If you have been reading the posts presented here, you will have seen that the leading arguments against free will have been sympathetically presented, and answered one by one. You may recall that free will was argued to be so fundamental to any argument, discussion, or train of thought that it cannot be denied without in fact re-affirming it (see argument #4 and the answer). You, the reader, can introspect and find yourself choosing in all kinds of situations, and you can see yourself choosing one way at one time and another at other times (and you are aware also of the more fundamental choices – to focus or not, to think or not – that underlie your specific choices). You may regret or be proud of your choices. And you know, implicitly if not explicitly, that you have the choice to change your course of action if you regret past choices (and you know that if you are not careful you may make choices you regret in the future).
Would you be surprised, however, to find out that almost none of the intellectuals in our culture accepts the existence of free will? In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, entitled (surprise!) “There’s no such thing as free will,” the arguments are presented for their “skeptics” viewpoint. Well, actually, there really isn’t much in the way of argument, as will be seen – the position is breezily assumed to be true, and most of the article is about the implications of that “fact.”
The Atlantic article presents a variant of only one of the arguments answered earlier, namely argument #3, that free will violates the law of cause and effect (the Atlantic variant simply substitutes electrical impulses for the usual mechanical stimulus as the causal mechanism). The article focuses on the recent developments in neuroscience:
“In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has … dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.”
“It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; [The American physiologist Benjamin] Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.”
For the author of the article, this appears to be decisive: If a physiologist shows that electrical activity builds up in the brain “before” the person consciously makes a decision to move, then for the article’s author that justifies the following:
“The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.”
There are many fallacies involved in drawing these conclusions from this experiment, not the least of which is mischaracterizing the experiment and the findings. Libet’s findings are much more complex than stated. He identified several stages of a decision of subjects to move their wrists. Indeed, an electrical precursor (called the “readiness potential” or RP) accompanies such decisions. But there are several stages to the decision, and the most important one is that conscious awareness of the act takes place before the act (but after the first RP). Thus, the subject has the ability before the action of moving the wrist takes place to veto the movement, i.e. to simply not act. Thus whatever this readiness potential is (perhaps it is simply a physical concomitant of preparedness to assess options, or a felt urge to act), it is not “neurons firing causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds.” So what if electrical activation occurs in the brain a few hundred milliseconds before an action, if the action does happen to occur? As long as the subject has the ability to act or not act as he decides, then his action is free.
Indeed, Libet himself (and he is not alone among neuroscientists) is a proponent of free will, and does not think his experiments prove the invalidity of free will. His response to those who drew such conclusions is published, and those interested in the subject can read his entire published interpretation of his own experiment (see Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8–9, 1999, pp. 47–57). As he says:
“Potentially available to the conscious function is the possibility of stopping or vetoing the final progress of the volitional process, so that no actual muscle action ensues.”
“The existence of a veto possibility is not in doubt. The subjects in our experiments at times reported that a conscious wish or urge to act appeared but that they suppressed or vetoed that… A large RP preceded the veto, signifying that the subject was indeed preparing to act, even though the action was aborted by the subject.”
Despite the flimsiness of the “evidence,” as well as the consistency of the Libet experiments with free will and the researcher’s own explanation of that consistency, the Atlantic article uses its abbreviated description of the experiment to reject free will. The article goes on to cite experiments showing the consequence of that rejection. Researchers find that when free will is rejected, people are more inclined to act immorally, concluding they have no choice in the matter – so why not act on their urges? Researchers also find that when free will is rejected, people have more compassion for miscreants, since they believe those miscreants had no choice in their deeds. Finally, researchers find that without the idea of free will, people who achieve success are given less credit because it is believed they didn’t choose their actions – the actions were inevitable. None of this should surprise anyone, and why research needed to be performed on the matter is a serious question. A lot of research dollars were wasted to find out the obvious: If people don’t believe in free will, they won’t make the effort to focus their minds on the consequences (to them and others) of acting immorally. And further, people who reject free will won’t blame or praise others for an action those others supposedly had no choice in committing.
The article next ponders what to do about the “paradox” that free will is an illusion, yet we “need” free will to avoid the breakdown of civilization – to avoid crime and to encourage people to be moral. There’s no need to cover the circumlocutions involved in attempting to reconcile this contradiction. What matters is only that a prestigious intellectual magazine in the mainstream of our culture is advocating the broad generalization that no one can make choices, based on dubious evidence from a narrow discipline in one science.
A “narrow discipline in science” is the key. The question to ask is: Why would an interpreter of neuroscience experiments not pause and check his underlying premises when he came to the conclusion that free will doesn’t exist? Shouldn’t he see that such a conclusion contradicts the entire discipline of science? A narrow science cannot refute a fundamental like free will, precisely because that science itself rests on that fundamental. Truth doesn’t come automatically – man’s conceptual faculty is fallible (such is demonstrated a million times on any day by the nonsense spouted from every corner). To arrive not at nonsense but at knowledge, science develops methods to avoid errors and correct them when they are made. In this case, scientists are described as deliberately weighing experimental design, as choosing one such design over others because it is more objective, as conducting experiments, assessing results, and communicating to others who will assess, repeat and check their results. All of these steps rely on the fundamental choice scientists have to choose valid methods (and reject invalid ones), and therefore arrive at truth. Otherwise, why should anyone pay attention to what these scientists say or do?. The conclusion denying free will thus contradicts its own base, pulling the rug out from under the entire structure supposedly leading to the conclusion.
The experiment described above is not the only such case in the literature: Sam Harris’ book on free will, widely praised by professors, references three such experiments. They all, however, fall into the same category, and Harris’ interpretation of them as refuting free will suffers from the same fallacy of contradicting its own base (as do all his other arguments).
This fact should provide intellectual ammunition to defenders of free will when they are confronted by scientific experiments that purport to contradict it. One may not be able to understand all the details of some technical discipline, nor find what errors have been made in the generalizations drawn from it. But one does know, with certainty, that free will is the foundation of all knowledge, and no so-called “knowledge” can contradict it.
The fundamental choice is to focus or not, to think or not, as discussed in prior posts. However, that is not man’s only choice. To succeed in life requires innumerable choices, among them being values, goals (in career and leisure), friends, jobs, a city to live, a neighborhood within it and housing within that (to name just a few). Men make those choices every day, and those choices are only possible once the fundamental choice to think is made.
The number and complexity of choices to make would be impossible to cope with unless we had criteria and methods to organize them. Method is critical here. Consider a daily situation familiar to everyone: you have a list of things that need to be accomplished. What should you do now? The simplest method, outlined in most books on time management (e.g. Alan Lakein’s How to get control of your time and your life) is to ask yourself: “What’s the best use of my time, right now?” and then to prioritize the list of things that need to be accomplished accordingly, based on your values (Lakein recommends an A, B, C grading to prioritize). Other recommendations, from Lakein and others, are to break each task into a manageable set of sub-tasks, such that each sub-task is achievable in, say, an hour, or 15 minutes, or some short-enough time period so that one can see progress being made and not have the tasks seem overwhelming.
That one technique, as simple as it is, has helped people in all fields from all walks of life improve their ability to work, accomplish worthwhile goals, and enjoy life better because they have more time and less stress.
It is not hard to understand from this example how method trumps education, starting position, inheritance, etc. Here are two real-life examples (modified in some details to protect the privacy of the persons involved): A man in a high-tech company, who may not be as highly educated as his colleagues, but because he uses methods of organization and thinking not practiced by his tech-savvy co-workers, he always has his work done on time, and has extra time to learn the technical details he needs to in order to function effectively in that organization. Or: A woman in a large international firm, who studied accounting 35 years ago and then raised a family. Now, back in industry after all these years, some wondered why the manager hired her to be a technical assistant, choosing her over several younger candidates who were familiar with more recently popularized accounting techniques. What the manager saw, that others did not, was that she was very strong in the fundamental principles of accounting, very well organized, and could think in essential terms about any problem. These are three methods (operating on fundamental principle, organizing and prioritizing your work, and thinking in essentials) that trump all the skills and training of her competitors. These methods, adopted by these two individuals, helped them succeed in situations where others, with more starting advantages, would not.
Methods are hierarchical – they grow in abstraction from narrow to broad, as in
- Specific techniques, like the time-management technique mentioned above
- Tactics (a collection of integrated techniques, e.g. negotiation)
- Strategies (broad plan or direction, e.g. what business should my company focus on?)
- Scientific method (responsible for many of the general scientific laws discovered by the experimental method, such as laws of motion, fluid flow, electromagnetism)
- Epistemology, a branch of philosophy, is the science of knowledge. It studies such questions as the proper method of forming concepts and definitions, methods of (deductive and inductive) logic and reasoning in general. Scientific method, in fact, is a subcategory of epistemology (it is a method of inductive reasoning).
One can see that starting with simple, easily graspable techniques, a person in quest of improving his life could choose to expand his horizon to encompass broader and broader types of methods. How far he pursues them depends, of course, on his goals, his motivation, his development of prior enabling methods and his intelligence – but most fundamentally it depends on his choice.
The whole self-help industry is predicated on the necessity of finding proper methods. Any bookstore has shelf after shelf of books directed at teaching methods to help people succeed. Unfortunately, much of what is written in this vein is either not new, or patently wrong. Thus a proper method of selection represents one of the most important enabling methods in using such resources effectively and thus improving oneself, rather than getting bogged down in error, contradiction and confusion. The most important method of selection is reasoned analysis – carefully reading, asking questions, forming proper concepts and definitions, and putting any proposed method to a rigorous test of integration with known facts and ideas.
Although one might “explain” a person’s success by the fact that he uses one of the above techniques, tactics, strategies or epistemological methods, these methods don’t “cause” him to succeed. He is the cause, first and foremost because to select and employ any of them takes the fundamental act of focus (often sustained across many years), and second because while the methods are the “efficient” or immediate cause, his deliberate choice to use one or another method is the ultimate cause. To quote Leonard Peikoff in a slightly different context:
“Man’s actions do have causes; he does choose a course of behavior for a reason – but this does not make the course determined or the choice unreal. It does not, because man himself decides what are to be the governing reasons. Man chooses the causes that shape his actions.”
There is even a higher-level activity in which an individual not only chooses (proper) methods but is active and passionate about method. He deliberately seeks out method, identifies gaps in his methodology and is continually on a quest to fill them and grow in methodological ability. He thinks in principle (which is one of the most important philosophical methods), seeks to develop new methods of his own from his experience, and puts all proposed methods to the test of logic and experience. Hence he grows, over the decades, into the kind of goal-accomplishing powerhouse that any employer (or any customer if he has his own firm, or any friend in the personal realm) would pursue. Such a principled pursuer of method may be a rare type of person, and he deserves our admiration, but we see that the activities he engages in are open to all men, on any level of ability. He should be an object of emulation as well as admiration. He is an end-member of a continuum, and how far any individual rises in the continuum (within one’s own potential) is up to that individual to choose.
Pick any product or company name you think of – IBM, Johnson&Johnson, Gillette, Oscar Mayer, Hallmark, Baskin-Robbins, Rolles-Royce – and there is a story behind it, a story of men who founded the company, often more than a century ago: With entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and a dedication to producing something worthwhile to make a profit they’d be proud of. Sometimes there was a patented invention behind it, as in the case of the razor blade or the tractor, and sometimes there was simply the commitment to making a product better than had been done before. We benefit from these products every day, but how often do we think of the story behind them, the men who created them or the effort it took to make a product that could last, not weeks or months, but decades or centuries?
The book Entrepreneurs, The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It, by Joseph and Suzy Fucini, covers 51 such brand names, and the book They Made America by Harold Evans covers many more. But one can often find the story on one’s own, simply by going to the website of the company (usually in the “Our History” section, or something similar, though sometimes one has to do a little hunting to find it).
A sampling of what can be found if one selects some brands at random and looks at the company website:
- In 2011 SINGER® celebrated the 160th Anniversary of Isaac Singer’s patent on the first practical sewing machine.
- In 1883, Barney Kroger invested his life savings of $372 to open a grocery store at 66 Pearl Street in downtown Cincinnati. The son of a merchant, he ran his business with a simple motto: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.”
- William Procter, emigrating from England, established himself as a candle maker in Cincinnati. James Gamble, an immigrant from Ireland, apprenticed himself as a soap maker [in 1837]…“The Procter & Gamble Company never has gone in circles, never followed footsteps, but rather has continually broken new trails, entered new fields, set new records, even raised its own high standards.” — R. R. Deupree, 1936.
The first point to make about these books and this sampling is that an entrepreneurial history and a lasting product is not limited to a select few individuals. The sheer number of such men and women documented in these and many other stories is huge. With the freedom that America afforded in the 19th century, in particular, companies were continually emerging (flooding Americans with new materials, new products, new means of transportation, more food, better housing, and greater sanitation). More broadly, where the freedom to create exists in any country in the world, today and in the past, men and women form companies and produce products of value. The large number of individuals involved relates to the answer given to argument #5 in the five arguments against free will: those individuals who succeed are not freaks of nature but simply men who exercised free will and actualized their potential – to think, act and persevere through hardship to achieve success in life.
A second point to make is that many of these men were immigrants to America, escaping poverty and sometimes despotism to succeed where they were free to create and benefit from their creations. These immigrants exercised choice in a particularly heroic way: They chose to leave behind the familiar, including friends and family, to face an uncertain future. They did not need to be guaranteed success but were undergirded by the knowledge that where they were going had fewer restrictions (social, religious or governmental) and more opportunities to succeed if they worked hard. None of these men had any illusions that life would be easy, or that success would be immediate or automatic.
There are many other implications, including political ones, that could be drawn from these stories, but the relevant point for our purpose is clear: These men can and did choose to “build it”, and there were not just a few isolated “freaks” but a massive wave of them, whether they came from abroad or chose to follow their dreams having grown up within a mile of their first factory.
Discussed below are the arguments offered by average people, intellectuals and even many in the scientific community for rejecting free will and embracing its opposite – in philosophy, what is called “determinism.” As background, however, consider the positive case for free will. Free will is not something that one must derive by a lengthy chain of reasoning using abstract concepts. Free will is something every single human being out of infancy experiences every day. You can see yourself choosing between one shirt and another, or how to spend the next hour, or what app to use on your mobile phone, or how to get to work during rush hour. Underlying these specific choices is the fundamental set of choices about how you will use your mind – will you deliberate or go by raw feeling? Will you think, or avoid the effort? These fundamental choices make possible all the rest, and you can see yourself making them as well. Free will is an object of direct perception – perception directed internally at one’s mind instead of externally. The same introspection that lets one see he is thinking about tonight’s Superbowl party provides all the evidence needed to be convinced of the existence of free will. For that reason, because free will is directly evident and fundamental (at the base of every other kind of thought or action), it is in fact axiomatic.
Some people, usually academics or college students who have had a philosophy class, deny free will’s axiomatic status. The fourth objection below will present and respond to their arguments. First, several everyday types of objections will be answered.
Objection 1: How can you say there are self-made men, or that men can choose to be successful on their own, when everyone knows that what we make of ourselves depends on the conditions of our birth, our families, our social and economic status, even what country we were born in? Can a person who is born in Syria during a bloody war choose the same path as a person born into a well-to-do family in the United States? For that matter, can a homeless or desperately poor person in the United States have the same choice as the person born into the well-to-do family?
Response: The details of a person’s path through life are no doubt affected by his start. However, the fundamental trajectory is not. For example, there are countless instances of those born or raised in war-torn countries escaping to safer lands, and of desperately poor persons raising themselves up the economic ladder by hard work, saving, and perseverance. No one has the choice of his start – that would be an absurdity implying he had choice before he existed. What one has the choice of is what to do about it. Does one accept one’s situation in dejected resignation, or does one act to change it? Does one plan, take risks, make the effort, or refuse to think, play it safe and stay in the unsafe or poverty-stricken state one starts in? When Andrew Carnegie started working as a boy of 12, he earned the equivalent of $1.20 per week. When he succeeded, he earned $1.20 per second. Did he allow his pitiful initial state as a penniless immigrant to hold him back, or did he overcome it, by thinking, acting, looking for opportunities, making his own opportunities, and taking advantage of opportunities as they came? Every immigrant who has left a country enduring war or famine to live in the United States is a testament to the possibility and consequences of choice. Similarly, every person born into a decent family in America who chooses a path of crime, alcoholism or begging over productiveness is proof of the fact that where you start not only doesn’t guarantee failure but it doesn’t guarantee success either. A person’s choice is decisive.
