How To Be Free

“I’m a product of my decisions, not my circumstances” so said my friend Will whose abusive, alcoholic dad was all the motive he needed to never touch booze.

This sounds wise but it’s nonsense. If our circumstances influence us they influence our decisions as well. You don’t avoid the consequences of determinism by pointing to acts of decision-making.

The question is whether our decisions are determined or not.

Determinism begins with the insight that all events, including human actions, are caused by something. Our actions may be caused by our decisions and our decisions caused by our deliberations, but those patterns of deliberation are also caused ultimately by influences in our past or our present environment. If determinism is false, we have uncaused events poking around our mental states, which is a metaphysical faux pax. If you accept that mental events can be uncaused, are you willing to accept that there is no cause to your car not starting or the development of that nasty rash on your body?

Unless you’re willing to countenance uncaused events, this basic claim of determinism that all events are caused must be accepted.

So is everything we do determined by some influence deep in our past that inexorably leads us to choose to drink alcohol or prefer romances to tragedies? The answer to that is emphatically no. That would suggest fatalism which is not entailed by determinism.

Determinism is the view that any action is determined by a set of conditions prior to the act occurring, and if those conditions were to obtain again, the same action would occur. But conditions are never exactly the same. Even the act of reflection on one’s actions changes the inputs that condition an action, thus making alternative courses of action a possibility without disrupting the causal structure of reality.

Most accounts of determinism don’t give sufficient weight to the influence of present circumstances rather than the past. Our present environment is constantly modifying whatever tendencies emerge from the past weakening their causal power while strengthening other less dominant dispositions. Any influence from the deep past will be modified by each successive present circumstance as they unfold, including the agent’s own actions. So fatalism is false.

Freedom of the will has traditionally been understood in terms of a break in the causal chains that produce an action. But that makes the action unintelligible, a product of random events. Free will as a form of magic. As noted, we must accept that every event has a cause. So forget magic.

The alternative view, that freedom is compatible with determinism, grants the undeniable presence of causal chains but emphasizes that some causes are initiated by an agent’s desires and deliberative tendencies and can thus be attributed to the agent. “Freedom” for the compatibilist is defined as doing what you want, without external constraint, even if what you want is determined by the past.  But compatibilism has always had trouble with the fact that how our desires are influenced can undermine our autonomy. We might be “doing what we want” but if what we want is a product of coercive influences from our past or present circumstances it is odd to call that “freedom.”

My argument for freedom of the will is this:

p1 Define free will as the ability to do otherwise.

p2 Free actions require that there are no immediate overwhelming coercive forces in one’s environment. Call this class of actions with no immediate coercive threats type A actions.

p3 Given any action of type A, an agent could have done otherwise under different circumstances.

p4 Circumstances always differ.

Therefore, for any type A action, the agent could have done otherwise.

The moral of the story is if you want freedom, change your circumstances, make new connections that unlock hidden dispositions.

My friend Will broke the tendency to follow his father’s alcoholic tendencies by bearing witness to the pain his Dad caused, instinctively gravitating to circumstances that didn’t push alcohol. Goaded by subterranean angst, he gained an instinct for avoiding people and contexts where he might be tempted by alcohol. It wasn’t a single decision but a number of small, by themselves, insignificant events that created a disposition not to drink.

To be free, make yourself available for micro-influences, be alive to new possibilities, disrupt harmful habits, and cultivate new capacities.

But do not believe in magic.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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