Determined To Be Free

by Thomas O’Dwyer

With most of the planet under curfew, now might be a good time to ask, where’s my freedom of choice suddenly gone? Who (or what) determined, in some detail, how billions of us should act and behave for the foreseeable future? A troublesome ancient duo has returned – free will and its shady evil twin determinism. By coincidence, they came eerily embedded in a new Apple TV science-fiction series, Devs, of which more soon. I didn’t choose to be “cocooned” (and I’m sure I can’t opt to re-emerge as a pretty butterfly). However, I do choose to write this article and could equally decide not to. Or could I? The editor sent me a reminder that he was expecting it, so I can’t not write it. Why not?

calvin & hobbesWhat can I make of these decisions emerging out of the blue, which I appear to act upon “freely?” What are the consequences of how I choose to react to them? Although these are vague philosophical musings, let’s look instead at the science of it all. I’m a layman, neither scientist nor philosopher, but as we are rediscovering, scientists are a less fuzzy lot than philosophers. I’m more likely to ask the woman with the medical degree about the true meaning of my dry cough than to ask philosopher Slavoj Žižek to waffle incoherently about it for 20 minutes. Science observes events and facts and examines the connections between them. Certain phenomena seem to occur together in a sequence.

An hour ago I felt my reading glasses slip, tried to grab them, knocked over a cup which splashed coffee on the sleeping cat. Startled, it jumped to a shelf, dislodged an untidy pile of books which crashed to the floor and the cat fled from the study. It took a few seconds, and stasis returned – but the universe is forever changed. Each event in the sequence “caused” the other. This is a scientific fact easily grasped by the layperson, but such things give philosophers nightmares and more opportunities to tie themselves in convoluted knots. And theologians … no, let’s ignore them entirely. Read more »