“I wear the chain I forged in life”

by Jerry Cayford

Marley’s Ghost by Lisa K. Weber

Robert Sapolsky claims there is no free will. Jacob Marley begs to differ. Let us consider their dispute. Sapolsky presents his case in Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will: everything has a cause, so all our actions are produced by the long causal chain of prior events—never freely willed—and no action warrants moral praise or blame. He supports this position with a great deal of science that was not available back when Marley was alive, though “alive” seems an awkward way to put it, since Marley is a fictional ghost, possibly even a dreamed fictional ghost (depending on your interpretation of A Christmas Carol), dreamed by fictional Ebenezer Scrooge. Marley’s standing to bring objections against Sapolsky seems pretty tenuous.

Nevertheless, Marley forthrightly rejects Sapolsky’s thesis: “‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.’” That there is a real dispute here is proven by Scrooge presenting a very Sapolskian argument against Marley’s right to bring a case at all: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” That is, only a chain of physico-chemical causes makes me, Scrooge, see you at all, let alone give any credence to your arguments about morality. If this rebuttal seems sophisticated for a fictional Victorian businessman, it at least reminds us that Sapolsky’s philosophical position is quite old and well known.

Unlike Scrooge, Sapolsky does not inhabit the same fictional realm as Marley’s ghost. He cannot argue that Marley’s sins were caused by prior conditions and events, because Marley’s sins and choices don’t really exist, not in the causal universe in which Sapolsky makes his argument. As he so emphatically puts it: “But—and this is the incredibly important point—put all the scientific results together, from all the relevant scientific disciplines, and there’s no room for free will.…Crucially, all these disciplines collectively negate free will because they are all interlinked, constituting the same ultimate body of knowledge” (8-9). Marley’s ghost, though, is not of that body—an “incredibly important point” indeed—and that’s precisely the reason to choose him as our spokes-“person.” Read more »

Epistemic Freedom

by Fabio Tollon

An easy way to ruin any conversation is to start talking about philosophy. An easier way to do so is to mention free will. The issue of free will (whether we have it, if it is compatible with determinism, whether it even matters, etc.) has plagued philosophers for quite some time now. This is might be worrying, as it seems very important that we are free. How else can we fairly be held responsible for what we do? If your actions are fully determined by antecedent causes, what role do you really play? Additionally, reaching a consensus on what exactly free will entails is notoriously difficult. Is it enough to have some kind of “control”? Must the world be indeterministic? Does our best science exclude the possibility of free will? And, perhaps most provocatively, perhaps we don’t have free will at all, and that it doesn’t actually matter!

What I want to do here is take a somewhat different approach to the problem of free will. Instead of trying to figure out what exactly free will is or whether we need it, I want to start with a commonly accepted intuition: most of us, at least some of the time, feel as though we are free. From a first-person perspective, it really does (at least to me) feel as though we are in control of what we do, and that there is some central “willer” behind our actions. Moreover, whether we or not we really “believe” in free will or not, it seems this feeling of freedom will not go away. Read more »

Incoherent Incoherence: Freedom In A Physical World II

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Statue of Ibn Rushd, author of the Incoherence of the Incoherence, in Córdoba, Spain. Image credit: Saleemzohaib, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahâfut al-falâsifa) is an attempt by 11th century Sunni theologian and mystic al-Ghazâlî to refute the doctrines of philosophers such as Ibn Sina (often latinized Avicenna) or al-Fârâbî (Alpharabius), which he viewed as heretical for favoring Greek philosophy over the tenets of Islam. Al-Ghazâlî’s methodological principle was that in order to refute the assertions of the philosophers, one must first be well versed in their ideas; indeed, another work of his, Doctrines of the Philosophers (Maqāsid al-Falāsifa), gives a comprehensive survey of the Neoplatonic philosophy he sought to refute in the Incoherence.

The Incoherence, besides its other qualities, is noteworthy in that it is now regarded as a landmark work in philosophy itself. Ibn Rushd (Averroes), in response, penned the Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahāfut al-Tahāfut), a turning point away from Neoplatonism to Aristotelianism.

In modern times, most allegations of ‘incoherence’ levied against philosophy come not from the direction of religion, but rather, from scientists’ allegations that their discipline has made philosophy redundant, supplanting it by a better set of tools to investigate the world. The perhaps most well-known example of this is Stephen Hawking’s infamous assertion that ‘philosophy is dead’, but similar sentiments are readily found. While the proponents of such allegations have not always shown shown al-Ghazâlî’s methodological scrupulousness in engaging with the body of thought they seek to refute, these are still weighty charges by some of the leading intellectuals of the day. Read more »

The Choke-Hold Of Law: Freedom In A Physical World

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The dizziness of freedom.

