For as long as I can claim to have attempted to be a calm, collected, and objective thinker, I have been a determinist. Determinism, for those who don't know, is the philosophical position that everything is in the state that it is because, giving the conditions up to that point, it is the only state it could be in. Another way to look at it, is that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. In a nutshell, there is no such thing as free will.
Now, this has been a subject of which I haven't considered for a time, but due to certain events, it has come back into the forefront of my attention. (I recently read Sam Harris' book, titled "Free Will", and, coincidentally, my ethics class started covering the idea of "Moral Luck", with consideration of the man to coin the phrase, Thomas Nagel, and the existentialist who opposingly says that humans have "total freedom with total responsibility", Jean-Paul Sartre.)
If you ever find yourself reading "Free Will" or taking a philosophy or ethics class, you will discover, had you not by the grace of logic, that it is an immensely important and controversial subject. Primarily, if there is no free will, then there is no accountability. Many argue that this revelation would ruin our entire ethical system. A few others, myself included, think differently.
Some might ask:
"But Josh, without accountability couldn't people just do what they want without worrying about the consequences?"
Well, first you are doing what you want right now, and you are concerned with the consequences. Also, when you say "do what they want", you are suggesting that what people are doing, being harmonious components of civilization, is not what people want to do, but rather doing something harmful or discordant, is. And second, at a closer look, wants are the products of prior uncontrolled events. This does not mean that people are not deliberating, just that the reasons that have compelled their deliberating are the products of previous experience.
For instance, you have two options in front of you. It doesn't matter if they are very similar options, or extremely different. In this hypothetical situation you must choose, or pick, one option. So you start to contemplate which is better. Better being a subjective preference. "Better" is a good place to start. The reasons you find something better all depends on influences. Whether or not the option is preferable to your mood, your tastes, your physiology, nostalgia, or it could even be something you think someone you want to like you would like, none of these factors are, even remotely, in your control. Whether they cause you to pick one or the other, or not pick one or the other, is also not within your control. Though control is something you never really have. To be the author of our abilities and our actions, we would likewise have to be the authors of ourselves and everything else. However, we are not, and we are constrained to the physical laws of nature.
Others might ask:
"If we don't have free will, why do anything?"
Sam Harris attacks this in his books and lectures, and I will attempt it as well. First, apart from dying, there is no such thing as not doing anything. You can "choose" to go home with the intent to lay in the bed for the rest of your life, but that is a reaction to learning there is no free will. If you logically conclude that free will is not present and then think that you can "choose" to just do "nothing" for the rest of your life, you would be contradicting your logic. In which case, it is exactly what you would have done, because prior events cause you to respond as such. Something Dr. Harris has said, and I'm paraphrasing, is that not doing anything, which you are suggesting, is an action, and attempting to do nothing is nearly the most difficult action for a human to do. If attempted, your body will start compelling you to move, and as time passes this urge will get stronger and stronger until you do move.
The overall picture of what we call "choice" is actually just "response", and the responses we make are determined by everything that precludes them. Dominoes would be a good analogy here. If after reading this, you do something you think is not what you would have done otherwise, with intent to discredit me, then that is a response to reading this, because had you not read this, then there would be nothing for you to desire to discredit, and the action could not be made with the same intent.
As of yet, I have found any attempt to counter this argument against free will, as well as those that simply propose free will on other bases, self contradicting and unsatisfying. My ethics professor in college and I argued this subject a few times, and with a doctorate in philosophy as well as law, he is quite good at arguing. His method of teaching is to assume a role of someone backing the arguments for the day's topic. Despite his prowess as an arguer, when the topic was on Sartre's "total freedom, total responsibility" theory, the arguments were unconvincing to me.
For instance, his argument (when arguing Sartre's total freedom theory) against Nagel's article "Moral Luck" is that Nagel is stating that there is no choice, and that you should choose to believe his point. Which, if it is looked at like this there seems to be a contradiction, but it is being misinterpreted. Still, Sartre is not accounting for what causes the choice. Say someone reads the "Moral Luck" article and chooses to believe it. Why did they choose to believe it. Because they liked it? Because it was logical? Because they wanted to?
