Thursday, February 5, 2009

Free Will versus Determinism

Whether we have free will or are simply dancing meat puppets gyrating to the beat of mindless determinism, is a question that has been debated for centuries. While the consensus has shifted back and forth over time, there is as yet still no definitive answer. I propose a compatibilistic solution that both propositions are true.

To appreciate how this can be consider the analogy of classical versus quantum mechanics in physics. Classical mechanics, in which all effects have definite causes, is completely deterministic. This perspective corresponds to a metaphysical domain in which there is no free will. But in physics the causal determinism of classical mechanics does not extend down to the smallest scale, which is the domain of quantum mechanics. On this level events occur with no deterministic cause. For instance, when an atom emits an alpha particle, it does so spontaneously, not because something caused it do so. This lack of quantum causality is analogous to a metaphysical domain that accommodates free will. These seemingly incompatible physical domains intersect since the effects that emerge from accumulations of uncaused quantum events represent deterministic classical events.

The essential difference between this physical analogy and the metaphysical context I am proposing to answer the question of whether we are governed by free will or determinism is that the determinism of the physical system is causal while that of the metaphysical dynamic is teleological, meaning it is shaped by its ultimate effect. The context of my answer provides for the existence of teleological milestones, which represent events that we are deterministically "destined" to experience. In this context our non-deterministic free will can select the specific direction of our incremental steps between these milestones. This means that metaphysically our free will does not determine where we are ultimately going but it can decide how we get there. In other words, we have free will that is effective on smaller scales but becomes increasingly impotent on larger scales. In general, our free will allows us to pursue goals that may defer our destiny but we encounter its limits when we try to elude our fate.

Free will is not simply our power to pursue our goals; it is our intrinsic capacity to choose which, if any of them to pursue. Our goals manifest within us as either needs or desires. The teleological pull of our ultimate destiny is the basis of our needs. On the deterministic level our needs represent our inexorable compulsion to advance towards our final fate, without regard for our uniqueness. We are pulled from the shortest path to our ultimate destiny by our desires, which represent our reactions to our uniqueness. In other words, where we are going shapes our needs and how we get there is shaped by our free will choosing from among our goals.

The question of whether we have free will or are controlled by determinism is generally considered in the context of causal determinism. I propose that we begin to transcend this form of determinism when our minds start to respond to the teleological dictates of our destiny. As such, initially the closer we are to the earliest, instinct-driven level of development, the less free will we have. This is because our choices are being made for us by our causally generated biological drives. At the other end of the extreme, as we approach the most mature, selfless level of development our desires are replaced by our teleologically determined needs. Here we also have decreasing free will since we are increasingly inclined to only do what teleologically needs to be done. In other words, we have free will from the time we can choose to either resist or give in to our baser impulses to the point at which we are no longer tempted by them. This indicates that our free will is at its maximum capacity when we are at the midpoint between the influences of causality and teleology where we can most easily choose between them.

I maintain that most of us have some degree of free will but it does not decide our ultimate destiny because of the overarching influence of determinism. In my next essay I will delve into the dynamics underlying teleological determinism and illustrate how in the end it all still comes back to us.

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