There seems to be a peculiar kind of compulsion among the philosophically minded to return, time and again, to the issue of free will. It’s like a sore on the gums of philosophy—one that might heal if only we could stop worrying it with our collective tongues. Such a wide-spread affliction surely deserves a fitting name: I propose Morsicatio Libertatum (ML), the uncontrollable urge to chew on freedom.

With the implicit irony duly appreciated, I am no exception to this rule: bouts of ML seize me, on occasion, while taking a shower, while walking through the woods, while pondering what to have for dinner. If I differ in any way from the typical afflicted, then it’s because deep down, I am not at all convinced that the issue really matters all that much. In most discussions of the problem of freedom, each camp seems so invested in their position that they consider a contravening argument not just erroneous, but nearly a point of moral offense. But ultimately, wherever the chips may fall, we can do nothing but live our lives as we do: whether by fate’s preordainment or by our own choices.

After all, it’s not like we consider things only worthwhile if their completion is, in some sense, up to us: the last chapter of the novel you’re reading, the last scene of the film you’re watching was completed long before you ever turned the first page or switched on the TV. Yet, there may be considerable enjoyment in witnessing its unfolding. Even more obviously, the tracks the rollercoaster rides are right there, for you to see—but that doesn’t take away the thrill.

But still, my aim here is not to examine the psychology of arguing over free will (as rewarding a topic as that might prove). Rather, I am writing due to a particularly fierce recent bout of ML, brought on by finding myself suspended 100m above the ground, climbing through the steel trusses of Germany’s highest railway bridge, and wondering whether I’d gotten myself into this, of if I could blame the boundary conditions of the universe. Thus, perhaps this essay should best be considered therapeutic (then again, perhaps that’s true of all philosophy). Read more »

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 »

The continuing relevance of Immanuel Kant

by Emrys Westacott


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely touted as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western civilization. Yet few people other than academic philosophers read his works, and I imagine that only a minority of them have read in its entirety the Critique of Pure Reason, generally considered his magnum opus. Kantian scholarship flourishes, with specialized journals and Kant societies in several countries, but it is largely written by and for specialists interested in exploring subtleties and complexities in Kant's texts, unnoticed influences on his thought, and so on. Some of Kant's writing is notoriously difficult to penetrate, which is why we need scholars to interpret his texts for us, and also why, in two hundred years, he has never made it onto the New York Times best seller list. And some of the ideas that he considered central to his metaphysics–for instance, his views about space, time, substance, and causality–are widely held to have been superseded by modern physics.

So what is so great about Kant? How is his philosophy still relevant today? What makes his texts worth studying and his ideas worth pondering? These are questions that could occasion a big book. What follows is my brief two penn'th on Kant's contribution to modern ways of thinking. I am not suggesting that Kant was the first or the only thinker to put forward the ideas mentioned here, or that they exhaust what is valuable in his philosophy. My purpose is just to identify some of the central strains in his thought that remain remarkably pertinent to contemporary debates.

1. Kant recognized that in the wake of the scientific revolution, what we call “knowledge” needed to be reconceived. He held that we should restrict the concept of knowledge to scientific knowledge–that is, to claims that are, or could be, justified by scientific means.

2. He identified the hallmark of scientific knowledge as what can be verified by empirical observation (plus some philosophical claims about the framework within which such observations occur). Where this isn't possible, we don't have knowledge; we have, instead, either pseudo-science (e.g. astrology), or unrestrained speculation (e.g. religion).

3. He understood that both everyday life and scientific knowledge rests on, and is made orderly, by some very basic assumptions that aren't self-evident but can't be entirely justified by empirical observations. For instance, we assume that the physical world will conform to mathematical principles. Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason that our belief that every event has a cause is such an assumption; perhaps, also, our belief that effects follow necessarily from their causes; but many today reject his classification of such claims as “synthetic a priori.” Regardless of whether one agrees with Kant's account of what these assumptions are, his justification of them is thoroughly modern since it is essentially pragmatic. They make science possible. More generally, they make the world knowable. Kant in fact argues that in their absence our experience from one moment to the next would not be the coherent and intelligible stream that it is.

Read more »