John Steinbeck's East of Eden is a literary exposition on the Cain and Abel story, and, in particular, gives attention to this one verse. Steinbeck, through his character, Lee, puts the emphasis on free will: thou mayest. And, for Lee, free will is a really super nifty thing. Free will is what
“makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice.”What is Lee talking about?
When it comes to free will, I am reminded of the debates between free will and determinism into which I used to egg my philosophy students. There were always a few students ready to defend the determinist position, and at least a few others ready to stand up for free will, against determinism.
Determinism is the claim that everything is caused, and happens the way it happens because of its various causes. Determinism is ultimately beside the point, I’m going to say, but it does serve the purpose of helping clarify what is the point -- what is at stake when we strive for greater freedom. What will turn out to be at stake, I will argue, is relationship, community -- all of us welcoming each of us. Through love are we free.
Determinism points out: If freedom means you get to do what you want, where does your wanting come from? Some combination of genetic predispositions and environmental influences produced the want. You get to choose, but you don’t choose the factors that will cause you to choose the way you do. Everything is the product of causes.
Everything, that is, except for certain quantum phenomena that, for complicated reasons of which physicists seem very confident, are entirely uncaused. Under certain conditions the spin of certain particles is absolutely random – NOTHING caused it to spin the way it is spinning and not the other way.
So, if quantum phenomena can be uncaused, can human behavior be uncaused? Well, what if it can? Is that what freedom looks like? If you saw somebody moving about randomly – muscles contracting here and there without cause or reason – we wouldn’t say she was free. Quite the opposite. We’d say she was in the grip of – enslaved by, we might say – some bizarre and horrible neurological condition.
Determinism makes a very logical point. Everything that happens is either the product of causal conditions and forces, or it isn't. If it is, then it's not free. If it isn't, then it's random, and randomness isn't free either. "Free will" is an incoherent concept.
This logical point is sound, but the sort of free will that is thereby defeated is not the sort of free will that any one who yearns for freedom is yearning for. They aren't yearning for some incoherent concept, but for something very real in our experience. What is it?
People who are yearning for freedom are yearning for liberation from some force or condition in their life. It might be a slave master or prison bars or an addiction or bad habit or mental illness or poverty. Someone yearning for freedom isn’t looking to become uncaused. They just want certain causes removed so that happier causes can, instead, dictate their actions. They would like to be guided by purposes that make sense and are rewarding rather than by someone else’s commands and by threats of painful punishment. They would like to have certain specific constraints removed. They would like to be guided by the better angels of their nature rather than by their demons.
Nor does determinism mean we can’t hold people responsible for what they do. If the social practice of holding a given person responsible for a given action helps us maintain an orderly society, then let's keep the practice. Moral disapproval sometimes works. Most of us don’t shout profanity at particularly inappropriate times – because the moral disapproval of those around us has taught us not to do that. Relationships including a shared language of moral deliberation work, much of the time. For people with Tourette’s syndrome, that doesn’t work. We say they aren’t responsible for what they do – which is to say that the shared language of moral deliberation – praise, blame, censure, punishment – is an ineffective causal force for making them change that particular behavior.
Much of the time, though, holding people responsible through use of moral language works just fine. If your teenager has misbehaved and protests that causes made him do it, you can just reply, “Of course. And now let’s see if being grounded will cause better behavior in the future.”
So what I’m saying is this: Thou mayest – you get to choose – doesn’t mean your choice is undetermined, not even a tiny bit. The mixture of influences you didn’t choose and genetic inclinations you didn’t choose – maybe with some randomness thrown in that you also didn’t choose – wholly determines what you will choose. But that’s beside the point because the important question isn't, "Are your actions determined?" The important question is, "What is freedom actually experienced as?"
We don’t experience freedom as uncaused action, so when the determinist points out that there is no uncaused action, this fact is irrelevant to the experience we’re talking about. The real question is how do we experience freedom, and how can we experience more of it?
One: We experience freedom when one of the causes is a shared language of moral deliberation. When an action happens reflexively or habitually or driven by obsessive-compulsive tendency or by any other mental disorder, we don’t experience it as being as free as we do when the language of moral deliberation can play out in our minds and when there’s a real possibility that we will actually carry out the conclusion of that deliberation.
When we say that depression, schizophrenia, and mania aren’t free choices, we’re saying that talking – including threatening and ostracizing – doesn’t do much good. We experience freedom not when our action is uncaused, but when language – particularly the language of deliberation -- plays a key causal role.
Two: We also experience greater freedom when all our tastes and preferences – howsoever unchosen those tastes and preferences are – are allowed at the table. We don’t, in the end, have to act to satisfy every taste, but not squelching or suppressing or denying that we do have the tastes we have is a piece of the experience of freedom.
Three: We experience greater freedom when the causes that are coming from our own body, including our brain, are within the range of normal and healthy, rather than including mental or physical illness.
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This is part 2 of 3 of "Timshel: Thou Mayest"
Part 1: "You Can Be Its Master"
Part 3: Can't Get To Freedom By Ourselves