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Reinstating the Possibility of Free Will

Note: to watch a video of me reading this essay, click here

INTRODUCTION: the stakes

I have been a fan of Alex O’Connor aka CosmicSkeptic for a little while now, and he released a video a couple years ago that successfully convinced me that free will does not exist. I never believed him, even though I was intellectually convinced, because free will is pretty much fundamental to the morality of any Catholic. I readily admit my bias in favor of Catholic teaching, because it’s a bias I intentionally put on myself - I am obedient towards the teachings of the Church. But even apart from this bias, the concept of determinism deeply unsettles me - it fundamentally unsettles me. My whole conception of the world is based upon choice. It’s the only way I escape nihilism - if we have no choice, then my consciousness is imprisoned in the absurd movie theatre of my senses. I’m sure I could get used to believing the concept of determinism if I fully allowed myself to believe it. But I choose not to. If free will doesn’t exist, then life is meaningless, and I’d rather believe something logically impossible and have meaning than believe in the logical truth and render life meaningless and the truth worthless.


But, the more I thought about Alex’s theory, the more I realized that it is not as bulletproof as it seems. This video will not irrefutably disprove the deterministic theory, but it will reinstate the logical possibility of freedom. And possibility is all I need to believe in something that the Church teaches. In fact, possibility is all I often have, because the Church teaches things that are supernatural, things cannot be proven or disproven by natural criterion. We should reason as much as we can, but we cannot, and should not, try to replace blind, obedient faith with argument or logic. I’ll talk more about this in a bit, but first, let me outline, with Alex’s help, the logic of the deterministic argument.


The first part of this argument is that we cannot choose our desires. I think we can all agree on this.

The second part of the argument is twofold. Firstly, it is inevitable that we act upon the desire that is strongest. Secondly, we cannot choose which desire is the strongest. Here, I have my first objection.

I admit that we sometimes are compelled into action by a strong desire. This is why freedom is not absolute. Mental conditions, personality disorders, addictions, and even things like brain tumors can cause us to be partially unfree and therefore, to the same extent, also be partially exempt from moral responsibility. And, it is possible that we become slaves to our desires, unable to resist them. But this does not mean that under normal circumstances, the only way for us to act is to be compelled by our one desire that is stronger than all the others. This is incoherent, logically, for several reasons.

OBJECTION 1: the futility of quantifying strength of desire, even in comparison with other desires.

My first objection would be, what makes you assume that the desire you choose is uniquely stronger than the others? Desire can only be measured subjectively, and in some cases, desires can have radically different types of strength - such as two desires which originate from completely separate parts of the brain. Any comparison of strength between these kinds of contrasting desires would be meaningless.

Take, for example, the desire to be obedient to God. I choose this as an example because it’s the loftiest, most long-term desire I can think of. God’s existence is unprovable and he cannot be seen except through what he has created (if he did in fact create it). Furthermore, his laws are incredibly abstract - to even conceptualize the idea of loving someone requires immensely complex brain function, especially when you are loving out of obedience and not out of instinct. Now take that abstract desire to be obedient to God, and compare it with an immediate impulsive desire, like arousal or hunger, which originates from the oldest and most fundamental part of the brain. In a scenario where these desires are in conflict, how could you say that one of them is stronger than the other? That would be like saying a powerlifter’s physical ability is greater than a chess champion’s mental ability. The two are incomparable. Quantifying the strength of a desire is futile.

OBJECTION 2: the unfounded assertion that we have to act upon the stronger desire.

My second objection would be, what makes you assume that we must act upon our strongest desire? I often have two incredibly strong conflicting desires which neither of them can compel me to act. This temporarily makes me paralyzed by indecision. Taking into consideration this paralyzing effect the two desires have on me, we must conclude either that the two desires are perfectly equal in magnitude or that our desires do not automatically compel us to act. And yet when this happens, I do not remain paralyzed forever. I eventually make up my mind and choose one. Not because one is stronger than the other, but simply because I choose one.

Now let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that I am unable to use my power of choice and I am still paralyzed between these two equally strong desires. I have two options. The first is that I consciously strengthen one of the desires until it overpowers the other. This would be a kind of free will, so let’s consider the second possibility. I can passively wait until one of the desires overpowers the other. This is plausible, and if I were to refuse to use my free will, then it is what would happen. But Alex is assuming that passively waiting is the only option we have. The only possible reason? But there is another possible reason! That free will exists! That we choose to get out of bed.

