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Listserv: On the Nature of Free Will and Volition


The debate between free will and determinism is one of the most ancient in philosophy and has led to many misconceptions about what the various positions are. For this reason, before I go into explaining just what free will is, I have to cover what it is not. The major positions on the nature of volition can be described as determinism, indeterminism, and self-determinism.

Determinists claim that the nature of the universe is such that it is governed by certain universal scientific laws, so that each action is caused by a specific prior cause, and human action is no exception. They claim that the human mind is also governed by these rules such that no alternative course of action is possible to humans other than the specific and unique set of prior factors that caused that human action to be made. Thus, human choices are not “free” because they are determined ahead of time by whatever environmental, social, genetic, biological and any other unknown factors caused such choices to be made. Accordingly, men cannot be held morally responsible for their actions, since they have no more control over the causal chain of events in reality than anyone else.

One example of an argument for determinism is a man who must choose randomly between two eggs laid in front of him. He thinks that he chooses an egg randomly, but the determinist would say that the choice is actually because of some unknown factor – for example because one egg is minutely closer to him. Besides, the determinist would argue, when the man chooses to pick one egg, could he randomly choose to do something else? Could he choose instead … to kill himself? To jump of a cliff? No, the state of his mind is clearly not such that he would not act in this way, and the same goes for his choice of one egg and every other action: they are all determined by whatever prior factors that caused them to happen.

The determinist would say that whether the human mind operates by random firing of neurons or strict logic is irrelevant: both are governed by specific prior causes, and even if science could show that human choices were caused by random firing of neurons, the choice would not be “free” because it would not be “chosen,” independent of prior factors. In fact, to the determinist, free will would not be possible under any condition: if it was caused by prior causes all choice would follow the strict laws of causation, and if it was independent of any prior causes it would have to be random, and hence not “chosen” in any meaningful way. A skeptic could argue that just as one does not know what side a coin will land on when flipped, we do not know what people are going to decide ahead of time – but the determinist would reply that just because we do not know all the aerodynamic and structural factors that affect which side a coin will land on, does not mean that the flip is truly “random” as given enough information, would could determine the outcome of a flip ahead of time – and likewise for the choices made by a human mind, which we would be able to predict given enough information on its workings.

The classic reply in favor of free will to adopt some sort of indeterminism: that is claim that free will involves some sort of exception from the rules of causation. Traditionally, God has played this role, providing some sort of mystical “staging ground” for choice to occur. Rene Descartes took a more extreme position and argued that the mind exists on a separate plane from the body, and more recently, quantum physics and chaos theory have provides excuses to “escape” causation and allow a possible for “free” choice to occur. Both of these notions are nonsense. If a human choice is independent from any prior factors grounded in causation then it must be random, and randomness is in no way a “choice.” Whether God or quantum physics is the excuse, it is not viable to claim that human choice is independent of prior cause, and yet not completely random. As Baruch Spinoza said, “’it makes no sense to view God as the cause of all things and, at the same time, to believe that humans possess a free [will].”

The self-determinist position rejects both of these views. Affirming free will does not involve a rejection of causality in favor of a magical mechanism for human choice, but an affirmation of the process of volition that is the process behind all human choice. The self-determinist position rejects both the notion that any supernatural forces are involved or that any other cause of action is possible other than that which is determined by whatever laws, known and as yet unknown governed the workings of the universe. No “alternative world” where different choices were made is possible because the mind is not excused from the same rules that govern all other matter. Rather, “free will” refers to the uniquely human process of volition that allows multiple courses of actions to be considered and evaluated and one selected.

