 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06259a.htm>.
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The History of the Free Will Problem
Retrieved October 30, 2014, from Information Web site http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/history/
Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. New York: Putnam, 1952. Print.