The main alternatives concerning the nature of free will are these: either (I) one believes in free will as an act simultaneously devoid of all kinds of causes, but then the act is indescribable and a fortiori unexplainable; or (II) prudently and sceptically, we call attention to the fact that we do not have, or that at least we do not have yet, the suitable abstractions to think about free will and determinism, observing that this is why the discussions about them are often obscure and aporetic; or (III) ― this is the intuition I develop in this short essay ― we think that nature, with no exception whatsoever, is causally determined, and free will is then conceived as an interiorised causal necessity. Finally, while searching for a biological, psychological and sociological meaning for the belief in absolute freedom and responsibility, I speculate that probably this belief, for lack of better understanding, has a provisional value for the constitution and preservation of social order.
With the expression “interiorisation or subjectivation of causal determinism” I mean the identification of our self with a causal determinism. If this sense of free will is considered unusual by definition, that one has to choose between necessity and free will as a causeless experience, then those of us who follow the doctrine of necessity abandon the belief in causeless free will while recognising at the same time that we feel neither overpowered nor asphyxiated by our interiorised necessity. Now, especially when we are young, our behaviour seems unpredictable (epistemological indeterminism), which certainly helps believers in free will to bear necessity. Our behaviour seems unpredictable because we do not have an efficient algorithm to calculate it, and this is so due to the fact that our brain is composed of an extremely high number of particles. But according to the doctrine of necessity, human behaviour is causally determined, and it is then, at least in principle, foreseeable: “If the theory of an abstract system does not allow us to predict its evolution”, writes Th. Vogel, “it is because our abstraction has not retained a sufficient number of ‘decisive’ qualities. In principle, there is an abstract causal system for every concrete system”.
From what a man is, it follows everything a man can be. For every entity, to act freely, as a stone in free fall, means to act following its own law and without any abnormal condition. The law and the normal condition of a man’s free will is the act of behaving according to what he is, and man is a synthesis of causal determinism. Free will has nothing to do with scientific indeterminism nor with chance events but it has much to do, on the contrary, with the several kinds of causes: material, formal, efficacious, motor, and final causes.
Some people compare mind’s acting as a directing principle to the role played by “the finite being” or “Maxwell’s demon” introduced in J.C. Maxwell’s thought experiment concerning the Second Law of thermodynamics (the entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium). Maxwell, who was not a vitalist, dealt to some extent with the problem of the workings of the mind and suggested an analogy in order to conceive the voluntary action within a mechanic and determinist world. He postulated that in its action, the mind neither creates nor increases energy because, just as “Maxwell’s demon”, the mind limits itself to guiding energy. Following J. Boussinescq’s idea lieux de bifurcation, Maxwell used the expression “bifurcation of paths”. Thus he tried to describe the deviation of a system at a point of singularity, so that a system “will go off along that one of the particular paths which happens to coincide with the actual condition of the system at that instant”, as P.M. Harman points it out. (A singularity is a point at which a curve does not have a unique tangent, for example because it is isolated or the curve crosses itself). Another possibility is perhaps to consider the mind as the driver of a steam locomotive who obviously does not pull out the locomotive but directs the course of the steam by actioning the valves, and in doing so he guides the locomotive forwards, backwards, or brings it to a standstill.
I would like to add that the analogy of the guidance system suggests, in its turn, the philosophical idea of final cause in a mechanic sense. This kind of final cause is conceived as local, immanent to the system, and it is considered as a natural phenomenon since the study of guidance systems belongs to mathematics, to mechanics and to the natural sciences. We are here in presence of a determinism of the final cause which embraces also all kinds of self-regulating systems such as automatic piloting systems, missile guidance, and servomechanisms. Nevertheless all these ingenious analogical attempts imagined to conceive how the mind can voluntarily command the body without creating or increasing the amount of energy are not quite convincing: there is no way to imagine how an action ― no matter how subtle since it consists in guiding a system ― can actually be executed without matter or energy. Maxwell mentions the possibility that the determination which takes place at the point of bifurcation be the action of a strictly infinitesimal cause. Anyway, a mind capable of guiding a movement cannot be absolutely devoid of matter-energy.