I have had temptations which I can successfully resist to the point where they diminish, and then, suddenly, in their weakened state, I give in. How is this possible? One option is that I chose to give in, in which case I have free will in the Catholic sense, defined by Thomas Aquinas - liberum arbitrium - free judgement of my available options. The other option is that I had an opposing desire that was enabling me to resist until, at the point of giving in, it suddenly vanished. If this was so, what was causing that desire to stay strong for as long as it did, and what caused it to suddenly drop away? At the time of giving in, my thought process was this: “ah well, my opposing desire doesn’t really matter. Let me forget about it. I’m just going to do this thing anyway.” This suggests that I was directly responsible for holding that opposing desire in tension, and also that I was directly responsible for abandoning it at the point of giving in. I was the cause of my giving in. Nothing else.

If what I have said is true, it disproves one element of the deterministic theory: that we automatically act upon our strongest desire. We don’t always have a strongest desire, and even when we do, we do not automatically act upon it. There is something else at play here, some third element apart from the two opposing desires, which makes the decision. We have some sort of mental ability that can actually resist an overwhelming desire, yet which also can also compel us to give in to an underwhelming desire. But, there is a problem.


Even if it may seem so, this video, so far, does not yet completely reinstate the possibility of free will, and here is why: yes, our mental ability does decide, what action we take. But that mental ability can easily be explained as mere thought, and our thoughts are not our own: they originate from causes outside of our control. Here is a thought experiment. Think of a color. Any color. Now I ask you, what made you think of that color? Perhaps it is your favorite colour. Perhaps you saw it on your wall. Perhaps you are wearing that color. But all these reasons that caused you to think blue are outside your control. In that moment when you chose, you had no control over what color your wall was, and therefore, you had no control over what colour you thought of. But what if you don’t know what caused you to think blue? What if it just popped into your head? Well, even if it did just pop into your head, you can’t really take credit for that, can you? As Sam Harris puts it, we cannot choose our thoughts before we think them. That would require that we think them before we think them. If you decide to move your hand, what caused you to think of moving your hand? The thing that caused you to think of moving your hand cannot be observed. From what we can observe, our thoughts just randomly pop into existence. This is because we can only observe the natural world, and in the natural world, there can be nothing but cause and effect or randomness. It is for this reason that determinism is logically coherent. I cannot deny that scientifically, if we consider all the observable elements of my psyche, nowhere in that collection of elements will we see something that resembles free choice, or creativity, or thoughts that we can take any credit for. We could leave it at that, and rid ourselves of belief in free will.

But why, then, do we feel as though we have free will? Why are the laws of essentially every society throughout history based upon the existence of free will? Why is the mythological hero always a free agent? We humans could very well be fantasizing about something we do not have. Or, there could exist a thing in our mind that cannot be observed. There could exist a thing that chooses, but whose every choice is a supernatural intervention which breaks nature’s law of cause and effect. There could be a thing that is us - that is our self - yet that we are not aware of and that does not exist in the natural world. Our thoughts, I’m sorry to say, are not supernatural. They exist as a part of this world and are determined by pre-existing factors in the world. So, if a collection of thoughts is all we are, then free will is dead. But what if thought is not all there is? Picture this.


Imagine that your mind is a courtroom. Thoughts, desires, and emotions are constantly entering and exiting the courtroom. Some come and go immediately, some stay, start screaming, and then exit, and some hold their seat in the courtroom for ages, whispering incessantly. Some of the thoughts are representations of desires, some take the form of other people in the world, and some are just random, nonsensical ideas. In the courtroom, there is a judge. This judge is not a thought or a desire or an emotion. She does not come from the outside world, and if she was to leave the courtroom, she would cease to be a judge. Why? Simply because her judicial nature is intrinsic to the courtroom: without her, it would not be a courtroom, and without the courtroom, she would have nothing to judge, and therefore would no longer be a judge. The judge has a certain influence over the thoughts, desires, and emotions that come and go, but she does not control them directly. She can speak to the thoughts and tell them to do things such as come, go, stay, speak louder, be quiet, etc., but they do not always obey. Some days, the judge’s influence over the stream of traffic is extraordinarily powerful: they seem to obey without hesitation. Other days, however, the thoughts, desires, and emotions seem to completely disregard her. Nevertheless, her influence on the traffic is real, and produces tangible changes in the behavior of the crowd, which in turn ultimately influences the outside world.

