Over the past few weeks, I have presented the main positions in the classic philosophical conundrum of freewill and determinism. On the one hand, there are determinists (also called ‘hard determinist’) who, believing in a universe explicable in terms of scientifically determined causal laws, assert that there is no such thing as ‘free will’: our belief in this idea is a mere delusion. On the other hand, there are those libertarians (also called ‘voluntarism’) who, believing in moral and legal responsibility, assert the existence of free will and deny the universality of causal laws. The opposition between these two positions is known as incompatibilism. In an attempt to resolve this dilemma, there is the position known as compatibilism (also called ‘soft determinism’) where it is argued that the experience of freedom is compatible with the belief in universal causal laws. So, in the classic exposition of this problem, we have the three doctrines of libertarianism, soft determinism, and hard determinism.
The resolution of this conundrum turns on our experience of free choice. While we are quite happy to accept that many of our decisions are determined by various factors, many of us wish to retain the belief that some of our choices are, in some meaningful way, ‘free’. We don’t like to think that we are, as in the words of Sam Harris, a ‘bio-chemical puppet’. One idea I have used recently to explore this issue is that of vulnerability, my argument being that since being vulnerable is something significant that we choose to do, it is also something which leads to greater freedom in our personal lives. The more vulnerable we are, the more open we are to different scenarios and alternatives in our lives. Another way that we can explore the issue of determinism and free will is through the distinction between mental illness and mental health.
On the hard determinist position, since we have no free will, then mental health and mental illness have nothing at all to do with anything we allegedly ‘choose’ to do. So the meaning of mental health cannot lie in our capacity to choose and the meaning of mental illness cannot lie in our belief that we are compelled to act in certain ways. Mental health and illness, on this analysis, are simply constructions imposed by mental ‘health’ professionals. This analysis would also imply that there can be no meaningful sense of responsibility in moral or legal matters: the actions of a sociopathic murderer are just as determined as the actions of the judge who sentences him.
On the libertarian position, everyone, in principle, has free will and therefore we all have the capacity to choose to be mentally healthy or mentally ill. This is the position of the existential psychiatry of Thomas Szasz: the client who comes into therapy chooses whether to embrace mental health or remain in illness. On this analysis, the individual is morally and legally responsible for their action and hence deserving of any punishment or reward that might come to them.
On the soft determinist or compatibilist position, there is the recognition of ‘shades of grey’ between being determined in one’s actions and exercising autonomous choice. At one extreme, the murderous sociopath has little or no control of his impulses; at the other extreme, the sentencing judge deliberates on the verdict of the jury and rationally ‘chooses’ an appropriate punishment.
One common assumption in all of these positions is the view that freedom is a psychological entity within the individual. However it may be the case that freedom is social – that it is a characteristic of social interaction, rather than an individual will. One way of expressing this position is to argue that freedom is the result of a gestalt. ‘Gestalt’ is the German word for whole or form and gives its name to the distinct philosophical view that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. What does this mean? Consider two people who each separately consider six different options to act in response to a certain common problem – some responses may be shared, some may be unique. However when they come together to discuss and exchange views, they might in fact come up with a number of new possibilities which neither had considered before. In this sense, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and this suggests the way in which freedom, and perhaps also creativity, might possibly work.
(Summary of discussion of Tuesday evening group 20th September)