Free Will: What Choice Do I Have?
Are your actions really yours? Do you have free will?
‘Sure,’ I hear you say. ‘What choice do I have?’
The classical thinkers were fascinated by the question of choice or determinism.
In his Physics, and later in Metaphysics, Aristotle makes a case for a continuous sequence of motion. Basically, it comes down to the assertion that for every motion there is a mover.
Simple enough, right?
The rock is moved by the agency of the stick. The stick is moved by the agency of the hand. The hand is moved by the agency of the man. So on and so forth.
The question becomes ‘Where did it all start?’ We could have, conceivably, continued that regression ad infinitum (which is just a fancy way of saying ‘forever and ever and ever’).
Aristotle then concludes that there must have been some first mover that kicked off all of this motion in the first place. There must have been something that was unmoved itself, but was able to initiate motion. This is what is known as ‘the unmoved mover’.
‘Since motion must be everlasting and must never fail, there must be some everlasting first mover, one or more than one.’
– Aristotle’s Physics
At first glance, we might think that this idea espouses the notion that everything we do is predetermined. We are all just falling in line behind the unmoved mover. However, we must remember that Aristotle also was a big fan of the idea of potentiality and actuality. He even centred most of his ethical philosophy around the idea.
The sequence of events that was set in motion by the unmoved mover does not dictate what we do. Rather, the unmoved mover allows for the potentiality of all things. We are still, at least partially, in charge of our lives.
Now, that was just a roundabout way of saying that events are partially determined by previous events and partially determined by our choices. And if that seems unsatisfying, then that’s because it is.
Thank God for Causal Gaps
The question of determinism or indeterminism was not properly addressed by Aristotle because it was not a question that was consciously known by philosophy at the time. Epicurus, however, is another story. Perhaps it is with him that we might find a suitable answer.
Epicurus, who studied philosophy one generation after Aristotle, subscribed to the atomic model of Democritus and Leucippus, two pre-Socratic philosophers whose theory tells us that our entire world is composed of atoms and void.
Atoms move through void and often smash into one another. These collisions create causal chains and result in all the events within our universe. This gave rise to the idea of causal determinism, or the idea that all things occur out of physical necessity. Within the fragments of Leucippus’s writing, he tells us that…
‘Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.’
Epicurus attempted to combat this deterministic position by suggesting that atoms do not always follow predictable paths. They can swerve, change course and collide with other atoms. These random collisions give rise to new causal chains.
Epicurus argued that these new causal chains gave us more control over our actions, which would mean that ideas like praise or blame are appropriate when looking at human behaviour. We are, in short, not slave to necessity.
‘Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.’
– Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
You might be scratching your heads over this one. Epicurus seems to tell us that there are gaps in the causal chains that occur right before a human decision. This gives rise to the possibility of spontaneity and free will.
But wait a minute there, Epicurus! How is it that we can assume that these causal gaps occur with any regularity during the exact moments of human decision? Moreover, you seem to be suggesting that indeterministic actions are dependent upon these causal gaps. How can it truly be free will if it is dependent upon some previous event, or lack thereof?
The clever and astute reader that you are, you may be asking yourself these questions. To this, Epicurus would tell us absolutely nothing because he is an ancient philosopher who died thousands of years ago.
But now I’m droning on. I will try to pick this conversation up next week, assuming I don’t get distracted.
Ooooo…what’s that? Politics?
All the best,
For The Escapologist
Editor’s Note: This article comes courtesy of Classical Wisdom Weekly. To read more from our friends in the US, go to www.classicalwisdom.com.