Human beings are thus unique in an important way: the process of volition, which makes them different from both inorganic matter as well as other forms of life, and allows for caused, yet free choices to occur. This definition of “free will” is not arbitrary but implied in the notion of “will” itself. When men commonly refer to human “choice” they are not rejecting causality but referring implicitly or explicitly to this process of volition. Volition is “free” in the sense that each individual must independently choose to think, as the choice to think or not is the primary choice and source of volition. This choice is not random, and certainly not independent of physical laws, yet it is a process unique (as far as we know) to human beings. The choice to think is not “free” in the sense that it is independent of prior cause but free in the sense that every individual must choose for himself to think or not, and suffer the consequences of his choice. Animals do not have such a choice: their actions are automatic and governed by instinct. For example, when a dog misbehaves, we punish it not because we hold it responsible but to change its action, but when a human acts in an immoral way, we hold the person as morally responsible: as culpable for their basic choice: to think or not. In other words, humans have a unique ability to project what the world be like given various courses of action (or inaction) and choose a course of action that leaves the universe in a more desirable state than the one prior to their action.

The skeptic will claim that human thought is not fundamentally different from a car: after all, we turn a key and the car either starts or not, depending on whether reality is such that the process of causation leads to an engine starting or to the battery being dead. In the same way, the determinist will claim, the human mind will either make the right or wrong choices, depending on what prior state it is in. However a car and a human mind are fundamentally different: the ignition process is a rigid mechanical chain, whereas human thought (when one chooses to think) involves a process of evaluation and conceptualization, (creating “models” of reality) which considers multiple possible avenues of action and allows for an evaluation of the consequences of each choice. To claim that starting a car’s engine is the same as choosing to think is to claim that a car can evaluate whether it is low on gas, and then decide to start or not depending on a variety of such factors. Of course a human may design such a car, but the evaluation to include such a feature still rests with the human, not the car.

The objective definition of free will then, rejects both the mystical mind-body duality and the strict physicalism of post-modernism. It holds that the nature of the human mind is unique in that it allows due a process of volition, by which arises from the structure of our brains and is readily apparent by introspection. As Leonard Peikoff says, “A course of thought or action is ‘free,’ if it is selected from two or more courses possible under the circumstances.” Of course only one course of action is always actual, but nevertheless numerous courses of action are considered and evaluated in the process of thinking.

While the evidence of free will is readily apparent to introspection, one can only analyze the roots of decisions to a certain level. Decision making is not an infinite regression of choices, but is based on a fundamental choice – to focus. On other words, our fundamental choice is to focus (and think) or not (and remain in a daze) and the choice must be accepted as a given, readily apparent by introspection, but not derived from any other choices, as there can be none. The implication of free will is that individuals can be held morally liable for their actions, because unlike animals, they have the ability to rationally consider the implications of all their actions instead of acting on their urges or whims.

While the determinist position generally accepts the possibility of thought, it rejects the possibility of true choice, negating the possibility of more responsibility. However the determinist position is contradictory and cannot be logically held. By saying that humans should “pretend to have free will” the determinist accepts that all human thought requires choices to be made between various possible choices. (Possible to the mind considering them, that is.) He implicitly accepts the correct definition of volition while rejecting its logical consequences. The determinist cannot even argue that he knows his position is true – after all, he is only arguing for it because of prior environmental factors, not because it is independently true or false. In short, in arguing for determinism, the determinist implicitly accepts the opposite of his position.

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Listserv: The Virtues of our Time: Collectivism, Nihilism and Pragmatism


August 11, 2002

The Virtues of our Time: Collectivism, Nihilism and Pragmatism

By David Veksler

American politicians today generally act on the dominant philosophy of the day, which can be described by three main values: collectivism, nihilism, and pragmatism. These values directly contradict those held by the founders of the United States: individualism, moral objectivism, and principled action. While both conservatives and liberals accuse each other of immorality, the loss of traditional, rational values in favor of a bankrupt “postmodern” philosophy has lead to a contradictory, inconsistent, and ad hoc policy that is the primary cause of most of the problems America faces today.

Collectivism is the idea that groups, not individual people, are the only proper beneficiaries of values. It states that your identity as a human being comes from involuntary or voluntary membership in various groups – such as society, race, “culture” or even sexual orientation. It then states that the only or the primary recipient of one’s labor should be this group, rather than yourself. In politics, this means that “serving your country” is more important than the services your government is supposed to provide you, namely protection from the criminal elements of the world. This view was summarized by JFK as “Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country.”

Both conservative and liberal presidents frequently espouse this ideal. For example, in promoting volunteerism, President George Bush said: “Citizen service is the very American idea that we meet our challenges not as isolated individuals but as members of a true community, with all of us working together. Our mission is nothing less than to spark a renewed sense of obligation, a new sense of duty, a new season of service…”

The basis of this view is that a collective of individuals is more than the sum of its parts, and that by belonging to a collective, a person can acquire special rights and obligations he would not have otherwise. The clear implication of collectivism is that the individual becomes secondary to the group, and in fact becomes its tool rather than an end in himself. Implicit in collectivism is the idea that collectives can think, benefit, and obtain rights just as individuals can. Collectives are even attributed personalities called “culture” that everyone within it is expected to embrace. Each member of a collective is responsible for its failures, and everyone is to be praised if any one person in it accomplishes something. Anyone who pursues his own “selfish” interests, or has goals that differ from the “collective’s” is deemed a traitor to his society, country, race, and so on and usually faces dire consequences. Reality is rejected in favor of the consensus, and truth becomes relative to the purposes of the collective.

The opposite of collectivism is individualism. Individualism declares that each and every man may live his own life for his own happiness, as an end to himself, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor others to himself. It rejects the view that a group of men has special rights and that a “public good” exists by declaring that there is no collective stomach or a collective mind because only individuals can benefit from any good, and only individuals can think. Individualism is the idea that groups are simply a collection of individuals, and any rights claimed by them derive directly from the rights of the individuals composing such a group. As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The only associations that an individualist values are those voluntarily chosen, not born or drafted into.

Any good stolen from a man for the sake of “society” cannot be shared with society as a while, but must be given to other individuals, benefiting some at the expensive of others. Likewise, an invention is not the result of “collective thought” but of innovation and originality on the part of its creator. He may have built on the ideas of others, but his invention represents his own original, independent thinking, from which he has a right to profit without having to share the values the inventor receives with others. Politically, the result of such as principle is capitalism: a social system where the individual does not live by permission of others, but by inalienable right. The inevitable result of collectivism on the other hand is socialism: a system where the individual is only a tool to serve the “social good” – and because there is no such thing a collective benefit, the profit of the politically well-connected looter at the expensive of the productive worker is the inevitable result of any collectivist system.

The second major trait of “post-modern” political thought is nihilism. Nihilism assumes that there are no objective values independent from one’s thought, but that values are derived solely from whatever means are necessary to achieve one’s immediate goals, whatever they may be. This means that there are no objective or universal standards which everyone must observe, but only the immediate actions needed to accomplish one’s passing whims and fancies. Embracing collectivism, nihilism states that any arbitrary values chosen by culture or individuals are an absolute, independent of the actual benefit or harm they may have on one’s life. In short, nihilism takes the stance that values are not physical, but mental entities – that they are not derived from reality but whatever random goal your mind comes up with.

The opposite of nihilism and subjectivism is moral objectivism – which states that values are in fact derived from reality, not random whims, and that the facts of reality, not culture or consensus determine right and wrong. Moral objectivism states that there are certain necessary values, such as food, shelter, and other material goods that man needs to obtain to survive. The rejection of objective, rational values is the primary cause of the rise of crime in America.

The state of public education is a perfect example of the natural consequence of collectivist, nihilist values. Educators correctly state that self-esteem is crucial to children’s development, but they take away the means to attain self-esteem by claiming that it comes from cultural and racial group association rather than individual achievement. They cripple the ability of children to set goals and motivate themselves by preaching that serving society through community service, rather than self-motivation and hard work, leads to success. They reward students for C’s as well as A’s and teach that all that is needed to be happy with oneself is to be oneself, whatever that means, rather than work at setting and reaching goals. Furthermore, by claiming that reality and morality is subjective and dependent on cultural, social or personal opinion, that logic is useless, and that confidence in one’s opinion is “close-minded” they cause kids to follow the inevitable consequences of such an ideology. When social approval rather than individual accomplishment is the only standard of value children have, peer approval becomes the ultimate goal, and kids seek it by open sexuality, drugs, or violence because it is the only means they perceive of being recognized in the collectivist system their schools put forth.

Pragmatism follows naturally from nihilism. It is the idea that men do not need to follow absolutes or principles, but should act only on the immediate needs of any situation. As president Bush recently said, “I’m so pleased that a member of my Cabinet came. I picked a good man when I picked the Secretary of Education. I didn’t pick somebody who dwelt on theory.” The rejection of “theory” is the rejection of the idea that any choice has any implications to consider other than the immediate consequences. Bill and Hillary Clinton are the typical products of such “post-modern,” unprincipled thinking. Both Clinton and Bush welcome the Arab dictators and urge compromise with PLO terrorists when they need to please the oil interests, just as warmly as they welcome Israeli leaders and the praise the cause of Zionism to please the Jewish lobby. That Bill Clinton would retaliate for terrorist attacks with one or two missiles fired into the desert so as not to offend world opinion, ignoring the kind of message it would give to terrorists, and then lobby and claim that he “would personally grab a rifle, get in a ditch and fight and die” to protect Israel demonstrates this unprincipled and pragmatic mentality. In her campaign for Senate, Hillary Clinton solicited campaign contributions from racist, anti-Semitic Muslim groups right before speaking at Synagogues in front of welcoming crowds. President Bush is only a marginal improvement. Initially strong in his anti-environmentalist stance, and support of business, he wavered and conceded whenever he saw his poll number sag. Then, despite his lip service to free trade and free market, Bush supported steel tariffs, subsidies to farming interests, and a huge “economic aid package” that passed just as the economy was starting to recover from an overly controlling government that caused the depression in the first place. Recently, he has curbed efforts to pursue terrorists abroad as coalitions composed of less-than democratic nations have faltered – exemplifying the collectivist notion that a moral judgment can only be reached by a social consensus, and wavered in his support of Israel’s right to self defense to please European and domestic critics.

The opposite of pragmatism is principled action, the view that decisions must be made in accordance to established, universal principles, because ad hoc, pragmatic action will lead to contradicting and self-defeating policy. For example, while Alan Greenspan recognizes that setting interest rates to be too low will over-encourage investment, create economic instability and lead to recession in the long run, he still engages in short term “emergency” inflationary measures that caused the investment spree of the late 1990’s and consequently, the recent financial depression. This is equivalent to obtaining huge credit card balances to fulfill “immediate needs” –ignoring the need for long term saving and planning and the consequences of permanent debts. However, politicians claim to be immune from principles that apply to individuals as if policies that are bad for individuals can me made good by volume. Turning to foreign policy, in his campaign, President Bush claimed to follow a principled policy by claiming that “The first question is: What’s in the best interests of the United States? What’s in the best interests of our people? When it comes to foreign policy, that’ll be my guiding question: Is it in our nation’s interests?” However, Bush has acted otherwise, retaining an unnecessary military presence in Bosnia to please European allies, while mounting a weak and incomplete response in Afghanistan and trying to attain a “consensus” before taking any military action, sacrificing America’s security for to please the whims of both our allies and enemies. Most recently, faced with growing criticism of pursuing the countries that sponsor terrorism, the president and congress have endorsed a campaign against businessmen to distract the nation from their foreign policy and economic failures while giving traitors generous plea bargains. Interestingly, both democrats and republicans have been united in their condemnation of CEO’s as “greedy crooks”, requiring more and more government oversight so that they can better “serve their country” (and maybe keep a little bit of profit in the process) while debating if any response at all should be mounted against nations that sponsor terrorism.

Thus, the guiding philosophy for politicians on both sides of the spectrum is collectivism, nihilism, and pragmatism, while the classical liberal values that this country was founded on is sometimes given lip service, but largely forgotten. The resulting consequences have been clear – a faltering economy, emboldened and unchallenged enemies abroad, a failing educational system, and an increasingly invasive, controlling government. The only way out of the current mess is to once again embrace values that promote the individual’s “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” adopting an objective morality, and a policy that is based on principle, not momentary pragmatism.

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