Freedom can be examined within the frame of some mechanical ideas such as the Lex parsimoniæ, the Principles of Optimum, the Principle of Least Action. While talking about causes we consider their intimate mutual collaboration: on the one hand, material causes condition form and finality (knives are not made out of wood), on the other, there is reciprocity of determination since each system synthesises the data constituting material and efficient causes according to its own form and finality. Birds use physical materials and forces to build their nest in order to protect their offspring. For me, free will has to be a kind of formal or final cause immerse in the ocean of natural causes. And the interest of linking free will to the Principles of Optimum and to some deep biological principles like the conatus — every entity strives to persevere in its being and optimise its existence — is that they help to explain why, at a given moment, we decide as we do, why we choose one path instead of another: we always act consciously or unconsciously in order to reach an end, important for us, in an optimal or suboptimal manner.
If the experience of free will as a causeless act is impossible, how can we explain the force of this belief as it is revealed and extended, for instance, by the feelings of responsibility, culpability, and pride? My hypothesis is that the conatus is unconsciously so firmly anchored in organisms that it is reasonable to interpret free will, and the feelings derived from it, as states destined to favour the person’s existence, more specifically man’s life in society. These feelings, generated by our biological evolution, have a practical value to keep social order; thus society, assuming that men are free and consequently responsible for their acts, rewards and punishes. On the other hand, according to the doctrine of necessity, for any man there is absolutely no reason to be proud of anything, and it is reasonable for society to control a criminal’s actions, not because he has misused his absolute freedom, but because society has to preserve its existence. The idea of free will, and the conceptions derived from it, structure society so deeply, that their abandonment would have deep and far-reaching implications.
Concerning modality: I recognise with Diodorus Chronus ― consistently with the doctrine of causal determinism ― that only that which comes to be real has been possible, adding, for my part, that everything real is a necessary synthesis of causal determinism. Possible things exist only in our minds, and the attribution of possibility to real facts is to commit what I call “the fallacy of representation”: the false identification of things as they are with our erroneously formed beliefs about them. We imagine possibilities, causal determinism reduces them. A. Schopenhauer explains the idea as follows: those who think that there are possibilities which will never become real do not properly distinguish the domain of reason from that of intuition. The real is given to intuition only. The real, let us say, is the fact that my house is catching fire. If we take into account the abstract idea that houses can catch fire, the burning down of my house appears as a contingent fact. But this is sheer appearance because if we go on to describe the series of concrete events which took place in my house adding, for instance, that a short circuit initiated a fire by a flammable material, then ― according to the principle of sufficient reason ― the statement “my house is burning down” is a description which follows necessarily from the universal statement “all houses may burn down” and from the minor premise “a short circuit sets fire to my house”.
My universal causal determinism naturally includes our subjectivity, which means that every decision synthesises the internal necessity which defines the person. But if free will expresses a causal determinism and participates in it, why should we act; is there any sense in deciding one way or other? This is an old objection; it is the Argos Logos, the Idle Argument: it is fated either that you will recover from this illness or that you will not recover from this illness; therefore it is futile to consult a doctor. Echoing Chrysippus’ co-fatal events, I would say that the recovery of health was as causally determined as the act of going to the hospital. It is not only the case that given the appropriate causes, some effects necessarily will follow. The way of neutralising the Idle Argument consists in stating that, in causal determinism, causes and effects are determined and not solely effects. This is so because all causes are, in their turn, effects of other causes, just as all effects are, in their turn, causes of other effects.
The belief in a causeless kind of free will is due to the fact that consciousness is unable to know everything that takes place within and without the brain and which has an influence in human behaviour. The belief in absolute freedom is nourished by ignorance, and thus to the extent that knowledge and understanding increase, its strength decreases. “For an intelligent man the margin of free election and initiative is extremely narrow”, says Jorge Santayana’s Socrates in Dialogues in Limbo. With small variations, this idea has been stated by a long series of apologists of determinism. The Stoics taught that nothing, not even man, is an exception to the order imposed by necessity. According to the doctrine of necessity, man is free to the extent that he is master of himself, that is to say, for as long as he knows why he does what he does, and why he endures what he endures. On the contrary, he who is not a master of himself tries, pointlessly, to go against the natural course of things.
The mind, perceiving nature from the inside, realises that she has generated it and allowed it to blossom with the same mechanisms she employed elsewhere in her works.