Cause or Will?


Philosophy is sometimes said to begin with “self-evident” propositions. Here is one such proposition:

  1. Every event has its cause.

When something happens, we legitimately think that it does not just come out of the blue. We recognize that causation can be complex and multivariate. In practical terms the causes of many events, especially at the human or societal level, will never be ascertained fully. Yet it just makes sense that everything that happens has its cause. I want to believe and I do believe in the principle of causation.

But what does causation mean, except that the present and the future are completely determined by the past? Space, motion, forces, particles all unroll from time past to time future according to the rule – no, the rules of causation. Physics undergirds and explains everything.

Beyond material reality, believers in spiritual reality can still regard the principle of causation as inviolate. An example from the movies: The Jedi knights attributed supernatural powers, good and evil, to the Force, because the Force was viewed as an effective cause. In classical modern philosophy, Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, a self-expressed believer in God, emphasized the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which asserts that every thing must have a sufficient reason for being as it is, and not otherwise. Every event must have a sufficient reason for happening as it does, and not otherwise.

Therefore, many people, whether their belief system is materialist or spiritual, will affirm that every event is caused and thus that every event is determined by causes from the past or from a timeless perspective, usually God’s perspective, which includes past, present, and future. The principle of causation, they say, is self-evident, and it means that the future is determined.

I believe in causation, but I don’t want to believe in determinism.

Unless you have achieved a nirvana of stoic acceptance, I would guess that you share an unease with determinism. My desire is to think and act freely, and determinism implies a lack of choice and control, as everything is either already determined or driven by fate. Hence–

  1. I want to believe that the ideas I bring up and the habits of responsive action that I form can produce effects in the world.

This is a simple statement. It puts into positive terms the idea that I am not driven by fate. If some person appears to lack this core belief, we begin to wonder if that person is psychotic (or more charitably, close to nirvana).

Let’s call (2.) a proposition of free will. Is this too bold, assuming as it does that we have some coherent idea of free will? Perhaps (2.) should be viewed as a proposition that recognizes something connected with first person voice as an effective cause. Even so, it is at least the start of a program to build (or re-build) a notion of free will.

Let me take (2.) a little further. It means that I view myself as an effective agent, not as a spectator of events occurring in my brain as a result of physical or theological determination.

If this distinction is made, then does (2.) imply that determinism is wrong? That some event – an event specifically occurring within my self – is uncaused in the physical sense of causation and also uncaused in the sense of external spiritual force?

Yes, I think so. If my thoughts and actions are to be purposeful – a word closely bound to the first person voice – then my thoughts and actions must be less than totally caused by factors external to my self.

Hence (1.) and (2.) are in conflict. We can’t have it both ways. If I am an effective agent and if my actions are not totally determined by physical or spiritual forces acting upon me, then at least some small part of my decision-making must be uncaused.

Yet to say that anything can happen uncaused seems also to signal a lack of control – a world in which “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”[1]

Let’s call this the Free Will Problem.

Five answers have been given in the attempt to retain the human sense of choice, control, and purpose, while simultaneously insisting that no event happens uncaused. Hopefully the Free Will Problem might be clarified by reviewing these answers. We shall look briefly at the first two in the rest of this blog.

The first answer is simply to call it a paradox. But a paradox is just the statement of a problem, in other words, a question and a not an answer. Categorizing the Free Will Problem as a paradox, an insoluble question, does not gain much ground.

The second answer, which recognizes different “levels in the hierarchy of matter,” is the one most commonly proposed by materialists and natural realists. Varying levels of complexity and organization give rise to different kinds of phenomena. At each level, there are different rules of science to apply. Infinite computing power might allow one to trace all events in the universe down to the level of particle physics, but the fact must be recognized that infinite computing power does not exist.

