In what sense can I say that I am free? It is natural to think that the words I speak, the actions I take, and even the thoughts I think are mine alone and I am responsible for them. Yet I also recognize that the ultimate source of my behavior is a succession of previous biological states regulated by external circumstances, options and constraints. The Principle of Sufficient Reason, advocated by the enlightenment philosopher and mathematician Leibniz, suggests that every event must have a cause. Similarly, the Principle of Causal Closure, discussed by the contemporary philosopher of mind Jaegwon Kim, implies that every cause is simultaneously an effect precipitated by an apparently infinite regression of previous causes. Taken together then, no event is uncaused and all causes are in turn caused. Hard determinism recognizes that human behavior is by implication bound to a special set of complex antecedent causes in the midst of a relentless system of chain reactions. If this is true then free will is only an illusion. Therefore my consciousness is only an epiphenomenal rider on the rollercoaster of life; locked to its intricate tracks by a conspiracy of forces I can no more control than my need for oxygen. The choices I make are composed of my personal beliefs and desires, but these have roots in biological functions and historical events which are entirely deterministic, even if epistemologically undecipherable.
Hard determinism as it applies to free will is counterintuitive, even though causal determinism is generally accepted and underlies virtually all scientific investigation. Physics, chemistry, biology and neuroscience can only explain so much. If anyone wants to understand the reason why I decided to take a break from writing my essay for twenty minutes to play my guitar, the hard sciences aren’t going to cut it. Although, a soft science like psychology could probably chalk up my behavior to some range of statistically weighted possibilities or analogous case studies. For example, I could have played my guitar because I was stressed out from work, and playing or listening to music is a relaxing distraction that I knew would help me focus better afterwards, thus anticipating a net gain in productivity. Or I could just be afflicted with the disorder of procrastination. If hard determinism is true then I could not be blamed even if I was just procrastinating because there would be causes for this that rests somewhere between my genetics, environment, upbringing, the last song I heard on the radio, temperature, the day of the week, ad infinitum. The implications for moral responsibility are staggering. It was the radio’s fault.
Just as non-existent backwards messages on Judas Priest albums don’t necessarily or sufficiently cause teenage suicide pacts, the radio does not cause me to procrastinate. There needs to be another way to explain my propensity to strum before I type, without abandoning determinism altogether. There must be some notion of how free will works that is compatible with the obviously causal nature of the universe. Where soft sciences tread, soft determinism follows. The reasons why I played my guitar are that I own and know how to play one. Since no one was in a position to stop me I chose to take a break to jam. Soft determinists argue that free will can be understood in the sense that no one constrained me and I decided what to do, which is not contrary to the causal requirements of determinism. Rather than the radio, I am responsible for slacking on my essay since my guitar playing was a voluntary action and given the circumstance I could have chosen otherwise. The moral implications fade away with soft determinism. This is a relief because I don’t mind being responsible for the time I wasted as long as I can also legitimately take pride in the catchy lick I wrote.
A problem remains. Being free from external coercion does not really explain my urge to create music. Robert Kane contends that compatibalism breaks down when it attempts to delve deeper into explanations like this due to the inherent conflict between determinism and my “ultimate responsibility” (Kane 2) for choosing between “alternative possibilities” (Kane 2). I was only in a position to play my guitar because of “self-forming actions” (Kane 3), like teaching myself to play guitar when I was thirteen. It cannot simply be said that I taught myself to play guitar because I could and no one stopped me. This unsatisfying answer leaves out the countless hours of practice it took before I could even strum a descent chord, let alone the monotonous repetition of riffs required to learn my favorite songs. Painful blisters were not enough to deter me. The opportunity costs for this amount of dedication are huge for a thirteen year old. I had to forego playing Nintendo and hanging out with friends, plus I saved all my allowances and paper route paychecks for months in order to buy more guitar gear. Further elucidation of my behavior must now invoke the fact that I wanted to be rock star when I was a kid, because I was obsessed with electric guitar. Maybe this was precipitated by my parents playing rock music around me when I was baby. Whatever it is there must be a reason.
Soft Determinism morphs into hard determinism once we start appealing to a litany of antecedent causes that ends with the big bang. However, to say that I was driven to learn guitar by a host of factors out of my control does not quite capture the essence of what I was doing either. I desired future outcomes that I then set out to fulfill. Through intentionality I shaped my reality by placing it firmly under my own control. The fact that there were circumstances that allowed me to be in that position does not sufficiently address my will to chart my own chosen destiny. Libertarianism is the recognition that true free will consists of states of mind which are undetermined. The implication is that free will is incompatible with determinism altogether. Nevertheless, I feel certain that true free will exists. When I am inspired to write a new song or compelled to just shred on my axe, my motivation originates with me and the self-forming action I chose decades ago. Inspiration requires more than a muse, metaphorical or otherwise. No matter how much I pick it apart in my mind, I keep coming back to one ultimate explanation. I play my guitar because I want to.
Jared Roy Endicott
Kane, Robert. “REFLECTIONS ON FREE WILL, DETERMINISM AND INDETERMINISM”. The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website. 2009. Web. 16 Aug. 2009. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/dfwVariousKane.html.