I love the cartoon above, even though I think it is wrong. Or, maybe more accurately, misleading, which is often worse than wrong. The caption is especially problematic, as it forces the otherwise brilliantly provocative cartoon into an unnecessarily limiting conceptual box.
It preys on fears of determinism by drawing our attention to the inevitable “end result” rather than the choices made along the way. In doing so, It trivializes the details of that along the way in a fashion similar to how believing the ends justify the means diminishes the moral content of a given action.
Indeed, we could rewrite that latter ethical claim into an agency claim of the “ends neutralize the means.” But by doing so, we are apt to miss three interrelated points:
- Freewill can never be absolute (or what freewill is not)
- Freewill requires determinism to exist (or what freewill we have)
- Freewill in any meaningful conception of the word exists only in the along the way (or what freewill we need)
One of the problems with language is that we sometimes put words together to form a conceptual picture that seems viable to us, but isn’t. We will even stand our ground by saying that we can conceive of it being the case, so it must be a valid concept, when really we can conceive of no such beast. Instead, we are just deluding ourselves, confusing our masterful ability to conceive of conceiving with that of the conception itself.
Here’s a couple of examples to flex our thinking around this issue:
- I want to study the pure forest. So can you please cut down all those trees so they don’t get in the way of my thinking.
- I want to see what pure blue looks like. So can you please take all that color away so it doesn’t distract me.
Yet we often assign such absurdity to things involving thinking, saying nonsensical yet specious phrases like “pure thought” or “I think, therefore I am,” where both think and thought are imagined to be capable of being parceled out from the environment and viable on their own.
THINKING IS ALWAYS ABOUT SOMETHING
It can be about objects, about other thoughts, or about itself. But it has to be anchored in some way for it to even exist. For if it isn’t, what exactly is thinking doing? How is operating? What is happening?
The same goes for freewill. Absolute freewill sounds nifty, don’t it? The supposed ability to do whatever you will. But what exactly are you doing when invoking such a power? How is it operating? What is happening? The very moment freewill is exercised, it is at the same time necessarily being limited – determined – by the thing under its will.
Consider it this way:
You want to build a house. You might choose straw or wood or brick. But that choice will then limit what other choices there are and so on. The original choice might be expanded to include stone or 1001 other different kinds of materials, but the limit would still be in play. Sure, you can change your mind, which would be another example of exercising freewill, but that would just mean the limit changes form, and not that there is no limit in play.
The limit, of course, is a form of determinism. For it determines what the outcome can and cannot be, like whether or not the wolf’s huffing and puffing can blow your house down. Our body itself is a limit, as, for example, we can’t breathe underwater, making living underwater difficult and problematic.
You might think, oh, but that’s not a conceptual limit, for I can imagine a being that can breathe underwater as well as air. But so what? That changes nothing. For if you live underwater, the living underwater limits apply instead of the living on the land limits. For if they didn’t, what exactly are you doing when you exercise the will?
DETERMINISM IS NOT SOMETHING BAD
In fact, we rely on determinism to do anything — to will anything — at all. For If things set in motion didn’t behave a certain way, or at least were likely to behave a certain way, our will would actually be meaningless. It would be just a hope, a pray to the Gods, and not a will of any kind.
Yet determinism gets a bad rap because we don’t like the idea of our fate being dictated to us. So much so, we look at the cartoon and say poor ignorant cow, he doesn’t realize whatever choice he makes he will end up being turned into hamburger. Well, last I checked, all of us will eventually die, so at least that much is already determined for us.
And that’s a pretty big determined. So are we just ignorant cows. Maybe.
But what if we take death out of the equation? I don’t mean imagine a case where we don’t die. Rather, I mean not having death be the ultimate marker of the vitality of our choices or as the litmus test for freewill.
I’ve been playing around with inventing models that I think might best illustrate the coexistence of choice and fate, of freewill and determinism. I’ve been trying to understand not only how they relate to each other, but how we can find meaning in that relationship.
Instead of focusing on the gruesome end of us and cows, let us travel along the walls. Round off the ceiling and floor. Tilt the room. it is no longer a room, but a tube. Imagine a ball thrown hard into the tube and it banging from side to side as it travels along its downward path. It’s going to end up wherever the tube leads, whether to death or assorted stops along the way like a new job or boyfriend. However, the route of its sideways travel itself is less predictable. That’s close to where our freewill lies.
THE BOILING POT:
We boil a pot of water to cook our pasta. Some of the molecules will be vaporized right away. Some will do so over the course of the cooking. And some not at all, unless we keep the pot on and at a high enough temperature. Regardless, while it is easy to predict that the water will boil, it’s far more difficult to predict which specific molecules will vaporize and when. That’s where our freewill lies.
Now with both scenarios, one could argue that individual route and individual vaporization, although difficult to predict, would not prove impossible to do so, if we had access to all the information. So isn’t every part of along the way just as much determined as the end of the tube?
That could be the case. And if it is, I might have to agree with Spinoza’s necessitarian assessment. There would not only no meaningful choice that we could make, but there would be no real choice at all. Such choice at all levels would only be illusion.
But my gut tells me there is something else going on that is at the heart of the freewill we need. Something that presides over the strange yet necessarily required interrelationship of freewill and determinism. And no, I’m not talking about God, as that would simply take us back to Spinoza. Instead, I am meaning something far more sacred and profound: