If it exists, free-will is limited and contingent: a follow-up post

I wrote a couple of days ago about the radical determinism which has grown out of recent discoveries and experimentation in physics. By recent, I probably mean the last 100 years or so, but mostly I’m referring to the rash of new fundamental particles that now litter the field as it were. My previous post was concerned in the main with the almost complete disjuncture that there is between what some physicists, and the philosophers they’ve influenced, say they believe about reality on the one hand, and the way they and all the rest of us actually live our lives on the other. Despite what I believe are the entirely unsuccessful attempts by some of those philosophers to have their determinist cake whilst simultaneously munching happily away at that very same confectionery using their free-will, I don’t know anyone, anywhere, that really believes that they have no agency, no possibility of making choices between equally possible alternatives. The nearest that anyone comes to a synthesis is to say that free-will is an illusion. We think we possess it, but in fact we do not. This might deal with the existential problem – the fact that all of us experience our lives as if the choices we make are real – but it cuts no ice at all when it comes to dealing with the social and political consequences. I repeat here the inescapable corollary of the determinist position: without real (as opposed to illusory) choice there can be no responsibility for action, and no accountability for it. There can be no morals. And there can be no justice, for to punish people for actions that, whatever they may have imagined at the time they committed them, they in fact had no control over is patently and self-evidently unjust. None of the philosophers or physicists of the determinism of fundamental particles is arguing for the removal of criminal responsibility. There can be only two reasons: first, fear that they will be ridiculed or second, that they don’t believe their own theories.

Life without choice, without morality, without accountability, is meaningless. It is simply the playing out of an immutable and pointless script. It makes us all the unwitting observers of our lives, rather than active participators in them. But if there is free-will, and I say if advisedly because I genuinely don’t think we know, it is clearly not limitless. I drew a distinction in the last post between what I described as “lesser determinisms” and this radical, fundamental determinism. Just as life is meaningless if radical determinism is true, so it is impossible if free-will is unconstrained. Some elements of our lives obviously are determined by factors over which we have no control. Some of those determining factors operate in ways which are hidden from our consciousness, whilst others are not. For example, it may not be clear to us in what subtle and yet fundamental ways our personal histories determine the kinds of people we are, and the kinds of choices we make. Again, it is unlikely that we’ll be conscious of the ways in which the majority of our genes constrain and circumscribe our lives. The point here is that there is much more determinism in our lives than we are aware of, and I do not claim that the radical determinism I’ve described is not true. It may be. There is nothing impossible about the idea that we can think we’re acting freely when in fact we are not. This illusion of freedom happens all the time, and is woven into the very fabric of our consciousness. On the other hand, it is equally possible that, despite all the constraints, despite our lack of awareness of many of those constraints, we do still have real freedom to choose albeit within a heavily circumscribed space.

The last post grew out of my listening to Melvyn Bragg’s “In our Time” programme on BBC Radio 4. That mundane event – me hearing a radio broadcast – is illustrative of some of the points I’m making. Did I choose to listen to the programme? Well, yes and no. I had no idea it was on. If it hadn’t been on then I couldn’t have chosen to listen to it. Obvious enough, but clearly the choice, such as it was, was contingent. Once I became aware of it, could I have chosen to listen to it, or not to listen to it? Were those equally possible choices? Again, yes and no. If I had not had the education I have had, the family upbringing I have had, the interest over many years in philosophy, morality and religion that those experiences have given me, I would probably not have listened to it. After all, if the programme had not been “In Our Time”, but “You and Yours”, I’d have been out of my front door and on my way to work like a shot! So the obvious degree of determinism that operated (that the programme first had to be on air, that my radio had to be on when it was broadcast) is coupled with a much more subtle and contentious bit of determinism that flows from my personal history.

I mentioned going out to work. When I first heard that the programme was discussing determinism and free-will I was tying my tie, polishing my shoes, and generally sprucing myself up to get to work at 9.30am. I chose to delay my leaving. I think I chose, anyway. I was torn. I’m fascinated by the topic (as these two posts bear witness, if you’ve got this far, that is!) and at the same time I needed to go to work. I could have noted that the programme was on, and scribbled myself a note to catch it later on the BBC’s “Listen Again” feature. I didn’t. Actually, I’ve only just thought of that, and at the time it never occurred to me. So could I have chosen to do that or not? What controlled the fact that I forgot about “Listen Again”? I heard as much of the programme as I could. I was getting increasingly anxious about being late. Eventually my guilt overcame my fascination. I left for work, and arrived at the office about 10 minutes late. So did I choose to be late? How culpable for my lateness was I? The guilt that finally forced me to abandon listening and get my arse in gear is entirely the consequence of my upbringing. It didn’t matter that I was late, I had no 9.30 meeting, and no-one checks up on my arrival time. I could perfectly easily have listened to the entire programme. So one might turn the question of culpability on its head and ask instead how virtuous was my choice to give up listening and mitigate my late arrival.

Even in this entirely trivial instance, I think it is clear just how unclear is the boundary between freedom of choice and unfreedom of choice, between moral agency and amoral contingency. Although I cannot accept the notion that every tiny thing I do is just an inevitable consequence of the sub-atomic state of the universe a billionth of a second before, I am in fact grateful to the determinists for forcing us all to think the unthinkable.


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