I really was serious when I said the hiatus was over!
Some time ago, I said I was going to start writing about ethics. I even wrote what amounted to a preface, here. This post should be seen as part 2 of that preface.
Part and parcel of any discussion of ethics is the free will / determination debate. Are we simply incredibly complicated robots, or do we have freedom? In my readings this semester I've come across a handful of answers to that question. There's Spinoza, who believes our only freedom is the ability to assent to what is. There's Kant, who says that while all reality is chained to cause and effect, our choices can be thought of as atemporal and therefore outside that chain.
My own approach is to begin with a very practical reality. The answer to this question of free will has no practical value. This may seem counterintuitive; is it not a popular belief that "free will" is necassary for any sort of responsibility, and therefore morality? No morality, no law, no society: chaos would reign.
Here's the problem with that belief. A belief in determinism is no more a guide to behaviour than a belief in free will. Consider the legal system. If criminals begin making the philosophical claim that they have no free will (as opposed to psychiatric claims of insanity) and therefore cannot be held responsible for their crimes, judges can throw the claim right back at them. A judge is just as bound to toss them in jail.
A belief in determination doesn't remove the consequences from our actions; all it can do is facilitate a series of excuses for one's behaviour. However, the need for these excuses, and the creation and deploment of them, must both come from different places in a person's mind. The need for excuses for one's behaviour is a question of psychological insecurity; the creation of the excuses is a matter of philosophy. In order to deploy the excuses, one must already be willing to admit insecurity and weakness. That admition, however, would itself require a certain overcoming of that weakness and insecurity. Attempting to use the idea of determination as an excuse or justification for behaviour is a self-defeating and forced position; it can only be used coldly and cynically, and is therefore not legally or ethically important.
The free will debate, then, is an abstract, academic matter. However, a discussion of it remains bound to the discussion of ethics; in order that our behaviour not be arbitrary or futile, we need a knowledge of what we are capable and incapable of. We require a critique of will.
Cutting to the chase, I think the answer to the debate lies in its very undecidability.
Whenever someone claims a certain form of knowledge is limited, there are two possible meanings for this. First, it could simply refer to a lack of information. We lack the required quantity of data to form a conclusion. Only more research and thought is required. Perhaps the quantity of information required is so great that it is practically impossible to attain; it is still, in principle, a possibility for knowing. The second way knowledge can be limited is in quality. There may be information or beings that we are simply unequipped to explore or analyze. I would argue that there is an aspect of humans that is inadmissable to analysis or full knowing.
When I say it cannot be analyzed, I mean it is something we cannot directly access. It is not something that can be pointed to and described; it can only be posited as an explanatory device.
When people argue over free will, they are either claiming a certain creative spontaneity for humans, or for a rigid determination. I would argue this is an impossible question; it cannot be answered. When we ask what this spontaneity may be; a particular aspect of human nature is named. Spirit, reason, will, whatever. This aspect is then explained to be somehow independant of all immanant causes; nothing has shaped this one aspect. Family life, no matter how fine or horrible, has molded this aspect. Absolutely no combination of socio-economic-historical factors has affected this aspect, because if this aspect was capable of being affected, than it would be one more link in the cause and effect chain and therefore determined.
This aspect - will, spirit, reason - therefore only has a one way relationship with everything else. All else that might reside in a human subject and its environment can only be affected by this aspect; they themselves can only be altered; they can do no altering themselves.
The determination folks believe every last aspect of reality rests within a cause and effect structure. Nothing happens without an immediate cause; every human action has a cause, which itself has a caused, all the way down to the bottom turtle. The aspect the free willers believe in is itself determinted by something else. There is a two way relationship between the spirit/will/reason and the environment - they affect each other.
Now, why do I think this debate is unresolvable? Because neither position can truly support itself. Free will can never be proven, because it is a simple matter to posit that one is determined to believe in free will. However, determination cannot be proven either. The moment one posits a free will/spirit, an aspect of the self that stands unaffected by the environment, no philosophy of determination can track down and kill this aspect. If there is such a free aspect, it would be impossible to conclude exactly which environmental factors might affect this aspect. Every determination posited - ie, bad family life, can only explain a single piece of behaviour. Those who believe in free will can simply relocate the will to a position unaffected by the posited determination; this process can go on indefinately.
The claims of free will and determination cancel each other out. They negate each other. In negating each other, they create an unknowable aspect of human nature. A nothingness. Our knowledge of ourselves is essentially finite, and no quantity of information or observation can ever change that.
This nothingness itself is, in practice, identical to the posited free will. Because we can never know if or how anything determines it, it appears to us to be a responsible, spontaneous, creative, force. What it is on its own account is unknowable; all we can deal with is the appearance and the appearance is undetermined.