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What is the Objectivist View of Free Will?

What is the Objectivist View of Free Will?

6 Mins
June 29, 2010

Question: What Is the Objectivist view of free will?

Answer: Objectivism holds that man has free will. In every moment, many courses of action are open to us; whichever action we take, we could equally well have chosen to do something else. Within the sphere of actions that are open to choice, what we do is up to us and is not just the inescapable outcome of causes outside our control. And this capacity for free choice is the foundation of morality. Because we are free to choose, we need moral standards to guide our actions and we can be held morally responsible for what we do.Today, people who want to fly from responsibility are greatly aided by a view of man that attributes our actions to factors beyond our control. For example, a recent New York Times Magazine article absolved obese individuals from moral blame by accusing abundant and cheap food of causing people to overeat. But to take such a position seriously, one has to deny free will and accept its contrary, determinism. Determinism is the view that ultimately we don't control our actions, that the causes operating in us and on us compel us to act in one and only one way. You say you choose what to eat? For a determinist, you can't help yourself.

Determinism dominates social science, and it is popular with natural scientists and philosophers as well. Though the particular doctrines that embody it come and go, the basic outlook remains the same. In psychology, for example, we have seen a parade from Freudianism through behaviorism to computationalism and evolutionary psychology. Freud sought to explain human action on the basis of subconscious dispositions or urges. The conscious mind merely rationalizes what subconscious urges impel us to do. Behaviorism sought to explain human action on the basis of external stimuli and physical responses. Computationalism regards the mind as a computer, running an algorithmic program, no more choosing than does a random-number program on a PC. Evolutionary psychology holds that our genes dictate our patterns of thought and behavior. In none of these theories does any person choose anything by his own will.

Deterministic explanation dominates the social sciences because it dominates the natural sciences. The physical mechanics of Newton and Einstein, for example, provides us with laws that let us predict the motion of a galaxy, or of a ray of light, or of a ball. In biology, the discovery of DNA showed how, other things equal, an organism must develop into the forms it does. The laws of chemistry admit of no alternative events. Even the laws of sub-atomic physics, which reflect the apparently random behavior of the smallest entities yet known, do not propose choosing, purposeful agents as causes. This is powerful science, and it exerts a powerful influence as a model.

Many determinists see themselves as hard-minded advocates of the scientific worldview. But actually there is nothing scientific about rejecting free will. Science is, first and foremost, a set of objective explanations of observable facts. Science explains observable facts; it does not explain them away. And free will is, indubitably, an observable fact.

We observe it through introspection, the inward perception of our own conscious processes. As Ayn Rand explained, our free will resides, most basically, in our ability to direct our conscious attention. Rand called this ability "focus" and called the choice to focus "the choice to think." All of us can observe our ability to focus in operation.

Consider your visual awareness of these words: You can examine the page or screen more closely, focusing your perceptual attention on the typeface or the spelling of a particular word. Or you can reduce your visual attention, gazing blankly as your mind wanders elsewhere. You choose which to do. You control your level of focus.

We can observe our choices to focus against the background of automatic mental functions. We don't choose whether to see the price of a new car, but we do choose whether to focus on the relation of that price to our budget. We don't choose to have emotional impulses, we choose whether to let them dominate our decision-making. We can raise or lower our focus on conceptual tasks, and broaden or narrow our range of awareness. One may focus on a narrow set of problem-solving techniques to pass a test. One may zero in on a ball to hit or catch it. Or one may imagine or "brainstorm," creatively extending one's imagination and seeing what the subconscious can generate.

Our ability to focus allows us to choose to some degree which antecedent factors have the most weight in our decision-making. Suppose someone rudely insults you. How will you react? If you were brought up to defend your honor, that could be a factor in your decision. If you see the need to avoid confrontation, that could be a factor. If you are surrounded by friends, that could be a factor. Which factors do you focus on? Which guide your response? Are you violent or peaceful, cutting or conciliatory? That depends, ultimately, on you.

Thinking is not a choice we have to make, however. In fact, many people avoid thinking by failing to focus on facts and on consequences. We can evade the truth, evade our needs, evade moral responsibility.

Free will is not only an observable fact, it is also inescapable. Whenever we use our minds, we are presupposing that we have the capacity to control our minds—to think about one thing rather than another, to go by the evidence and not be swayed by bias, to seek information when we need it, to examine our beliefs and weigh them against the facts. So it is self-refuting to argue against free will. After all, if free will is false, how can anyone choose to change his mind on an issue? Anyone convinced of determinism presupposes he has accepted his conclusion because it was true, not because he happened to be caused to accept it. Anyone trying to convince you of determinism presupposes you can focus your mind on his cogent logic and the facts in his favor.

But what about causality?

Free will exists. Like all things, it cannot be causeless or literally magical. Yet how could it be subject to causality and remain free? This can seem like a big problem if one accepts the determinist model of causality as a relationship among events. Consider the action on a pool table. The blow of a cue stick on a billiard ball (event 1) causes the motion of the ball (event 2), which causes the ball to reach the pocket (event 3), where it falls into the netting (event 4). In this model, given the properties of the objects to be acted upon and a set of initial actions, the changes in the system that follow are a matter of actions and reactions, or in other words, a chain of events. To trace causes is to trace the chain. An event that cannot be traced back to preceding events is, in this view, an event without a cause.

And there's the rub for free will. After all, if a human being really acts by his own will, deciding his own course of action, then preceding events do not fully explain the course chosen. On this model, free will seems anomalous, sui generis, bizarre, unscientific. Hence determinism.

Event causation is a useful model for analyzing some kinds of actions, but it is not a satisfactory philosophical account. What is causality, after all? It is the way in which entities act. There are no events without entities, the underlying objects that do the acting. There is no explosion without the bomb that explodes. There is no breathing without the body that breathes and the air that is breathed. A causal explanation is an explanation of action in terms of the entity's capacities for action, arising from its properties and relations. Free will is simply a human capacity for action, one that we will understand better in time. A choice is not uncaused. It is caused by the person who chooses.

Ignoring free will has proven to be bad science. No scientist today would own endorse Freud's or Marx's literal theories, for example, and in this respect currently trendy determinisms like evolutionary psychology will have their day of shame as well. This is not to say that antecedent factors cannot influence our choices. People may be affected to varying degrees by subconscious urges, as Freud argues. Class does affect the way many people treat others, though not as rigidly as Marx would have it. Even social science firmly premised on free will would need to continue identifying such factors. But good science cannot avoid addressing the fact that antecedent factors are only part of the story in explaining human action. Indeed, by identifying such factors, we better enable ourselves to take account of them in making choices.

Determinist philosophers have also become wary of suffering embarrassment for denying the obvious. To avoid this, some have attempted to offer a third alternative to free will and determinism. This is "compatibilism," which holds that an action should be called "free" if it has mental causes, even if all mental factors have antecedent causes. Mental freedom is thus "compatible" with the event-causation model and deterministic science. Compatibilists don't deny that humans make choices. They just deny that our choices could turn out differently than they do.

But the basic issue remains inescapable. If our actions are not up to us, then we have no moral responsibility for them. Compatibilism wants to shelter in a house whose foundations it has knocked aside. There can be no effective guidance of human action, nor a satisfactory scientific account of human behavior, without taking into account the inescapable fact of free will.

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