A Pawn in the Game Called Life
Some people have thought that it is never possible for us to do anything different from what we actually do, in this absolute sense. […] The claim is that, in each case, the circumstances that exist before we act determine our actions and make them inevitable. The sum total of a person’s experiences, desires and knowledge, his hereditary constitution, the social circumstances and the nature of the choice facing him, together with other factors that we may not know about, all combine to make a particular action in the circumstances inevitable.
A question that puzzles me in the discussion on free will versus determinism is: what would these arguments have looked like in light of the Nuremberg trials? What would it look like if Thomas Nagel had said to the whole world—as he implicitly does in the introductory quote, from What Does It All Mean? (1987)—that Göring and company had no choice, whatsoever, when they committed the horrible atrocities from the Second World War? The answer is quite clear: the world would not have accepted it. And this I find very interesting. During the Nuremberg trials the whole world suddenly came to the consensus that some actions were ultimately morally wrong, and that one was ultimately responsible for one’s actions. Moreover, the Nuremberg trials is an example where the theoretical discussion about free will versus determinism no longer can be reserved for the theorists; it is an actual instance of the extreme. In the facing the extremes, one can tell if a philosophical argument is plausible or not, and this essay will explore the plausibility of certain aspects of the free will versus determinism discussion.
The Nagel quote raises the fairly interesting view that all our actions, that we experience as free, are due to thousands of different factors that we are unaware of, and the result is always inevitable. The factors he emphasizes in the citation are heredity, social circumstances, knowledge, experience and the nature of the choice. The people who Nagel describes are classical hard-core determinists, who think free will is an illusion. These people are starting to get quite a lot of recognition within certain circles, and there is an increasing number of philosophers and scientists who believe that the universe is predetermined.
When it comes to the importance of heredity, there is a lot of modern research that makes the strong case of determinism, i.e. the increased understanding of how much our genes affect our lives, or how our sensory apparatus is heavily influenced by evolution. On the social side, Foucault demonstrated in his books how much of our understanding on different matters, e.g. sexuality, is a result of the particular society in the particular century we happen to live in, and therefore also predetermined. In ancient Greece Socrates thought that humans were neither good nor evil, only stupid or wise. In other words, evil actions are a result of a lack of knowledge. This is sort of a deterministic idea, insofar that the amount of knowledge determines your actions. When it comes to experience, modern psychologists and philosophers such as Dennet have shown how inaccurate our experience of the “real” world is, and how our inner narrative shape our opinions and actions. Again, determinism. One factor I think Nagel should have emphasized as well is the importance of language. Derrida and Wittgenstein showed how language is context-based and often biased, so our apparently clear speech is as a matter of fact a consequence of many thousands of layers we are unaware of. Thus, on a holistic level, one can argue that the determinists have a strong case.
The contrast to determinism however, is the deeply rooted idea of free will. This idea is originates with humankind itself: in Eden, Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony with each other, the animals and God, unaware of good and evil. But, they had the choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and upon being tempted by the Serpent, they did. If one interprets Genesis symbolically, the story of Adam and Eve is a brilliant metaphor for the interconnection between self-consciousness and free will. Before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge they were not aware of themselves, just like the animals, and therefore without free will and without responsibility. They were not responsible for their actions, since they were not aware of good and evil. Animals do not know what is right and wrong, they just act according to instincts, and so did we. But, when humans became self-conscious thousands of years ago, we suddenly started to differentiate between right and wrong, and free will emerged. And with the fee will, a seemingly unlimited capacity for malevolence. A visit to any torture-museum will prove how creative humans are when it comes to hurting their own species. No animal would ever do that. One might say, therefore, that malevolence makes a sort of argument for free will.