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Objection 2: Even if I accept what you say in the introductory post that free will consists of the choice to focus one’s mind and think, as contrasted with evading and not thinking, even if I accept that everyone possesses such a choice, how does it explain a person’s success in life or career? Maybe he can focus on the problem before him, whether a crossword puzzle or a test problem in school. But that oversimplifies the totality of what is required to succeed across decades. Such success is a combination of thinking, luck, help from others, being in the right place at the right time, being born with natural intelligence, etc.
Response: There are, often, a combination of factors in the details of any individual’s success, but the question is: which factors are fundamental and explain the others? It is true that focusing on a crossword puzzle involves the same type of mental activity that leads to success in life, but one instance of that kind of thinking and acting won’t make a successful life, just as one instance of solving a crossword puzzle doesn’t guarantee you’ll solve the next one if you drift, get distracted and down a few scotch whiskeys to allay anxiety about whether you’ll solve it. A successful life requires one’s commitment to rational thought in principle, at all times, across the decades, in every area of life. There may be help from others or from chance, but how many have squandered such benefits and chosen not to take full advantage of them? Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind, meaning no amount of luck will help the mind dulled by passivity or drugs. The time spent thinking and planning is never wasted because it is the precondition of success, whether success is precipitated by a “lucky” unexpected event or by one’s own action.
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Objection 3: Doesn’t free will violate the law of cause and effect? Effects are determined by their causes, so how can a choice, which is by definition not determined, exist? Isn’t choice, therefore, something causeless?
Response: This charge is based on a false view of cause and effect. Cause and effect are properly viewed as a relationship between an entity and its action, between the kind of thing it is and the kinds of things it can do. A feather floats, a billiard ball rolls, a dropped ball falls, a helium balloon moves upward when it is released. With regard to living beings, each kind of being has certain potentialities, and those potentialities are a consequence of the kind of being it is. For conscious animals, potentialities include sensing, perception (integrated sensation) and reacting to their environment. For the most advanced conscious being, man, the potentiality is vastly greater: it includes conceptualization, the viewing of entities not as isolated perceptions but as integrated with other similar entities into a mental unit called a concept. Every single achievement of man – from the development of tools to the development of farming, to the discovery of individual rights, to the development of manufacturing, to IPhones, to space travel, to cancer treatment – is a consequence of that fundamental potentiality of conceptualization. On the higher levels, simple conceptualization (grouping of entities by similarity into a unity) is augmented by complex methods such as logic, scientific study, and engineering, but all these methods stem from and rest on conceptualization.
From the perspective of free will, the most important fact is that conceptualization is not automatic, as perception and sensation are. Conceptualization requires an act of choice, a choice to focus one’s mind on the entities or phenomena of interest, a choice to sustain a process of reasoning across time, a choice to keep mental clarity and form proper definitions to keep concepts distinguished (as opposed to fuzzy in the “I kinda know what they mean” sense). In short, reason does not function automatically but rather requires an act of choice. Man is always free to engage in that process of focus and sustained effort, or to unfocus and drift. But because of the kind of entity he is, he must always make that choice.
Thus for man, his reasoning faculty is “caused” not by some prior action, like a billiard ball moving because another ball hits it. It is simply his nature – in effect, he must make that choice (to focus or not, either one being within his power). And his potentiality to focus or not is “caused” by the kind of entity he is, not by some prior action. Thus there is no contradiction between cause and effect and free will, if both cause and effect as well as free will are understood properly.
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Objection 4: The advocates of free will say that free will is an axiom, a basic philosophical premise at the root of everything regarding man. Well I reject your axiom.
Response: It could be responded, amusingly, that rejecting free will is your choice. And, indeed, it is. But as the first sentence in response demonstrates, your rejection of free will in fact is a validation of free will, for when you say “I reject” free will you are actually saying “I choose to reject free will.” And that is one of the characteristics of an axiom: it re-affirms itself in every attempt to deny it. Axioms, because they state fundamental facts about nature or man, are self-evident in every act of awareness, in every thought or statement, even in attempts to deny them. This “re-affirmation through denial” was identified by Aristotle (who called it “proof by refutation”) in the process of answering those critics who denied the axioms of logic.
More deeply, when one asserts that free will does not exist, he wants us to take him seriously, to believe that he has given thought to the matter, engaged in a process of reasoning, and as a consequence rejected our positive statement advocating free will. However, the nature of the position he is taking is that everything one does is caused by factors outside one’s control, and so the conclusion being asserted actually contradicts his implied deliberation. If man doesn’t have free will then his every thought, idea and action is programmed for him by his genes or brain or upbringing. And that is true not only of “other men” but also of the very individual who is rejecting free will. Thus he wants us to believe his position is worth considering because he has engaged in a process of reason, yet at the same time he is saying that he does not have the capacity to choose his ideas or conclusions – they are simply programmed for him. Why, then, would we even take him seriously? If he is not offering a real reason for his conclusion but merely saying he has no power to escape that conclusion, why should we care? Why would we give his conclusions more weight than we do the mutterings of an insane person?
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Objection 5: You may cite examples of individuals choosing to make their own way, to succeed on their own, raising themselves from far lesser circumstances to wealth or career achievement. But those individuals are exceptions, essentially freaks of nature. Statistics show that in the overwhelming number of cases, where you come from determines what you’ll become. Given those statistics, how can you say that it is the nature of man to have free will?
Response: Man is man. There are not two kinds of beings – man, the regular guy and man the Superman – contrary to what the philosopher Nietzsche says. If man as a man possesses a certain potentiality, then all men do. As stated in the answer to objection #1, there are countless examples of men choosing to think and act to raise themselves beyond their initial circumstances. And there are also countless examples of men born with great advantages choosing to squander those advantages and coast as parasites on their relatives or on other men. This large number of examples demonstrates that overcoming poverty or other disadvantages is possible to man as a man (not just to a few unique men), just as starting with wealth and advantage and degenerating into drugs, lassitude and eventually poverty and homelessness are also possible to him. The difference is a man’s choice to think and act. Neither the man who elevates himself nor the man who degrades himself are freaks of nature – both are actualizing a potentiality of man, i.e. both are exercising choice. And the enormous numbers of men who do one or the other belie the claim that they are something other than … men.
Those who rely on statistics, however, don’t analyze the causes of man’s state. Thinking in terms of faceless collectives, without analyzing the individual circumstances underlying a poverty-stricken state, is the kind of context-dropping that permits one to view raising oneself as hopeless. For example, a substantial number of people are homeless in any large city in the developed world (fewer, however, than most people believe). The welfare advocates present these people as all helpless victims of fate who need to be rescued by society. Yet it is known that half of the homeless are in that state due to substance abuse (see, e.g. “Substance Use: Pathway to homelessness? Or a way of adapting to street life?” by E. Didenko and N. Pankratz, Visions Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer 2007, where several scholarly studies are cited). Thus their homelessness stems not from “fate” or causes outside their control but from their own prior choices and actions.
Another ludicrous example often cited is the plight of those who have a large student loan balance. This author has heard people complain that they can never get ahead because they have large student loan balances that they’ll never pay off – and that, therefore, man is helpless in a practical sense. Ignore for a moment that even having the opportunity to have a student loan and go to college already puts one in the top echelon of economic advantage – this is not something afforded to the homeless or to drug addicts or to people in war-torn countries. This objection would have you believe that having a large student loan is some horrible act of nature (like a tornado) that was visited on a person through no fault of his own. The fact that he had to apply for, sign and commit to paying off the loan is not mentioned in this person’s sob story. Nor is the fact that he received a college degree as a consequence, which underlies his current employment and ownership of a house. The fact that people may, indeed, make unthinking choices, relying on range-of-the-moment feeling or wishful thinking rather than logic in deciding to take such loans, the fact that they may over-commit themselves to paying off too many loans given their prospect of earnings, is proof not of man’s lack of free will but of exactly the opposite.
Exercising choice doesn’t guarantee success. That lack of a guarantee is precisely the meaning of free will. It is precisely the root of the requirement that one use the most scrupulous process of reasoning, refusing to act recklessly or on the range-of-the-moment, in making all decisions, whether to take a loan, or drugs, or a certain job, or a certain train, or a certain romantic partner. Even the right course of action and thought doesn’t guarantee success in a particular case, but rejecting the proper method does guarantee failure (whether immediate or over time). Man’s only protection against failure, or more positively, man’s only possibility of succeeding over the long run, is to use his mind properly and act in accordance with his reason, consistently and in principle. Although not part of this discussion of free will, that commitment to principle is the entry into the realm of moral choice and the root of a proper moral code.
