The history of philosophy has been dominated by competing arguments around the ideas of Free Will and Determinism. Simply stated, the issue hangs on whether human beings should be thought of as fundamentally free to choose their actions and mould their lives – or whether they should be deemed as being at heart determined by forces beyond their control, be they fate, biology, politics or class.
The debate has been long-running and hugely vicious. It began in Ancient Greece, was picked up by the Romans, dominated Christian philosophy and rumbles on to this day among philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists.
Part of the reason why the question seems so hard to find a conclusive answer to is that it is almost always framed in objective terms, as if we might discover whether either Free Will or Determinism could be an advisable interpretation for human beings in general.
But, in truth, the debate becomes more interesting and more relevant if we change the parameters of the question – and ask simply: is an idea of Free Will or of Determinism more or less relevant to me?
All of us will have different needs in this area depending on our contrasting levels of two psychological qualities: Defeatism on the one hand, Aspiration on the other.
There are people whose levels of Defeatism have grown so high, they too readily declare that responsibility for things always lies outside of themselves: the course of their life is, they tell us, entirely determined by parents, school, the government, the bosses, the media… anyone but themselves. The result is radical under-achievement and self-deceit.
But there is another kind of difficulty created in people whose levels of Aspiration have grown so high on the basis of overly exaggerated notions of Free Will. They will deem that everything about their lives is capable of change. They will declare that they can achieve all things simply through an exercise of the will. Their career and income, their relationships and prospects are all, apparently, subject to dramatic change. It’s an inspiring philosophy, but one that reliably also leads – when things don’t work out, as they never do in all areas – to bitterness and rage.
Each of us needs to decide for ourselves whether we should have a greater faith in Determinism or in Free Will. We should ask how much of the suffering in our lives can be traced back to a defeatist attitude and how much might be traced back to reckless aspiration. Some of us need to dial up a faith in Free Will, others need more of a mellow acceptance of Determinism. The oldest debate in philosophy isn’t beyond answering. We just have to answer it more personally, with more of a sense of what we need to believe in to be calmer and more fulfilled.
Perhaps the wisest way to navigate the debate between Free Will and Determinism was worked out by the Ancient Roman philosophers of the Stoic school. These Stoics proposed that we should see ourselves as always hovering between a Free and a Determined state – and they invented a powerful image to evoke our condition as creatures able at times to effect great change – and yet never far from being subject to immensely powerful external necessities.
We are, they said, like dogs who have been tied to an unpredictable cart. Our leash is long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but is not long enough ever just to allow us to wander wherever we please. A dog will naturally hope to go wherever it pleases, said the Stoics. But if it cannot, then it is better for the animal to be trotting behind the cart rather than dragged and strangled by it.
To reflect that we too are never without a leash around our neck may help to reduce the violence of our protest against events which veer away from our intentions. It may sound like a recipe for passivity, but as the Stoics insisted, it is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn’t as to rebel against something when it is.
It’s our reason that must judge the difference and this is where we have a big advantage over a dog. A dog will probably not at first grasp that he is even tied to a cart, nor understand the connection between the swerves of the cart and the pain in his neck. So he won’t be able to predict where the cart is going and adjust his position accordingly. But reason enables us to theorise with considerable accuracy about the path of the cart or destiny, which offers us a chance, unique among living beings, to increase our sense of freedom by ensuring a good slack between our desires and what we cannot change.
Reason allows us to calculate when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in an unprotesting acceptance of what is truly necessary that we can find a distinctive serenity and freedom.
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