Another argument for free will is the strong and universal idea of responsibility. This is the idea that your actions matter, and that you should deal with the consequences. Eichmann is a fascinating case, in the sense that he would not accept any personal responsibly for the crimes he had committed as he served as logistic manager of the German death trains, despite being faced with an overwhelming amount of evidence. He insisted that he only had done his job, and therefore he was not morally responsible. The rest of the world, however, did not accept his excuse and he was found guilty. It is easy to be a determinist if you can freely theorise about it, but what would a hard-core determinist say to Eichmann? With an understanding like that, all of Eichmann’s actions were a consequence of the dawn of the universe itself. Nothing could have been changed, and Eichmann is just another piece in an incomprehensible, random game. I am convinced that most determinists, if pushed, would be very reluctant to say Eichmann is without personal guilt. So why is this? Why does the strong version of determinism feel so deeply unsatisfactory and wrong when faced with the extremes? I cannot quite put my finger on it, but I strongly believe there is something wrong with the argument in the first place.
I think the representation of the free will versus determinism is often too black or white. It is easy to swallow the whole determinism-package since it gives theoretical explanations for everything, removing a lot of philosophical conundrums. The problem, however, is the practical part, since when one is faced with the extremes, the theory falls short. Furthermore, one might ask oneself if there is any point in doing anything since everything is predetermined. The other package one can swallow is the idea of complete free will, like Sartre did, but again, this theory has a lot of shortcomings as well. One shortcoming is that your free will is limited by the society around you and a lot of science shows that our choices are caused by factors we are not aware of. So what is the happy middle way? I think the answer is a mix of Schopenhauer and chess.
Schopenhauer has an interesting approach to determinism. He thinks that all choices we are making right now are determined by one’s essence. One’s essence is the total sum of your “experiences, desires and knowledge, hereditary constitution, the social circumstances” and so on. One’s essence is a complex composition of all the factors that one is a part of. So, every action stems from your essence. “How does this view differ from a deterministic view?” one might ask. Well, Schopenhauer believed that one can change one’s essence slowly over time. Your essence is not static, nor only controlled by your surroundings, but you have the freedom to choose which direction your essence is heading towards. One can slowly build the essence one desires over time, and that essence will determine all your future actions. In many ways, Aristotle had the same idea when he talked about the dispositions of virtues. Aristotle argued that in order to be virtuous, one has to practice by doing small virtuous deeds. Or in Schopenhauer’s words: one has to change one’s essence. It is the exact same philosophy one can find in the Bible when Jesus says: “The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).
One funny but good example of Schopenhauer’s theory is to look at literature and movies. What defines a good protagonist? You can partially predict his behaviour. An author who manages to create a complex character whose essence defines his actions is a good author. For instance, all choices Harry Potter makes throughout the books are defined by his essence. It would have been unrealistic if he suddenly betrayed his friends and joined Voldemort. The same applies to other characters such as James Bond, Katniss Everdeen or Raskolnikov.
One can think about life as a game of chess where each person is a chess piece. The chessboard is a symbol of all the thousands of factors that affect our choices, such as our genes, gender, place of birth, parents, level of serotonin, illness, etcetera. These are factors that are present and they matter a lot. One can try to ignore them, but not avoid them. The other pieces are a symbol of the society around you. There are factors such as nationality, language, access to knowledge, freedom, etcetera. These things also regulate your possibilities, and it is ignorant to ignore them. The last thing is you, a chess piece. One can think of Schopenhauer’s essence as a specific chess piece. For instance, all of a pawn’s actions are defined by the fact that it is a pawn. It is bound to do things according to his essence, which in the case of the pawn is only to move forward. But, as all chess players know, the pawn can become a queen if it crosses the board. This is a symbol for that one can change one’s essence, to behave differently. One is not determined, but rather regulated. In a chess game one is regulated by different rules and factors, but one has a lot of choices within the game. A game is never predetermined from the beginning and all matches are different.
My point is this: Yes, there are some factors that shape our choices and behaviour, but one still has the freedom to change who one is and to act differently. The goal is to become aware of all these hidden factors, and change those that one can change. You have free will, in a sort of determined world. You are a pawn in the game called life.