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“You can and did build it.”
This blog will define and defend the idea that man can choose and achieve goals, and that when he does he deserves the credit, in justice, for “building that.” The title of this blog stems from a debate started by President Barack Obama in his 2012 speech in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he stated that
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
This and other quotes from Obama sympathizers – particularly Elizabeth Warren, who a year earlier had said: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody,” ignited a firestorm of debate about whether it was true that the individual achieved success on his own and therefore deserves to keep the fruits of his effort – his salary, his business, etc.
The debate, however, focused on the second half of this blog’s title, the idea that man did build that. There were excellent responses to these attacks on men’s right to pride in their own achievements, the most cogent of which appeared in a Forbes article titled “President Obama vs. My Grandfather.” Under the covers, however, was a premise shared by not only the Left, but also those who opposed the “you didn’t build that” chorus: the premise that man really can’t achieve goals on his own. The entire apparatus of the welfare state is predicated on the idea that the individual can’t make it on his own but must be given a hand up by government or society. Even those who oppose the welfare state often call on everyone to help the disadvantaged as a duty – this sentiment is echoed by almost every church parson as well as by almost every American. The Conservative response to “You didn’t build that” was that America is great because we all have a sense of “community” that helps us survive because on our own we couldn’t. The modern declaration that people really can’t do things on their own has grown enormously decade by decade. The disadvantaged went from a very small minority of those so incapable of surviving that they needed a “safety net” (Ronald Reagan’s oft-used phrase) to a larger and larger group of people incapable of surviving because of reasons like: 1) they are not given a living wage, 2) they are burdened by student loans, 3) prices of drugs are rising, 4) jobs are disappearing overseas.
This blog’s entire purpose is to fully reject the idea that man cannot succeed, and, put positively, to prove, defend and promote the idea that he can choose his direction, make his own life and succeed on his own. Fundamentally, it will defend the idea that man has free will, or volition. This is a broad philosophical abstraction, and as such needs to be defined, put in context and concretized, which this blog will do over the course of many articles – supported by philosophical argument, as well as historical references and concrete news stories.
To begin, let us be clear about what is meant by “man has free will.” Many arguments against free will stem from a mistaken idea of what it means, and what is included in it. A formal definition of free will:
“A course of thought or action is ‘free,’ if it is selected from two or more courses possible under the circumstances. In such a case, the difference is made by the individual’s decision, which did not have to be what it is, i.e., which could have been otherwise.” (Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR), by Leonard Peikoff, p. 55. The section of OPAR in which this definition appears, and the two sections following it, are a complete philosophic description, and defense, of free will. The author of this blog is indebted to Dr. Peikoff for his work in this area and recommends any interested reader follow up by reading these passages of OPAR.)
More specifically, here is what free will does and does not mean:
It means man can choose (and here, as everywhere in this blog, “man” refers to men and women, all human beings):
- whether and how he will think and use his mind,
- what ideas he will accept
- what goals and values he will pursue
- how he acts
What free will does not mean is choosing to:
- violate the laws of nature
- attain immediate success in any complex endeavor
- achieve any irrational or impossible goal (such as a person of modest intelligence winning a Nobel Prize in the next ten years, or a quadriplegic signing an NFL quarterback position).
- literally will an emotion to disappear (attempting to do that is what psychologists call “repression”)
From the simplest concrete act of choosing, such as what to cook for the next meal, to the far more complex acts of choosing a lifetime career or a romantic partner, almost everyone grasps that “possible” is the most important qualifier in the definition of free will. What is literally impossible cannot be the subject of an act of choice, even if a person wishes fervently for it to be so. Hence, the entire list of what is not included in free will consists of things that are impossible – violating the laws of nature chief among them.
There will be occasion to discuss in this blog why so many people feel as though they don’t have free will, even though in fact they do. But one very important reason, it will be seen, is that they have an improper understanding of what is included in free will: They try to achieve the impossible, and failing to do so, they “feel” as though their will is not free: they feel they are victims of circumstance.
The next installment of this blog will present the top five arguments people give for rejecting free will – and an answer will be provided for each.