A character in Shakespeare's
Richard III notes that "... there's small choice in rotten apples."
Life is like that sometimes. We like to think we're free to choose but (we
might suppose) in reality life's like a box of rotten apples which offers
no real choice at all.
This has been the
conclusion of many. Choice is an illusion. When one gets down to brass tacks
everything we do is determined by what has gone before in an endless chain
of cause and effect. We are automatons sadly deluded into thinking that life
is indeterminate, that choice between options is free.
If this conclusion is correct it seems to follow that the concept of
accountability is meaningless. If you don't like what I'm now writing, I
can't help that because you have no choice in your likes and dislikes any
more than I can choose what I type into this program. If behaviour is
determined, whatever happens must be "right" and not "wrong".
The outcome of the debate has often centred around what appears to be
irrefutable logic. The supposition is that every statement is true until
shown to be untrue, when it must be false. This sounds ridiculously obvious
until one says that it must hold for statements about the future as well.
Thus if I predict that the cat will die tomorrow and it does so, my
statement is true. If the cat doesn't die then it's false. Either way the
outcome is determined by factors other than my choice of prediction.
This turn of logic is called tertium non datur in Latin. It says that
no "third-truth" besides true or false can be applied to any statement. If I
say, "The cat will die tomorrow," I'm either correct or incorrect and my
statement is therefore either true or false. Aristotle considered this
viewpoint with some apparent perplexity. He suggested that statements about
the future are neither true nor false until the predicted events have either
happened or not, as the case may be.
century philosopher Gilbert Ryle clarifies Aristotle's point somewhat. He
says that the true / false dichotomy applies only to propositions
(statements) and not to predictions, behaviours or actions. The proposition
that "I will take my weekly bath on Friday" may turn out to be correct or
incorrect. But it can't properly be termed true or false. Nor can the
event of bathing validly be called true or false. Events happen or don't
happen. The fact of happening isn't itself true or false.
All this apparent nit-picking has a point, as Thomas Hobbes revealed when he
tackled the matter in the 17th century. He wrote that freedom consists in
"... the absence of all impediments to action that are not contained in the
nature and intrinsical quality of the agent" .
Put simply, his point is that freedom (non-determined behaviour) is possible
within limits. The analogy he used is that of a river. It is free to flow
anywhere, provided it always flows downwards. That is, a river isn't free to
flow upwards since gravity will not allow that.
Similarly, humans are free "according to their nature". Their will, says
Hobbes, is a proximate action which causes another action. But the will
itself is always, he argues, caused by either [a] a desire or [b] an
aversion. Which prevails depends on which is the stronger. So an act of will
is merely what Hobbes calls the "last appetite" under the power of which the
agent cannot refrain from acting.
If I stand on the
top of a high building I am restrained by knowing that if I jump, I die.
Without the certainty of death, there would be no restraint. But I am free
to jump if some inner desire proves stronger than my aversion to dying. What
I eventually do depends on the strength of the aversion (to death) in
relation to the strength of the desire (to cease living).
This seems to be the outcome, with variations, of most contemporary attempts
to think logically through the issue of freedom of choice. The future is
perceived as a "realm of possibilities", to quote Richard Taylor
. Put another way, it seems to me that determinism has a hard time
of it when people concede the concept of risk. In a determined future, risk
is a redundant idea. If we attempt to calculate risk, on the other hand, we
by definition take it that there is more than one possible outcome of any
choice - within limits, as Hobbes asserted. Certain outcomes eliminate risk.
If I jump I will die. I cannot choose to jump and not to die (all factors
besides gravity being equal, of course).
It turns out, therefore, that
determinism doesn't survive a rigorous analysis of language and its logic.
The most notable attempt to overcome non-determinist conclusions was made
in the 20th century by the behavioural psychologist B F Skinner. He
replaced Hobbes' "desire" and "aversion" with positive and negative
reinforcement. Briefly, he attempted to show that all our actions are
determined by learned responses to positive and negative aspects of our
environment. We learn how to behave from "nice" and "nasty" experiences
involving parents, society and chance events. In a real sense we're like
machines in that we can't help but act in whatever way we've learned to
He turns out to be largely correct in relation to lower-order
animal life. But there is now ample evidence that humans appear not to be
motivated entirely by positive or negative experiences. Every time someone
sets out to prove otherwise, exceptions surface without fail.
