Answering the freedom question
The notion of freedom has always played a central role in many human interactions. Throughout history, we know people have fought many wars to gain freedom. It also plays a crucial part in our government today. We are free to vote for our next leader. We are held responsible when we commit a crime because of the presupposition that we were free to choose what we did, and we made the wrong decision. A father can make a promise to his daughter to make an event happen in the future, and his ability to make it happen is governed by the choices he makes. We take freedom for granted. However, science has taught us that the physical and biological realms our bodies are part of display well defined causal connections. A meteorologist can predict the weather. A doctor can prescribe us antibiotics when we get sick because she knows the antibiotic will cause the illness to fade. Given the previous facts, the determinist theory states that because we are confined to a physical universe and we are biological beings, our actions must follow the same causal relationships. On the other side of the debate are the indeterminists who argue that although some actions are in fact determined, many are not. They believe that because we are human, our brains have special sets of abilities which distinguish us from other “bodies” (i.e. atoms, animals).
Ignorance, pride, hatred and a disregard for the wellbeing of others in society. These are the seeds allowing the roots of activities promoting racial discrimination to sprout. Out of that, comes the growth of a fearful social epidemic, in which uneducated persons put their destructive thoughts and viewpoints into action. These criminal activities have been dubbed Hate Crimes and have plagues ...
Although both the determinist and indeterminist theories can be strong, I believe William James’ answer seems most compelling. For him, there is no determinist theory which can coincide with the lived experience. Most people live their lives with the assumption that personal freedom and moral responsibility exist and their actions follow this belief. But that is not to say all action is free.
Baron d’Holbach is one of the most famous determinists. D’Holbach was a strong advocate of the power of the universe controlling human action. The universe is made up of laws, which according to him are immutable and imposed upon all beings. Humans are no exception to these laws, just like no human is exempt from the law of gravity.
“He is born without his own consent; his organization does in nowise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily, his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting” (Baron d’Holbach in John Chaffe, The Philosophers Way, p. 165)
Let us take a look at d’Holbach’s comparison of the physical universe with the psychical universe. If d’Holbach is correct, the human brain follows the same causal relations as the physical world (universe).
Earlier psychologists held a strong belief that human action was a cause of their environment and unconscious drives. B.F. Skinner, a behaviorist, believed that human action is a result of the upbringing the person had. The experiences one had as a child would be rewarded or punished. These rewards and punishments would then determine a person’s thinking and actions later on in life. Much like Skinner, d’Holbach believed that people are malleable. Therefore, if I were to grow up in a different place at a different time, I would be a different person, not because of the decisions I made but because of what shaped me.
Sigmund Freud was another psychologist who believed in determinism. For him, we were governed by an inaccessible part of our mind known as the unconscious. We have drives and instincts which we must obey and cannot say no to. These drives are always in a fight with each other and the strongest one wins and action follows from it.
In the first century during the major Rome crises was formed Christianity. Then was gradually formed the Church. Inculcation of the human heart and conscience has been presented in those times by Aurelius Augustinius. We can consider those facts as the idea for the birth of human rights and freedoms. However, the actual first written sources become from 1215 known as Magna Carta. Magna Carta ...
In a thought experiment, d’Holbach demonstrates a Freudian view of the desire for self-preservation. In his scenario, if a dog is thirsty, he will drink water which is presented to him. If a human is thirsty, he will reach for the water as well.
“.. if at this moment it is announced to him that the water he so ardently desires is poisoned, he will, notwithstanding his vehement thirst, abstain from drinking it: and it has, therefore been falsely concluded that he is a free agent” (Baron d’Holbach in John Chaffe, The Philosophers Way, p. 167)
D’Holbach believes that there is a drive here shared amongst all living beings, the drive to self-preserve. The human in this case knew that the water was poisoned and did not drink it. For d’Holbach, this wasn’t an action of freedom, it was an action which was already determined by the brain circuitry which the human has no control over.
On the other hand, one may propose to d’Holbach that if sitting in a room with him, I decided to jump out of a window and hurt myself; I have acted outside the drive to self-preserve, right? D’Holbach would disagree. Much like Freud, who studied these kinds of phenomena, d’Holbach believed in the constant power struggle of these drives. Therefore; my psychological state at the time caused me to act this way.
