Free will and determinism

A rather long theoretical speculation.

Free will and determinism are generally treated as polar opposites. Here is a hypothesis that starts from that position and concludes with them being identical.

Human free will is difficult to establish. The concept itself is extremely evasive and analysing consciousness and decision-making (which I take to be among the more intractable issues for free will) is fraught with contradictions and infinite regressions. In addition, many of the material determinants of human action and experience are clearly external to the human individual, either as social or as natural entities. As such most social and natural conditions would necessarily limit our material freedom, even if free will were in principle possible. Unlike writers for whom the conceptual analysis of free will and practical constraints on freedom are to be studied separately, I would argue that the reason why the concept of free will is too hard to pin down is the same as the reason we are not, in practice, free.

Essentially, we lack freedom either because of the relative immaturity of the subjective intelligence through which we exist in the world or because of the limitations (gaps, mistakes, conflicts and contradictions) of the objective systems and relationships by which our worlds are actually composed. That is, we are prevented from achieving what we set out to achieve because the structures on which our actions and experience are based stop us from succeeding. It is not simply a matter of weakness: defeat of one kind or another (including subversion, diversion, distraction, disablement and frustration as well as outright defeat) is often built into the very systems and processes through which we act.

For example, even within our world of formal social freedoms (citizenship, equality before the law, and so on), the contradictions that beset our relationships with bureaucracy, representative democracy, economic activity and the law are too well known to need elaborating here. And once again, these are contradictions, not just misfortunes: the problems are built in. Others, created by inhabiting a world made up increasingly of money, commodities and roles, are less obvious, though they are often yet more fatal.

Furthermore, because these structures are contradictory, they prevent us from experiencing the world (or even our own experience) in a coherent manner. This in turn stops us coming up with any way of fully or accurately describing or analysing that experience without working through a huge range of social and historical systems, and so of formulating our goals and intentions adequately in the first place. Furthermore, the vast scale and complex yet ambiguous structure of our social systems makes it unlikely that many people will have the necessary knowledge, or any idea of how to acquire it, or any idea that it is needed.

For example, a capitalist society creates a basic individualism that prevents us from seeing straight away that our problems are social and historical rather than psychological. For most people, the response to bureaucracy, injustice and the general malaise of everyday life is personal frustration, resignation and depression, not social analysis, organisation and action. We divide our efforts between work and consumption, and even these supremely social activities are experienced in terms of a narrow individualism or, at best, instrumental social groupings (office, shopping mall, public transport) to which we commit little of ourselves. This perverse structuring of action and experience both creates innumerable illusions about how the world really works and effectively undermines every attempt to do something about it.

For example, in work we are typically isolated as individuals and functional groupings, and the knowledge we have of the larger systems and relationships we need to do our jobs is generally very narrow. There are timetables, duties, targets, techniques, but little meaning outside the group or the even the task. And in consumerism, we exist solely as isolated individuals, in families and other small, specialised and isolated groups.

So by and large, the only knowledge we need to operate within society is at the level of simple, formally prescribed facts (a great deal of which is anything but correct at any profound level). The massive social and economic processes whereby we ended up there at the supermarket are treated as a combination of the trivially obvious, too dull and difficult for non-specialists to bother with, and none of our business.

At the same time, we are constantly bombarded by complacent and unimaginative politicians, newspaper editors and pundits, and endless other spokespeople for the status quo telling us that we are all already free – or, with one of those small, resigned twists in which modern ideology excels – we are as free as we should try to be.

Even for professionals who specialise in such questions, social life is not exactly training for solving problems of free will and determinism! In fact, the disciplines of history, philosophy and the social sciences seem to be almost as confounded by these assumptions about how our lives work (if that is the word) as everyone else. I doubt that one sociologist in a hundred could explain the idea of alienation.

The basics of the real processes through which all this takes place should be all too familiar to need explaining, though they certainly are not, even for those with a background in the social sciences. Or perhaps they should be anything but familiar. After all, why would any social system regard a theory that that system does not make sense as a tool for making sense of itself? It would be a confession of failure and futility and an invitation to do something about it.

On the other hand, if the ways we understand our relationships to the world and to one another and the systems and structures through which we actually live are so closely interconnected, creating a world of freedom and conceiving of free will properly ought to be mutually fruitful enterprises. If we could do something about these endemic contradictions that constantly frustrate freedom we would be able to grasp the concept of free will, and the more thoroughly we work through the conceptual contradictions (including their social and historical aspects), we more clearly we will know how to go about creating a world in which genuine liberty is the norm.

So what is the general model of freedom I am arguing for? In brief, freedom is lacking whenever the structures that determine either our intentions or the means to realise them are outside our control. If everything that controlled both how we grasped the world and what we wanted, expected, needed (and so on) was (in some sense) a part of ourselves, then we could say that the ways we conceived of our existence in the world and the structures that through which that existence was enacted were one and the same, both with one another and with ourselves. In other words, the structures that determined and realised our will would all be part of ourselves. It would thus be free will, yet wholly determined, yet subject to no material constraints or limitations from beyond itself. Conversely, if we could internalise within ourselves over all the structures needed to materialise those intentions and desires in the external world of practical reality, there would be no constraints on the exercise of our free will either. In other words, our free will would be exercised in freedom.

But what are the structures that need to be created to freedom to be achieved? And, given that the structures that impinge on the exercise of our will might be found anywhere in the entire universe, in what sense could they possibly be internalised? I have tried to describe in detail the historical and phenomenal processes through which truth and freedom (for truth and freedom come down to the same thing) can be reconciled with determinism in my The History of Human Reason. But in the most general terms, this argument entails that a) such a reconciliation is possible, and b) it is susceptible to scientific investigation in all its aspects, with no sneaky corners of irreducible indeterminacy.

Isn’t philosophy fun?

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