I like to surprise myself. Sometimes life is a mystery novel, in which we wait with bated breath to see what it is that we will do. This only seems to apply in certain particular situations – mostly where the decision really doesn’t matter.
I live near the top of a hill and, approaching my house from the West or the South one has to climb that hill. There are several ways of doing that, but two main ones. As I climb the road next to the park on my bicycle I have the option of continuing up that road until I come to my street, and turning up that. Or I can turn earlier and climb up a side street instead. The climb along the side street is shorter but steeper. So when I’m coming home I have the choice of the shorter, steeper hill, or the longer, shallower – but also more dull – route.
As I climb towards the turn I wonder – which one shall I take? I could try to reason my way about it, making up lists of pros and cons in my head and weighing them up. But I don’t. Instead I wait to find out which I will do. The secret answer to the question is already there – perhaps buried deep inside my nervous system, or perhaps still awaiting some final external stimulus to tip the decision one way or the other – a breath of wind, a car passing by, a creak of the cranks. Who knows what it is that determines the final choice?
All I know is that, as I approach within about ten metres of the possible turn, I will start to know what has been decided. Sometimes I will know straightaway, and be able to revel in, or marvel at, the certainty of the decision for a second or so before the actual turn. Sometimes I trick myself though – I find myself thinking it has been decided that there will be no turn today, when all of a sudden, at the very last second, there I am turning the corner.
One might say that I like to keep myself guessing.
There is a strange feeling of irresponsibility about it, as if the decision were nothing to do with me. It happens sometimes too with little quips that I think of possibly contributing to a conversation. I see the sentence fully-formed in my mind, but do not know whether I will say it, because I do not know whether it will amuse my interlocutors. So I wait and see whether it gets said, by me. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. I never know which until I’ve already started talking, or the opportunity has passed. Why the difference? Nobody knows.
This may be all very interesting, but it would be less fun if it applied to decisions of significant moral importance. Fortunately, for me and, apparently, for most other people, it doesn’t. I think of Camus’ outsider, Meursault, looking at the man before him on the beach, at whom he is pointing a loaded, cocked pistol (for no good reason), and wondering whether he, Meursault, will pull the trigger. I have never been in a similar situation – one of the many advantages of not owning a gun – but I would hate to think that I could look on the question of which way I would decide on an issue of such significance, as something amusing, diverting, outside my control.
While one can make theoretical arguments that whether or not I will choose to do X is purely determined by pre-existing circumstances, there is nevertheless a powerful, nay dominant, feeling of being involved in the decision, of being in control of one’s actions, when the stakes are high. So it is for me at least. Perhaps that’s what was so disconcerting about Meursault – that he had no greater feeling of involvement in, or responsibility for, the decision to shoot the man than he would for a decision to take the shorter, steeper path up the hill, or to risk telling a lame joke.
I cannot like Meursault, but I do feel sorry for him. There but for the grace of God and all that. Perhaps that’s part of what Camus was trying to do. He dissolved the black and white certainties of good and evil that plagued the world at the time of his writing.
Bondi Junction, December 2016
Many people believe that everything must have a cause. I argue elsewhere that the notion of cause is highly problematic, and either ambiguous or meaningless in most of its uses within philosophy. But let’s leave that aside, assume we know what a cause is, and consider where it leads.
If everything has a cause then all our actions have a cause. Say I lift my arm to hail a taxi. We might imagine a chain of causes, working backwards from the physical action of my arm, to nerve impulses, to brain commands, to brain processing (deciding do I really want a taxi? Do I want that taxi?), to sensory stimuli (seeing the taxi).
Hailing a taxi can happen with our brain entirely on auto-pilot. What about a more deliberate and conscious decision, one with grave moral repercussions? Consider the anti-hero Meursault in Camus’s novel L’Etranger. He shoots a man dead for no very good reason. Is there a similar train of causes leading to this action as there was to hailing the taxi?
What, if anything, was the cause of Meursault’s brain reaching the decision to pull the trigger? We might suppose it was because he was mean or vicious, or perhaps he had a suppressed love of violence. Why did he have those characteristics? Was it his genes, or perhaps a product of his early environment? Perhaps it was a history of past cruel and callous acts he has done that has lowered his inhibitions to pulling the trigger. But then what caused those acts?
We can go back and back and back. If we can trace the causes back to events that occurred before Meursault was conceived, then free will cannot have played any role in his decision. What are the alternatives? I think the following list is exhaustive:
- The chain of causes ends with an event in Meursault’s brain (or ‘mind’, if we prefer) that was uncaused. It just happened without a cause. Perhaps that is what libertarians mean by free will.
- The chain of causes ends with an event outside Meursault’s brain/mind, while he was alive, that was uncaused.
- The chain of causes ends in a causal loop of events that occur while Meursault was alive.
- The chain of causes does not end. It undergoes an infinite regress. As we have assumed there are no causes prior to Meursault’s conception, this regress must occur within the finite time of Meursault’s life.
Of these options, 1 and 2 require denial that every event has a cause. 3 requires acceptance of causal loops and 4 requires acceptance of an infinite regress.
The usual notion of causality requires that a cause happens at a time earlier than its effect, which rules out causal loops (option 3) and requires that there is some time t0 to which the times of the causes in option 4 asymptotically approach (but never reach) as we trace backwards through the infinite causal regress. Further, t0 must be no earlier than the moment of Meursault’s conception. But then we can combine all the events in the causal chain occurring between t0 and t0+1 nanosecond and call that a single event. That event is not caused by any prior event, and hence is uncaused.
So this analysis presents us with a stark choice: either the action was caused by events before Meursault’s conception, and we must deny libertarian free will, or the action can be traced back to an uncaused event, in which case we must deny that every event has a cause.
What makes this interesting is that many Christian apologists try to assert both the existence of libertarian free will (as part of doctrines about original sin and salvation) and the necessity of every event being caused (as part of a classical cosmological argument for the existence of God). Based on the above analysis, it appears impossible to hold both beliefs. Either one must ditch universal causality (the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’ as it is sometimes called) or one must discard libertarian free will.
My current position is that I suspect neither belief is true. I can’t prove that, but I don’t need to – it is a perfectly plausible hypothesis. Equally, it seems plausible to believe one of the two but not the other. The problem arises when you wish to believe both.
There is nothing new in any of these arguments. They have all been made before, many times. But it strikes me as particularly stark and concise that belief in libertarian free will requires asserting a break in the chain of causality, whereas many of those that wish to hold that belief also assert in another context that everything must have a cause.