Indeterminists believe the exact opposite — at least some of our actions are free. For William James it is the belief in freedom that makes freedom exist. It changes the way people act in our private and pubic lives. Belief in freedom brings about the following behaviors:
1) Self improvement – An individual can improve in their personal and social lives. A person who goes to the gym to loose weight would probably not do so if they didn’t believe in their choice to be able to lose weight.
2) Morality – Laws both social and religious come from our understanding that we are different from animals and that we should try and “develop an ethical world” (Chaffe, 183).
One sentence that summarizes economics is, "there's no such thing as a free lunch." Sure, anyone can have a lunch and not pay for it, but it still is not free. Everything costs something to someone. Even if you don't pay for your lunch, someone will, whether it be your lunch partner, the restaurant manager, the owner, or the people who supply the raw materials to make that food. Everything ...
3) Religion – According to Chaffe, most religions give us the choice to choose their spiritual destiny. By this he means that in Christianity for example, my decisions can lead me to go to heaven (if I am good) or hell (if I am bad).
Furthermore – God’s knowledge of what will happen in the future isn’t a direct cause of it, much like my knowledge that the leaves will fall next autumn doesn’t cause them to do so.
4) Social improvement – Getting rid of crime, poverty, discrimination, etc. People generally want to live in a better world, without freedom, people simply wouldn’t “try” to be better.
This belief (unlike determinism) leads people to behave as though freedom exists. This, in turn, leads people to behave in ways which will advance the human species (i.e. help it grow).
In his example, if people were to believe in determinism, individuals who committed murder would not be held responsible simply because they could not have done otherwise. This would lead to a widespread chaos. For James, the belief in freedom makes the world a better place.
Furthermore, James believes that with regards to free will, we have three choices to make. We can be either a determinist, an indeterminist, or not chose any position at all. His logic here is that whichever choice you make here; you have made a choice nonetheless. “He has no tolerance for those who are not prepared to commit themselves one way or the other regarding free will, for “not committing” is itself a free choice…” (Chaffe, pp 184) This proves to him that there must be free will, since based on the choice you made; actions resulting from it will follow. “Our first act of freedom, if we are free, ought in all inward propriety to be to affirm that we are free” (William James in John Chaffe, The Philosophers Way, p. 184) By this quote we can see James’ stance on how this theory works. His choice of believing free will is in turn reaffirming the existence of it.
Earlier I wrote about the how psychology can prove the determinist position. James, being a prominent psychologist would disagree. In an article by Daniel Bader, he points out the fallacies in the theories proposed by Freud and d’Holbach. There are two types of psychologist determinist theories. First is the orectic psychological determinism which states that we must act according to our strongest desire. The second is rational psychological determinism which states that we must act according to our best rationale. Both theories, according to Bader, fail, because they end up begging the question. In other words, these theories have a circular logic in them.
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“For instance, I might forgo a drink for which I have a very strong desire, to avoid a hangover tomorrow that is not vivid in my mind. It is at this point that orectic psychological determinists usually beg the question. Well, then, you must really desire to avoid the hangover more, and that must be your strongest desire. This, however, is only true if one has already accepted orectic psychological determinism. In other words, psychological determinism is being used to prove psychological determinism. It does not follow from introspective analysis.” (Daniel Bader, quote article)
In a critique of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, many psychologists agree that he did not consider humans to be innately different from animals, which we are. His tests would work well in animals, but humans have noted abilities which differ from animals. In his article entitled “Recent Psychological Approaches to the Free Will Versus Determinism issue “A.A. Sappington calls us a “special case” outside of the physical-psychical connection d’Holbach wants to create. We have a bigger brain that most animals. Sappington points out our ability to self-reflect which we do not share with other animals. Garry Gutting claims that humans have the unique ability to think abstractly, to act for long term goals and have highly developed linguistic abilities to communicate. Based on our difference from other entities in our world, I do not think that we should follow d’Holbach’s ideology and link psychology and physics to use the same set of theories to make claims about the freedom debate. Perhaps sometimes in the future, theories will be created which can link the psychical and physical realms but “weather or not they will or can be formulated is an open question” (Garry Gutting, in Philosophy: the Fundamental Problems, p. 159) As Jay Ecker points out, “science, behavioral or otherwise, cannot tell men that they are free to act: it can only tell them that sometimes they are not” (Eacker, p. 124).