Thus the science of chemistry is separate from that of physics. Likewise, the science of biology is separate from either of these. Psychology and sociology, among other fields, have their levels and paradigms. Paul Nunez, of whom I shall write more later, identifies these fields of knowledge – physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology/sociology – as major levels in the hierarchy of matter. He asked the question of whether it would ever be possible to “cross even one major level in the hierarchy of matter using ‘bottom-up’ brute force computer calculations.” He suggests that even an “ultimate computer composed of all the matter and energy in the universe” operating since the time of the Big Bang could not accomplish the feat.[2]

When dealing with higher orders of phenomena, the rules of causation are no longer exact, but consist of estimates of probability. We tend to say that these are not exact sciences, but they are sciences nonetheless. Probability can be ascertained scientifically, but it does not fully determine a particular outcome. A wobble factor comes into play when the psychological response of an individual person, for example, is to be predicted.

In this context, let’s pose the Free Will Problem again: How can we explain the (almost) universal affirmative response that people give to the question, “Do you feel that you have some degree of freedom to choose your path in life?”? How can people answer yes to that question, when in principle everything is determined by particle interactions? The way to wriggle out of the dilemma is to cite the practical incalculability of our human fate. Thank God for the wobble factor – I am free. This is only speaking metaphorically, of course, for some scientists and materialists.

At this point let’s try to identify a pragmatic pair.Pragmatic pears for text 3

A.  I shall act as if I have free will, but in principle I recognize that everything that happens is related to particle physics.

B.  I shall act as if I have free will, and in some way I do have free will, because not everything that happens is related to particle physics.

A. and B. certainly have the appearance of a pragmatic pair. The clauses following the conjunctions “but” and “and”, which I shall term the second clauses of A. and B., are neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Those clauses actually qualify as metaphysical statements. Importantly the second clause in A. is metaphysical despite the allegiance given to it by materialists who want to put metaphysics in the dustbin of philosophic history.

If pragmatism bears the connotation that truth belongs only to that which gives tangible, verifiable results, then A. and B. indeed form a pragmatic pair. However, if pragmatism is understood in the sense that Charles Peirce conceived it, that the whole of my belief about something forms around the habit of responsive action it invokes in me, then we have to consider the question further.

The issue becomes whether the deepest and most reliable beliefs that I have are also the most motivative beliefs that I have. The second clauses of A. and B. describe the deepest and most reliable beliefs that I possibly might have. Of course, the second clauses of A. and B. are logically in conflict. The question before us now is whether that conflict makes any practical difference.

In the case of A., scientific method must be applied at every “hierarchy of matter” – physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth – in order to produce reliable beliefs. This operational stance goes along with other assumptions of natural realism.

What about the second clause of B.? If somehow “my will” describes the deepest and most reliable part of my beliefs, then the motivation inherent in the first clause corresponds to the belief system of the second. This has the virtue of consistency, but does it make a difference for my habits of responsive action? I think that the answer is yes. Motivation is stronger and likely will be directed toward different goals when it connects with an ideal of inner truth, and this kind of truth is what the second clause intimates. I recognize that not everyone may agree on this point.

My will, metaphysically speaking (that is, as described in the second clause of B.), does not necessarily arrive with all the trappings of theistic belief, afterlife, heaven and hell, and other religious accompaniments. Arthur Schopenhauer, whom we shall visit in some depth at a later time, argued firmly on this point. “Will” might be described minimally as a kind of restlessness in the physical world in which I participate, that produces in me dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and a drive to produce something new or different. Alternatively, “will” might be conceived as a dance of restlessness and rest, or of chaos and order.

But this is getting too deep! In any case, my vote says No! to the notion that free will as a shallow phenomenon rippling the surface of physical reality equates, even pragmatically, to free will as a fundamental condition of my life.


Next post: Chaos, Chance, and Will

Previous post: Realism Versus Idealism

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Photo: David Ortiz makes solid contact in the historic 2003 American League Championship Series. Effort and will are huge in sports endeavors. (c) Wickedgood |

[1] From The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats, 1919.

[2] Nunez, P.L. Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 168.


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