In this parable, the judge, of course, represents the soul. I think that the most important part of this parable is that the judge does not exist in the material world and cannot exist in the material world - if she exits her courtroom, she ceases to have any ability to influence nature, and if she can’t influence nature, for our purposes, she does not exist in nature. Similarly, the soul is not a thought in the brain. It is an entity that originates outside of the brain and outside of nature. But if the soul exists, why are we not aware of it? Well, even if the soul definitively exists, it would not be possible for us to be aware of it. We are only aware of natural things, and in our mind, the only natural things are our thoughts, desires, and emotions. The soul is supernatural: it doesn’t exist in this world. So, it follows we can only be aware of the soul indirectly, via its influence on our thoughts or emotions. If you think about the mind in this sense, we are actually not fully self-aware. And, if there is a part of us that is truly us, that is truly free, that is not simply the result of natural cause and effect, then it is the soul; and, if the soul does not exist, then neither we as individuals, nor freedom, can exist.


Now, I won’t go so far as to say that consciousness belongs to the soul. I don’t know what consciousness is and what relationship it has with the soul. All I know is that the soul, by definition, is supernatural, and we cannot, I repeat, we cannot naturally prove its existence. We have to blindly believe. Similarly, God is supernatural, he exists outside of nature, and the existence of something supernatural, by definition, cannot be proven to exist in nature, because its very entrance into the realm of nature would violate nature’s laws, rendering the very criterion by which we prove its existence to be unreliable. This is why I don’t like it when theists try to logically prove God’s existence. Via skepticism, there will always be a way to refute proof of the supernatural. I name this video “reinstating the possibility of free will and the soul” because that’s all the soul, that’s all that freedom, that’s all that God really is - a possibility that we must choose to blindly believe or blindly reject. If we base our faith on anything but this blind obedience, our faith will always be subject to the skepticism of the human heart.

But even so, look inside yourself, and I am sure you will find examples of when you resisted a desire so powerful that it felt almost overwhelming. If you say you were able to resist only because your desire to resist, for whatever reason, was stronger than the desire itself, then so be it. But I know I have had mountainous desires that vastly overshadow all others, and I have been able to resist them. Sometimes only for a short duration, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not at all. But throughout these trials it was not the strength of my desire to resist that waxed and waned but the strength of influence that my inner judge held over my thoughts. It was not the strength of my desire to resist that waxed and waned but the very strength of my living soul.


At this point, for myself at least, this video has reinstated the possibility of free will via the supernatural intervention of a part of our mind which is not conscious of itself. But before you choose to put your faith in either determinism or free will, I’d like to bring up the consequences of freedom so that you know what you’re getting into. Namely, that the existence of free will puts tremendous responsibility on each of us - a responsibility not only for our actions but a moral necessity to exercise and to nurture our freedom so that we, by virtue of our strengthened will, can actually become more free. When we give in to our strong desires, our freedom can become complacent. It is not always wrong to give in to desire - pleasure is not evil, and I cannot stress this enough - but if we always do, complacency will eventually degenerate into weakness, and a weakened free will will make us less free. Our inner judge will have less influence over the thoughts that enter and exit her courtroom.


How do we exercise our freedom? By doing that which we do not have a strong desire to do. It is for this reason that we find our greatest freedom in obedience. A state of obedience is perhaps one of the least enticing states we can put ourselves in. (I do not mean obedience is positively repulsive - although some of you might see it this way - in the same way that being tortured would be positively repulsive. I mean, literally, that it is negatively not enticing.) Nevertheless, precisely because obedience is not enticing, it is perhaps the state through which we become the most free. Now, you might object to this, saying that yes, we might train our willpower by obeying something, but in doing so, we actually become unfree by the fact we are obeying it and not doing what we want to. I would have to remind you that freedom is not an act but a state. Freedom is the ability to do what we choose to, not the act of doing what we want to.

May the deepest peace be with you.

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