a blog by J.M. Cottle
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On freedom

My partner requested that I write a post about free will, and I can’t resist the opportunity to rant about philosophy. But is that true? Am I free to resist? Let’s find out.

First off, let’s define our terms, here. Free will is the idea that our choices are our own, and we are not coerced into making them by nature or some mad scientist or god. The question of whether or not we have free will is an important one. If we are free, we can be held accountable for our actions, but if we aren’t free, how can we justify blaming or praising ourselves for something we couldn’t have controlled in the first place? The existence of morality hinges upon this one metaphysical question: are we free, or not?

My answer to this question depends heavily on my view of reality. I am a materialist. In philosophy this doesn’t mean that I am obsessed with buying and having things, but that I believe reality is made of matter and we can discover it through our senses. I don’t believe in things that are spiritual, supernatural, or otherwise immaterial.

Many of my fellow materialists are also determinists who believe that everything is part of a great web of cause and effect, our actions included. All of our so-called choices are determined by our biology, history, and surroundings. In determinism, choice is an illusion and we don’t have free will. Materialism can lead to determinism because if the physical world is all that exists, and the physical world is structured by causality, we must also be part of this causality.

I’m not a determinist, though, because I don’t think causality is quite so cut-and-dry. There seems to be a lot of randomness in the way the world functions, and the tiny little bit I know about quantum physics backs me up on that.

The mix of causality and randomness I see in the world is chaotic. There are many different causes operating at once, some of them strong, like gravity, and some of them weak, like my ability to resist chocolate. At any given moment there are a number of competing causes, and the strongest will win, creating the effect attached to it. When none of the causes is stronger than the others, randomness steps in and picks one.

This view of the world leaves a bit of space in the causal structure, and in this space we find human freedom. Humans — and some other animals, I imagine — are conscious, which, to me, means that when we look at the world, we can see some of the causes that are in operation and we can guess what the effects will be. In other words, consciousness is awareness of causality. When we’re aware of the many causes that are ready and waiting to manifest themselves, we can have an influence on which one wins. Sometimes there are causes that are much too strong for us to overpower, and we are usually not aware of all of the causes in a given situation, so we are not completely free. But we don’t need complete freedom to maintain our free will. The fact that I can’t beat gravity and jump a hundred miles into the air right now doesn’t mean that I have no choices in the world.

So, that is why I think free will is possible. Now I’d like to switch gears and explain why I think it’s desirable.

My main philosophical interest is existentialism, which is concerned with what existence is, what it means, and what to do about it. Freedom is an issue that fascinates existentialists — and plagues us. What does freedom mean? What do we do with it? Can we make it stop?

Because, contrary to popular belief, freedom is a heavy burden. Exhilarating, yes, and satisfying, but heavy. If we are not free, then we have no control over our actions and we cannot be held responsible for them. If we are free, however — if our choices are our own — then we are responsible. We are ultimately, inevitably responsible. When we mess up, we alone are to blame.

I think that this is why some people prefer to believe in fate or a divine plan; it’s more comfortable to give responsibility away than to face it, to own it. When terrible things happen to us, we might like to say that it’s okay because there is a purpose, even if we don’t understand it just yet. When we make a mistake, it might be easier to blame someone else, someone invisible and more powerful than us, instead of wrestling with the fact of our own fallibility.

That is not what I prefer. This kind of world does not even appeal to me. I want to live in a world where choices matter, where the stakes are high, where my errors are my own but so are my triumphs. I want to take the world as it is, the wonderful and the terrible, and know that I am strong enough to live in it. I want to look at my achievements and know that they are mine.

Being human is a beautiful thing. Own it — embrace it. Do not shy away from it. We walk a fine line between the terror of compulsion and the terror of culpability, but we can keep our balance and remain upright. We are good at this.

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