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Furthermore, Roy F. Baumeister claims that freedom is a process developed by the evolutionary process. . “Several recent authors have argued that human freedom of action is a production of evolutionary processes.” (Baumeister, page 16) According to him freedom hadn’t been around before humans developed it. The development of freedom allowed early people to function in a complex society. Rather than turning to instincts for survival, people were able to exercise self-control, which for Baumeister is an important element in free will. Self-control allowed people to make better decisions to survive. When in a group, taking someone else’s food because you were hungry was no longer acceptable. The group could potentially kick you out or harm you in other ways. The individual would inhibit that instinct because they couldn’t live without the protection of the group. The development of the individual is also important in Baumeister’s evolution theory. Animals don’t have a self. Humans do. We are able to individuate ourselves from others and are able to have roles within the society. We choose which roles we have. This helps the group operate efficiently.
A similar concept is seen in Sappington’s review of theories. Sappington refers to “Tagenson’s Three-Dimensional Developmental Model” in which Tagenson claims (like James) that “human freedom is not a given, but a possibility” (Sappington, page 21).
Freedom develops as a part of growing up. Tagenson points out 3 things. First, cognitive development in an adolescent gradually provides the individual to be increasingly freer. Young children as well as individuals who are mentally handicapped do not exercise the same self-reflective abilities as a cognitively developed adult does. This is why we have leniency in law for mentally ill individuals, often holding them less responsible for their actions. Children under the age of 18 are also punished less severely, as a minor. Second, people in certain environments have less freedom than others. People in prison or working in an iron lung are not as free as people who live in an environment with less external pressure. Third, people have the ability to change their behavior if they know they are being influenced. As Tagenson points out, if I know I am in a bad mood, I try to avoid situations which could lead to me having a conflict with another individual. The avoidance of such situations is a choice.
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Baumeister also questions the theory of free will of being a sort of security blanket. His argument is that people would not dedicate the energy to uphold this belief if it were false. He also points out that free will supports socially desirable actions. What he means by this is that if a free will believing individual knows they will be held responsible for their actions, they will act accordingly. In a study by Vohs and Schooler, students were first exposed to believing in free will and in return were less likely to cheat on a test. Studies by Baumeister, using the same principles, found that priming people to disbelieve in free will made them more apt to being aggressive and less helpful towards others. I think that belief in free will does in fact give us the possibility of free will. It’s not simply a way of blanketing our conscious. I can say that if we were to prove today that free will doesn’t exist, many people would change their behavior to be less responsible, and I think that this change of action is what free will represents.
In Baumeister’s claims about freedom being a possibility he touches on an important point– when is too much freedom a burden? Baumeister says that there are plenty of examples of human beings acting as if they had no free will. “People are incompletely rational and self-controlled. They have the capacity for acting rationally and exerting self-control, but they only use it sometimes. This suggests the capacity is limited.” (Baumeister, page 17).
In Baumeister’s tests of self-control, people tend to do poorly on self-control tasks if they had recently performed a different self-control task. Baumeister refers to this phenomenon as “willpower” in a cliché kind of manner. By willpower he actually means the brain’s limited energy (or power) to exert free will. Studies about the levels of glucose spent on specific brain functioning show that individuals who exerted self-control use a very high amount of glucose to do so. The same individuals asked to perform a subsequent self-control tasks performed worse after their glucose level had been already depleted. This shows a link between the levels of glucose to the human brain’s ability to act freely. Perhaps this was the evolutionary development Baumeister spoke of. Human evolution developed what Baumeister calls an “expensive way of controlling action. It involved using relatively large quantities of the body’s caloric energy to fuel complex psychological processes” (Baumeister, page 17).
I hope I have given sufficient evidence that d’Holbach was flawed in his determinist theory. William James proposes a more pragmatic view in which our lived experience proves the possibility of freedom. Furthermore, some of the key points d’Holbach makes about why we should tie the psychological world to the physical world fall short because people have different modes of being than inanimate objects, and different mental processes than animals. The ability to perceive freedom and act freely is a evolutionary invention which can be proven by the human brain’s chemical level changes during times of decision making.