Sometimes I wonder whether I am truly free or not. I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, take the subway, go to philosophy class, talk with peers, etc. Does this mean that I am free? In order to answer this question, there needs to be an understanding concerning the “truth” and problem about freedom: Are my choices free or are they determined by external factors? Could I have chosen a different path? Am I responsible for my own actions? There have been several interpretations about where we stand with freewill and how nature and other people’s freewill play a part in behind our actions and in our fate.
The first theory is known as determinism (“hard determinism”) which advocates that “human behaviors, like all objects of the physical world, issue from specific causes that may or may not be within our individual control.” According to determinists, there are a few causes as to why humans behave the way they do: “Human nature; environmental causes; psychological forces; social dynamics.” Since determinism is based on the “scientific model of the physical universe,” and that everything has a cause, then there is no such thing as free will since all human actions are caused by external factors. One of the most well known determinists in history was French philosopher Baron d’ Holbach, who brilliantly defended this viewpoint by claiming that human beings, just like any other living species, fit into to the natural world and are also subjected to the causal laws of the universe. “Why should humans alone be considered exceptions to immutable laws that govern every other aspect of the universe?” It makes no sense, according to d’Holbach, since we are an “integral part” of nature and must follow the same fundamental rules as everyone else in the universe.
D’Holbach believed that our “will,” along with all of our other consciousnesses, are a result of brain chemistry and its interaction with the environment. “Certain sets of circumstances in the environment produce one sort of mental response; others sets of circumstances produce a different kind of response.” Therefore, free will does not exist! Causal laws determine mental states. But what I am given a certain choice? Let’s say that I am thirsty and someone hands me a drink but informs me that it contains poison. I refuse to take the drink. Does this mean that I have chosen freely not to grab the drink despite the fact that I was thirsty? D’Holbach disagrees and argues that “each action is the net result of the forces that are driving it. In the case of conflicting forces, it is the strongest ones that will win out.” Rejecting the drink is “not a free choice, simply the outcome of their psychological state, undergirded by their brain chemistry.”
D’Holbach understood that humans are shaped by both their personal and cultural histories: “In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas, and of the notions either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness; of his opinions strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience. So many crimes are witnessed on the earth only because everything conspires to render man vicious and criminal; the religion he has adopted, his government, his education, the examples set before him, irresistibly drive him on to evil: under these circumstances, morality preaches virtue to him in vain…” The external social factors that mold us determine who we are as individuals. If we were born in a totally different society then we would be distinct because the “shaping forces” would be different. It is not a matter of free choice.
D’Holbach further defends his argument against free will by distinguishing between external constraints and internal constraints. Not only do external constraints limit our freedom of choice but internal constraints as well. He uses the case of Socrates as an example. The ancient Greek philosopher was held in prison and was given the chance to escape to another country but decided not to. D’Holbach claims that Socrates was not a “free agent” because “the invisible chains of opinion, the secret love of decorum, the inward respect from the laws, even when they were iniquitous, the fear of tarnishing his glory, kept him in his prison; they were motives sufficiently powerful with this enthusiast for virtue, to induce him to wait death with tranquility.” In other words, Socrates could not be free even out of prison because the same “irresistible” forces determine where he goes and what he does.
There is a huge problem with D’Holbach’s viewpoint on free will. If there is no freedom of choice then there would be no meaning in our lives. We would be mechanical machines enslaved under the dictates of external and internal factors. But this is not the case! Humans have a certain degree of freedom. Compatibilist W.T. Stace is able to defend the concept of free will.
Stace establishes free will and personal responsibility in his book, Religion and the Modern Mind: “I shall first discuss the problem of free will, for it is certain that if there is no free will there can be no morality. Morality is concerned with what men ought and ought not to do. But if a man has no freedom to choose what he will do, if whatever he does is done under compulsion, then it does not make sense to tell him that ought not to have done what he did and that he ought to do something different. All moral precepts would in such case be meaningless…how can he be held morally responsible for his actions? How can he, for example, be punished for what he could not help doing?” Stace makes a great case against “hard determinism” by pointing out that if free will doesn’t exist, then reaching a higher level of morality is impossible. If an action is taken by an individual, he or she is not held morally responsible. Encouraging people to make enlightened moral choices is also out of the picture. Therefore, D’Holbach’s argument is easily refutable since he leaves out these basic qualities of our human existence.
Stace goes on to compare free acts to unfree acts in explaining his “compatible” solution between determinism and free will: “Free choices are those which are not compelled by forces or circumstances external to the individual, while unfree choices are those which are compelled.” One example of a free act is a person starving himself in protest of something. An unfree act is someone starving because they are stranded somewhere. The first person chose to starve while the other did not. This is the compatibilist take on free will and determinism.
Indeterminists believe that some of our choices are made freely, even though these actions are “random.” William James regarded indeterminism as the more “rational” belief in free choice since we go through our lives, everyday, assuming that we do have free will. Think about it. If determinism is an absolute truth would “judgments of regret” and “judgments of approval” exist? Absolutely not! According to James, free will exists and a deterministic universe leads to “radical pessimism.”
John Paul Sartre is probably one of the most well known philosophers of Western civilization. He is acknowledged for his contributions to the argument of “free will vs. determinism” by taking the side of free will. He believes that we are “condemned to be free” and argues against the view that “essence precedes existence.” Instead, according to Sartre, our selves are not predetermined before we come into existence. Therefore, “existence precedes essence.” He states: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism. It is also what is called subjectivity, the name we are labeled with when charges are brought against us...Thus, existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.”
As a result, we are totally responsible for the actions we take. There is no authority, no “God,” no higher figure to turn to. We make ourselves and the image of every other man. This, Sartre believes, might liberate the human “soul” from the harshness of the world. If we are able to eliminate the external factors that overwhelm us and look ahead into to the future, we would be better off as humans.
So what is the answer to the question of freedom? From what I understand when reading the different viewpoints, free will and free choice exist in our lives. Of course, we are determined by many external and internal factors beyond our control but this does not indicate that we are unable to make large scale changes. We are all born into a specific race, gender, culture, nation, etc. We all go through many experiences that help shape our personalities as we grow. But there is a possibility to change, to grow, to learn about the mistakes of the past. I think this is what Sartre meant when he said that we have to take “responsibility” for ourselves. If we can acknowledge the past and find ways of moving ahead in life, then we are truly experiencing free will and free choice.