The Critique of Free Will

The following is a passage from my 1989 book, Sowings and Reapings: The Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System.


….The idea of free will[, though an immensely attractive concept,] appears to me at once incomprehensible, illogical, and wholly unncessary.

There are some questions to which an incomprehensible answer seems unavoidable: how can the universe have begun at some time (for what was there before it?), yet how can it have always been? How can the universe have been created by a Creator (for who created the Creator), but how can it have created itself? It seems, therefore, that we cannot escape finding an irreducible element of mystery at the very core of being.

But the idea of free will introduces the incomprehensible where a sensible and graspable answer is possible.

What does it mean to say that a person has free will? It would seem to mean that a person makes choices, and that the explanation for how he chooses lies ultimately  within his own being. Where can this being have come from that its form is not the product of forces outside itself? What we seem to have with this doctrine is a creature who is somehow his own Creator, ex nihilo.

How could free will work? Let us image a person who is about to make his first choice. There must be a first choice at some point, whether it be regarded as occurring at age on year, or one day, or in utero. Before this first choice, the person cannot have chosen how he has developed (or otherwise there will have been a previous choice, which would then be the choice at which we would look). Therefore, at this crucial juncture, the person as we find him is necessarily the fruit of forces outside of himself– the forces which led to his heredity plus subsequent environmental influences.

He makes his choice, whatever it is — to smile, to put a pebble in his mouth, to bit the nipple. What does it mean to say that the way he chose is ultimately not wholly a function of external forces, for what he is until that instant derives wholly from the world in which he has grown? What can there be within him that he has made for himself, of which he is the ultimate cause?

Is a free choice an event somehow wholly beyond the realm of causality; is it perhaps some kind of random event? It is difficult to see how such nebulous ideas, even if meaningful, could provide any foundation for human freedom. (Even if there are random events, inexplicable by any notions of “causality,” there is no way to get from such randomness to anything like “free will.”)

If our choices are a function of who and what we are, then this first choice is caused ultimately by those external forces that shaped what and who our chooser is. At its birth, therefore, our freedom is discovered to be the child of our necessities.

(It is like that proof in mathematics: once it is established that if a proposition is true for (p) it is also true for (p + 1), all that is necessary is to show that it is true for (p) = 1, and it follows that it is true for all integers above 1.)

This logic seems inescapable. Ultimately, we must be the products of the world from which we emerge; we cannot be self-creators ex nihilo.

Some may find this argument repugnant even if also persuasive. Does not this logic imply that “human freedom” has no meaning? Does it not require us to be resigned about our fate?

No, these do not follow.

This determinism does not deny that we make choices, just as we experience ourselves as doing. Moreover, we can make these choices freely, i.e., without external compulsion. The choices we make will in turn influence our subsequent experiences, and these will mold who we are becoming. Thus we do become our own creators.

At its root, however, our way of choosing was “chosen” for us. It is not that we are compelled against our will; it is simply that we are not ultimately the designers of our will. At the beignning of our career of self-determination, we were inclined on a course governed by forces outside of ourselves. The present is always an outgrowth of the past, the future a function of the present. In the beginning, and therefore logically also in the ultimate nature of our being, we are not creators but creatures.

It is this sense of ourselves as the fruit of the world — not as powerless to shape our destiny –that is the basic message of this deterministic perspective.

Determinism thus does not mandate feelings of powerlessness or resignation. We can choose how we will act, and our actions will shape our destiny.

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