“Spinoza says that if a stone which has been projected through the air had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own will . I add to this only that the stone would be right. The impulse given it is for the stone what the motive is for me, and what in the case of the stone appears as cohesion, gravitation, rigidity, is in its inner nature the same as that which I recognize in myself as will, and what the stone also, if knowledge were given to it, would recognize as will.” Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea
I came across this quote and thought that it might have something to add to our discussion. Schopenhauer, a German philosopher and contemporary of Hegel is here referencing the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. In the context of our discussions on freewill is it possible that we are like the stone, projected through the evolutionary process and imagining our actions to be the result of our own freewill? Perhaps freewill is simply the term we use to describe the result of evolutionary forces that create all evolutionary movement forward including our choices. Because we are conscious, we see this movement in ourselves and from our perspective it “feels” like we are doing something, when in fact it is just something happening to us.
After all, isn’t the main reason we believe so strongly in freewill simply because it feels like we can make free choices. Isn’t that freedom always contextual? A young man may decide he wants to be a doctor and he may feel that it is a decision based on his own freewill, but if we find that his father, his father’s father and his father’s father’s father were all doctors we might wonder how free that choice really was. Is there not some aspect of family expectation or even simple familiarity that plays a role in that choice? Many American’s love cheeseburgers, many Indians love dhal (an Indian dish made with lentils) and many Israelis love having salad with olives for breakfast. Are these free choices, or are they culturally conditioned? Aren’t all the choices that we make, and the range of options open to us completly limited by the physical characteristics of our bodies, the mental characteristics of our minds and the environmental characteristics of our planet? How free is our will?
One of the things that I find very powerful about the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce is his insistence that we must always remember how fallible all of our understanding is. Human beings are studying life forms on a single planet in a huge universe. We are studying through a physical form with very limited capacity for sensation. We may find that what we are currently examining and calling the universe is in actuality a minuscule part of the actual entirety of the universe. Perhaps our conviction of freewill is a result of our limited understanding of ourselves and the universe of which we are a part. I believe that my insightful commentator Brian, sometimes uses this logic to point out the fallibility of the sweeping generalizations in my own thinking.
Pragmatically I suppose William James would settle the question of freewill by asking what difference in action would result from my either believing in or not believing in freewill. If I believe in freewill, does that belief leave me with a deeper sense of my creative powers? Does it make me a more productive and useful human being? If I don’t believe in freewill does it make it easier for me to feel victimized and give up all sense of responsibility?
The strong negative response that many people have to materialistic and deterministic notions of reality arises from the fear that it will strip us of our moral sense of responsibility. If we believe that all of our actions are the simple result of past actions and external forces then we are not ultimately responsible for what we do. Our actions occur not as a result of will, but because that is the way that it had to happen.
Does this morally debased state necessarily result from recognizing that there is no freewill? Is it even truly possible to give up belief in freewill? We may say that we do not believe in freewill, but in the end we still make choices and when we make a choice it seems almost a prerequisite that we believe we are making it. If we sit before two options and wait for a choice to be made for us nothing is likely to happen, and isn’t the choice to sit and wait also a choice?
Or are we more like the stone flying through the air? The evolutionary air that we are flying through is “change” itself. We see ourselves passing through this ocean of change and think “I am changing” and we assume that the change we see is occuring as a result of our own freewill. We mistakenly assume that “I am choosing to change.” But everything in an evolving universe is changing and what is propelling that change is something we are not clear about yet.