Perennial Question

One of the most perplexing questions to have worried thinkers for centuries is the question whether humans are truly free. Or are we determined? One of the people to have given the issue a good deal of thought was, of all people, Leo Tolstoy. In War and Peace, he takes time to ponder the question of freedom, suggesting that it is an illusion: everything that happens is pre-determined:

“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action. . . .

“When an apple ripens and falls — what makes it fall? Is it attracted to the ground, is it that the stem weakens, is it that the sun has dried it up, that it has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath wants to eat it? . . . No one thing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions under which every organic, elemental event of life is accomplished.

“[The major figures involved in Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Moscow in 1812] feared, rejoiced. boasted, resented, reasoned, supposing that they knew what they were doing and that they were doing it for themselves, and yet they were all involuntary instruments of history, and performed work hidden from them but comprehensible to us. . . .”


In this passage, Tolstoy provides us with what appears to be a quasi-scientific account of the deterministic hypothesis. Any action a person commits is inevitable, it is the consequence of thousands and millions of previous actions of which he is simply unaware. The person thinks he is free, but he is not. Later in the novel he will tie this view to the theistic view, which makes the case even stronger. He says, for example,

“To the question of what constitutes the cause of historical events. . .[the answer is] that the course of world events is predestined from on high, depends on the coincidence of all the wills of the people participating in those events, and that Napoleon’s influence [for example] on the course of those events is only external and fictitious.”

After all, if God is omnipotent and omniscient, which is axiomatic in Judeo-Christain theology, then human freedom is clearly an illusion: God not only knows what we do, He brought it about when he created Adam. From God’s perspective, everything that happens is predictable. Leibniz embraced this view, calling it “pre-established harmony.” He insisted that we simply act as though we are free whereas, in fact, everything we do or will do has been determined from the beginning. Calvin also embraced this view, insisting that it is the only possible view of human actions compatible with a Christian God.

Couple these arguments with what we now know about DNA and the effects of the environment on human behavior and it is virtually impossible to escape the deterministic view. In fact, even though they would hesitate to bring God into the discussion, many a social scientist today embraces a deterministic view of human conduct — especially when they excuse a known criminal’s behavior on the grounds of his parentage and upbringing. The problem is that in the deterministic view there is no room for human freedom. As noted, freedom becomes an illusion. At best, in the words of Boethius, freedom is a “profound mystery only a theologian can grasp.” Calvin said we must act “as if” we are free; we are not. But if we are not free, then we cannot be responsible for our acts, either — as the social scientist suggests.

This problem bothered Immanuel Kant so much that he spent his life trying to solve it. Because he wanted to insist that we are free and responsible for our actions he wrote the first of his “critiques” of human reason in which he developed antinomies showing that human freedom can be both proved and disproved by impeccable logic. Thus, freedom is, for Kant, a postulate of practical reason. In a word, we take it on faith, since we can neither prove it nor disprove it, and after positing human freedom we can proceed to develop an ethic based on freedom and human responsibility. And this is what Kant did in his later writings.

The determinist would insist that Kant’s arguments were developed long before revelations about DNA became known. Within the scientific community I doubt there is a person who would allow any wiggle-room for human freedom, convinced as they are that our DNA makes our development and future behavior totally predictable, in principle. Coupled with what we know about the effects of upbringing on the young, prediction becomes simply a function of how much we can know about every individual.

In the end, despite the strong case that can be made for determinism, there are those of us who still insist, as did Jean Paul Sartre in the 1950s, that we have a deep feeling that we are free and that no matter how much is known about us, we are capable of totally spontaneous actions. Sartre insisted that freedom is the fundamental fact about human existence and it implies complete responsibility for everything we do. The feeling of freedom somehow still hangs on despite the arguments of determinism of the scientific or the theistic variety, though we hear very little about the responsibility that goes along with it.


8 thoughts on “Perennial Question

  1. Hugh, well written and postulated. I prefer Sartre’s view, but I would flavor it with Aristotle’s view that we are creatures of habits. Speaking for Aristotle, we are less free to break from habits that become engrained in us from a young age – this could be good or bad, religious or not. Yet, we are free to make some choices, but as Sartre said, we must be responsible and per Raye, accountable as well.

    In some societies, the number of choices are smaller in number due to the legislated habits such as Sharia law. Whereas in western culture, the choices for those with more are many, but even those without means, have more choices than in other cultures.

    Getting back to religion or predestiny, I find myself more in the Deist camp where God winds up a clock and let’s it run. Too many bad things happen to good people, that I find myself less faithful to the impact of prayer’s ability to change an outcome. So, I think we are free to make choices, but deviating from engrained habits is hard. But, we must own those choices.

    You are making me think on an early Saturday. Have a great weekend, BTG

    • Saturdays are sometimes the best days for thinking! But from what I have seen you do it pretty much every day!
      Your point about the degrees of freedom is interesting. When I taught “non-traditional” students (older students) I noted that they were always prepared and ready to go and fun to teach. But their preconceptions were locked inside a steel vault and it was nearly impossible to dislodge them — even for the sake of an argument. Young people, on the other hand, were usually unprepared (and frequently hung-over), but they were open to any and all possibilities. As we grow older we do get locked in….that is, other old folks. Not you and me.

  2. oh my! this would surely awaken any sleeping student in the classroom! you’ve given us a grand dollop of musings, and i would be one of those students that sat straight and jumped in with feedback at the end of each paragraph!

    i have friends who don’t allow for wiggle room (thanks for the chuckle) and at times we disagree, but usually don’t argue – we just acknowledge that we sometimes veer in opposite directions with attitudes and beliefs. they surely sigh and say, “artists!” when i am out of earshot!

    thanks, hugh!

  3. Hugh, this is very interesting and I am glad to see you siding with those who largely reject the idea of predetermination. If we accept such a view — whether from the Judeo-Christian faith or in more general terms — or if such a thing really were true, then it negates the whole point of human existence.
    If everything is foreordained and we follow a course laid out for us solely by God or by DNA, then there is no freedom – but worse (and this is what we base most of our laws and society upon), there is no responsibility, nor no need to repent, change, or forgive.
    I can’t see a Christian God who commits his only son to a horrible death on the cross and, throughout both Testaments, lectures us about the wages of sin and the importance of embracing forgiveness, love and repentance, doing that: he’d be wasting his time, too, and would pretty much be a sadistic being.
    DNA certainly does give us many of the qualities – or perhaps more accurately – the building blocks of the qualities that may shape us. But environment and experience also shape us, and will, indeed, affect which parts of our DNA emerge as more prevalent as we adjust to life around us. And, DNA also is in our brains – giving us cells that are there for free thought.
    A long time ago in a humanities course at Southwest taught by Pat Brace, I wrote a paper on Augustine’s “On the Free Choice of Will,” arguing that those who fall back on predetermination or predestination – even in times of grief: “It was God’s will” – are simply using it as a crutch to elude responsibility or not do the hard work of investigating other factors that shape who we are and what we do.
    Like I wrote at the start, if there isn’t human freedom – free will, free thought – then what’s the point?

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