- If the person chose it because the he/she liked it, why did he/she like it? Was it something that fell inline with some beliefs that were gathered in the experiences of this particular life? Experiences, mind, that were acquired entirely on luck. Unless, of course, the person planned his/her own conception and every external interaction for his/her entire life, a time that also must have been foreknown.
- Was it because it was logical? Then, did the person choose to have a disposition toward logic? Again, if the disposition was not due to experiences, and it was a chosen value, why was it chosen rather than not?
- Was it simply because the person wanted to? Do we choose wants? Are we in control of why we crave the things we crave? Do these cravings have nothing to do with our physiology, culture, epoch, education, and all the other experiences we can not claim accountability for? Can a person choose to like the flavor of a food never tasted? If the person chooses to taste the food, can he/she be held accountable for disliking the taste?
My attempt to make this claim, as I was the only person in class in favor of "Moral Luck", or at least the only one voicing it, was rebutted by saying that I made the "choice" to believe "Moral Luck". An action based on a disposition that I cannot be accountable for.
The argument really fell into tragic waters when he argued that we could choose whether or not to believe facts. When I attempted to attack this idea of choosing belief, I placed a pencil on the ground and asked "Can you believe that is not on the ground?" and he replied yes he can, based on quantum physics (which states that things, on extremely microscopic levels, don't actually touch one another). I understand now, that I should have held up the pen and asked "Can you believe this is not an object?" I may still attempt this. Still, the route taken with this argument is that the things we perceive as real, as knowledge, and as facts are all chosen or accepted beliefs rather than beliefs based on evidence. I starkly disagree with this. If things are not as they seem, then there is evidence (or obtainable information) of them being in a state that is "not as they seem". If things are as they seem then there is also evidence of this. If within the perception of the unaltered human eye something is a color, a shape, a texture, or in a relative position, it can, within the universally shared perception, be considered knowledge. If scientifically it is a tentative state, and the knowledge is tentative, then there is evidence of it being tentative knowledge.
For example, the walls in my house are white. It could be argued that it is off white, grayish white, and so forth. It cannot be argued that the walls are purple. Despite how hard I try to believe they are purple, the evidence that the walls are white, has outweighed such nonsense. A belief is a calculation of observations, influences, and habits to determine something that is not being sensed or observed by an agent and by association, cannot be known as true. Still, belief can be very compelling. For instance, I strongly believe my car is still parked outside. The reason is, I have been parking it there for years, and it's always been there when I go to it. This belief is the product of habit. Belief cannot contradict subjective knowledge (e.g. I cannot believe my laptop is the moon of Jupiter, Io). I state that it cannot contradict subjective knowledge because many people believe in propositions that are in opposition to evidence. Most the time because of a lack of education in the field of the concerned subject. In which case it is understandable because, if you do not know something, you cannot take it into account when calculating.
Even if you have a pseudo Cartesian perspective on reality, and believe that nothing is real, but rather everything is some sort of delusion, within the scope of said delusion, things can be measured and observed, which leads that in this possible delusion there is what is, and there is not what is not, despite the possibility of it not being this way. More to the point of the topic, their can be no claim to this perspective without using methods which are governed by disposition. Whether logic leads you down this route, or "choice", or the lack of other options, in no way does this give ground to the idea of free will.
All this talk of knowledge and belief is important, because if the evidence was obsequious to (chosen) belief, rather than belief being servile to evidence, then the grounds of communication, observation, consciousness, and existence altogether fall apart. Nothing would make sense, and the world would be shifting and changing in ridiculous ways. If knowledge was a slave to belief, I could simply believe I was rich, and everyone would then know that I was rich. Also, I would somehow, inexplicably, have a fortune.
This applies to my argument against free will in that, we cannot decide to believe as Sartre has led on. Belief, like everything else, is a function that we have no control over. If I believe that there is no presence of free will, then it is a response to certain influences. If someone believes that having belief is in support of the presence of free will, they have not thought it all the way through yet (a disposition they cannot be accountable for).
So again, there is no free will. There is no choice. There is only response.
This is all for now. I hope it has been enlightening. If you have any comments or complaints, please let me know, I will be happy to address them.
*I have been asked some good questions below, which allowed me to focus on some key points further. So by all means continue reading. I commented in some good points that I do not have in the main body.