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.

Toothless Tigers

The situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. It is estimated that the government has been responsible for the death of at least 14,000 of its citizens. A recent story tells of the attempts to “broker” a peace settlement between groups that hate one another, a nearly impossible task. The story reads, in part,

GENEVA (AP) — An international conference on Saturday accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan that calls for the creation of a transitional government in Syria, but at Russia’s insistence the compromise agreement left the door open to Syria’s president being part of it.

The story gives us a sense of the futility of this agreement: But even with Russia’s most explicit statement of support yet for a political transition in Syria, it is far from certain that the plan will have any real effect in curbing the violence. A key phrase in the agreement requires that the transitional governing body “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent,” effectively giving the present government and the opposition veto power over each other.

In a word, neither side will agree to the agreement: one side wants Assad to remain as President, the other will not agree to any settlement of which he is a part. The U.N. sits in the middle attempting to get the two sides to agree to something (anything!) while all the time they know full well it will not happen. As one who has always advocated reason and restraint and who hates war and bloodshed, this situation is most disturbing. It would seem that increasingly violence is the only thing many people understand and an international group that lacks the power to back up its agreements is indeed a toothless tiger. The members can meet and come to a compromise of sorts, but the people in the streets will continue to kill one another. It’s not a new story, but it is unsettling to say the least.

Leibniz told us long ago that this was the “best of all possible worlds,” and he thought he had argued his point convincingly. But it takes a giant leap of faith to accept his argument. That was a leap Voltaire could not take and he ridiculed the notion in Candide — which he wrote after the earthquake at Lisbon killed thousands of men, women and children. There have been worse catastrophes and now that war includes war against civilians as well as combatants — a situation all civilized countries agreed would not happen when they signed the Geneva Accords — the earthquake seems a minor event. And, of course, our government, which signed those agreements, is very much a part of the problem sending drones into residential neighborhoods to “take out” known (or suspected) terrorists. Doesn’t this make us the terrorists?

One wonders where we have come and where this will lead. The world needs an international group with effective sanctioning powers and a world court with punitive powers as well. I am not an advocate of power except in the case that it will invariably lead to the resolution of conflict involving innocent victims. And I have always supported the idea of the United Nations: it’s important that people come together to discuss their differences. But I recognize that a debate society that makes agreements they cannot get the parties to buy into is not what the world needs in times of trouble. This is certainly the case in Syria. As the above story says in its final paragraph, The United Nations says violence in the country has worsened since a cease-fire deal in April, and the bloodshed appears to be taking on dangerous sectarian overtones, with growing numbers of Syrians targeted on account of their religion. The increasing militarization of both sides in the conflict has Syria heading toward civil war.

It does seem that the only thing people understand in the end is power. If people will not even sit down together then might does, in the end, make right. I cannot accept that even though it appears to be the case. Perhaps that is my leap of faith.