But it is
possible that Skinner is correct and that we just don't have the apparatus
to analyse stimulus and response in sufficient depth. In other words,
certain stimuli may be beyond our present skill to detect. More likely,
however, is that [a] we are able to re-learn our responses to primitive
stimuli, and [b] that there is a wide range of behaviours which cannot be
shown to derive from previous stimuli.
Be that as it may, the waters are
muddied considerably when God is introduced. Socrates held that God can do
only good. This is in essence a proposition which has driven Christian
theology from the first. But if God can choose only one way, then this
amounts to having no choice at all. It also implies that if God created the
world, then it must be good as it is. Therefore humans must also be good -
in which case they cannot choose what is not good, since that doesn't exist
in creation. God's perfection leads to determinism.
A very similar set of
conclusions derive from the assertion that God must by definition know
everything. Thus if God knows what's going to happen, then what does happen
must be what had to happen. If what God knew had to happen doesn't happen,
then God couldn't have known about it. Omniscience leads to determinism.
Augustine of Hippo and later Thomas Aquinas did their best to get round this
problem. It persisted because they were unable to preserve traditional
doctrines about God and also to draw reasoned conclusions about freedom of
choice. Augustine suggested that God's prescience is like man's memory. Just
as remembering an act doesn't render it involuntary, so God's foreknowledge
about an event doesn't render any one outcome necessary. God's position in
eternity is by definition outside time and therefore independent of cause
The latter argument is, I think, no more than a neat sidestep.
We know that time can't be separated from space. We live in a space/time
continuum. Change one and you change the other. If God is "outside"
space/time then we cannot by definition know anything about God except in
terms of what we can know in space/time. Which is the same as saying that we
can know nothing about God - an ancient and time-honoured conclusion.
say "God knows everything" is to make a nonsensical statement - unless we
acknowledge that what we're really saying is that it is possible to know
everything, even the future. To say that "God is all-powerful" is to
maintain that anything is possible, that there are no limits to freedom.
Of course, anyone is free to choose these two definitions of "God". But if
they do, they're no longer free to choose, since each leads to determinism -
a distinct contradiction to get oneself into.
More serious for traditional
Christianity is the position arrived at with regard to sin. Without the
concept of sin, there is no point to being a Christian. It's because
humanity is defined as sinful, that Christian theology from the earliest
times proposed the remedy of Jesus of Nazareth. Using various metaphors
derived from religion of the time (like sacrifice
and redeem) it is proposed that Jesus "takes away the sin of the
world" (John 1.29) and puts us right with God.
But sin is possible only if
we can choose between "good " and "bad" behaviours - however those two words
are defined. Determinism renders sin impossible and therefore Christianity
of no importance.
To sum up, it seems to me that the consensus is a yes/no
answer to the question, "Can we freely choose?" Yes, we can choose between
options over a very wide range of matters. Our behaviour, though very
strongly influenced by our genes, needs, upbringing and social contexts, is
largely free. And no, we often can't choose freely because there are limits
past which we can't talk about having free choices. I as an English speaker
cannot choose to immediately speak Russian. But I can choose to begin
learning how to speak it. If I persist in that choice (and choices are
frequently more than a single act of will) I might one day succeed.
Suppose it's possible to argue conclusively that there is ultimately no such
thing as free choice, that the choices we make are mere illusion. I would
respond that a choice, regardless of whether it's illusory, is nevertheless
a choice if that's how it seems to us. If I think I have made a choice, if I
have agonised over options, risks and outcomes, a choice has been made even
if the outcome was determined before I imagined I chose.
worth pointing out that any rational argument requires choosing between [a]
ways of thinking, and [b] final conclusions, between differing rational
steps, and differing evidence. To say that behaviour is determined is to
subvert the very means by which a conclusion is reached. In short, a
deterministic universe in which every outcome is predetermined rules out all
but an illusion of reason, since only one conclusion is ever possible.
 Determinism in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy