Free Will: A Mistaken Belief in Causeless Effects


That every effect has a cause is the foundation of everything we know. Very few people believe in the spontaneous appearance of things or in random changes of state. This would be a bizarre world if such things happened. But it would seem that these considerations do not weigh heavily on those who believe that human beings exist outside the causal matrix and can spontaneously choose to do something without any prior cause.

The argument over whether human beings have free will has endured for centuries. As Nietzsche points out, the brightest minds always confirm that free will is just a form of exceptionalism: everything else in the universe may be causally determined, but human actions are not because we are unique. To believe in free will is to believe in causeless effects – things that come about, namely decisions, with no causal conditioning.

Kant wasn’t so happy with the notion that we have no free will, even though in his Critique of Pure Reason, he is pretty unambiguous that as part of the phenomenal world, we cannot have free will. It troubled him, as it does many people because if there is no such thing as free will, there can be no praise and no blame and no morality. Kant was a pietist and was desperate to establish some form of objective morality, and so he conjectured that outside the world as we know it, there may be such a thing as free will. But this is not about Kant, although the link between free will and morality still troubles people to this day since no free will means no morality.

Schopenhauer also had quite a lot to say about free will and to paraphrase him; he said: you can do what you will, but you cannot will what you will. That may take a moment to think about. Still, it mirrors Spinoza’s statement that we are only ever aware of effects and usually quite blind to causes, particularly when it comes to our actions. In any case, Spinoza believed we are mental automatons.

So troubling is the notion that we have no free will that various “kludges” have been invented, one of the most famous being compatibilism. In a nutshell, this says that provided we are not constrained in some way then we are free. Kant said compatibilism was just “word juggling” and I tend to agree. The fundamental issue at stake is whether our decisions and actions are caused. I believe that only a lunatic or someone stubbornly wedded to the idea of free will would deny that we operate according to cause and effect in the same way as all other things.

Finally, let’s put the more contemporary argument that quantum mechanics does away with determinism to bed. The uncertainties associated with quantum mechanics may indeed influence matters. Still, we are no more in control of how the dice rolls than anything else, and so the fact of uncertainties at microscopic scales changes nothing.

The realization that we are mental automata, as Spinoza would say, is shocking for some and quite a relief for others. I belong to the latter class of people and feel tremendously liberated because there is no praise and no blame, as the Buddhists would say.



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