Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Human Actions

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Are Human Actions Free or Determined?

By Sarah Luttrell


For many years, modern philosophers have wrestled with a number of various issues. Whether they were rationalists or empiricists, every philosopher still had to face three of the most important issues that are commonly referred to as metaphysics proper. While the questions of God’s existence and whether or not the soul is immortal are two of the most popular topics, it is the question of whether or not human actions are free or determined, that not only sparked my interest, but also the interest of John Locke and Gottfried Leibniz.

While they were two of the most respected people in modern philosophy, they practiced completely different styles of philosophy. Gottfried Leibniz’s works are done through the rationalistic view, while John Locke takes the “sense-loving” empiricist route. Since these two men do support opposing styles of philosophy, it is obvious that they do not share the same ideas about the freedom of human actions. Leibniz is most often recognized as the rationalist who discussed the existence of a monad (fundamental component of reality) and how a soul monad is comprised of everything that is a part of your past, present, and future, but the things just happen as you act them out. Continuing this way of thought, it would be fair for me to say that even though I could have qualified for the state golf tournament if I had played better, I wouldn’t have qualified in any way because it was already in my monad to play poorly enough to keep me from qualifying. If I had played better and qualified, then that is what my monad had in it already. This would seem as though a monad sounds like it is advocating for innate ideas or predetermined events of life. Since Leibniz is a rationalist, it is understood in that concept that he supports innate ideas just as fellow rationalist Descartes. However, if everything you do is already programmed into your monads, how do you have free will? Can Leibniz incorporate free will into his system?

Leibniz claims that all things pre-determined are certain but not necessary. Something is necessary if it could not have been otherwise. It is certain that I wasn’t going to qualify for the state golf tournament, but there was nothing that followed the state tournament that depended on my qualification status. One of Leibniz’s main points to argument, in my opinion, brings God into the picture. He explains that just because God knows we will do X and do it freely, does not mean that God made us do it. It doesn’t mean that instance X could have not been otherwise or without God making it happen, it wouldn’t have happened. God created me to freely choose where to go to college, but He knew I was going to go to Georgetown before I made the decision to. I believe this perspective holds true for almost everything I can think of at the moment. I think back to a decision I made in high school that wasn’t the correct one, but I did learn from it. I often wonder, even though I learned from the situation, why God allowed me to make the decision. But that is exactly what he did. He gave me the will that allowed me to make the decision, but he knew the decision I would make and every consequence that would come along with it before I made the decision. He did not will me to make a certain decision though.

Even though Leibniz believes that all knowledge you had, the knowledge you have now, and will ever have, is already programmed into your monad before birth, I believe he has incorporated the idea of free will into his system efficiently. Using the claim “all things predetermined are certain but not necessary”, he is able to establish that the things that are predetermined will happen. However, when Leibniz adds the “but not necessary” part to his claim, it allows free will to fit into his system. By adding this clause into his statement, it points out that predetermined things will happen, but no events are dependent on one another. This proves that you can have everything you will do, already set at birth, but it also means that you have free will because you aren’t like a programmed robot as if you are moving along in life with no control on what happens next. You can decide what happens, even though it was already known that you would decide to do a certain thing.

Supporting an empiricism view, John Locke didn’t agree with Leibniz dealing with the matter of free will. Locke basically explains the will as doing X. Commonly referring to it as volition, Locke says that the will isn’t free. He gives three articles of support for the will not being free. First, Locke says that we must will. He says that we are not free not to will; we either will to do something or will to not do it. For example, I will to write this paper. I could not write the paper and get a zero, but my average could not afford a zero. If I didn’t care about my grades, I would just not write the paper. This doesn’t mean that I just didn’t, it means that I had to write it or not write it. Therefore, since I had to do one of the things, then my will wasn’t really free; I had to will to do either of the things. Another piece of support for the will not being free given by Locke is that we get ourselves into a quandary when we ask if the will is free because the question is unintelligible. Locke says that powers cannot be ascribed to other powers. It is impossible to say that a power is the cause or result of another. The third piece of evidence that Locke gives to support the will not being free is infinite regress. This is basically saying that when asking about the will and what it causes, you get into an infinite regress and you cannot get to a beginning point. Locke says that when thinking about the infinite regress of the will, it forces you to think if there was some will that enables you to do the will that enabled you to will. Even though it sounds quite confusing, it is completely understandable. My will for going to class each day is sparked by the will that I want to make good grades. Well, the will to make good grades is based on the will pushing me telling me that my parents pay a lot for me to go to this school and the attainment of a good GPA for the degree. It is easy to see with a simple example as this, that infinite regress does exist. I find that the most persuasive piece of support given by Locke is the claim that we must will. No matter what I do during the day, it is based on whether I decided to do it or to not do it. Even though it seems as though the will is free since I use the term “decided”, the will is not free when looking at it from Locke’s point of view. In order for me to decide to do something or decide not to do it, I must use my will to make that decision. I will to decide. Locke also mentions that uneasiness is the contributing factor that determines the will. Reflecting on my life, I find that I am constantly bombarded by uneasiness, just as Locke says people in general are. I find that when making a decision, the uneasiness I experience usually brings to my attention the presence of my will. It is when I have the recognition of the absence of some good that I am knowingly relying on my will to help me determine the best decision. Even though Locke says that we must will, it is often unapparent to us that we will. I find that this is the main reason that people don’t really think about free will in depth. I constantly make decisions with the preconceived notion that I decided to do that without realizing that I was bound to do one thing or the other.

As I reflect on the views of Leibniz and Locke, I find that I, like most others, have not thought about the topic of free will in depth. I have always believed that I choose to do what I want therefore I am free. However, I see now that I am not free. Even though it seems that things should be one way or the other, you believe in something or you don’t, I think that it is possible to support both the rationalistic view given by Leibniz and the empiricist view given by Locke. During a discussion in a high school English class of mine, a peer once said that God determines what you will do. At that moment, I objected and gave an opposing view similar to that of Leibniz. I replied that God does not choose for us what we will do, but instead he just knows what we will choose to do. If we had no control over what we did, and simply went along in life as if we were puppets of God’s hands, then that would imply that a mistake such as hurting your parents by lying to them, was what God made us do. Now of course this is comical to those who believe in God simply because God commands us to honor thy parents. If God controlled our actions and forced us to lie to our parents, which in turn hurt them, then it would seem that God made us hurt them. It could then be concluded that if God made us do this, then He is evil and forced us to sin. If you believe in and worship God, then by that faith, it is unconceivable that God would make us sin. Therefore, I support Leibniz when he says that our will is free even though the predetermined things about us are certain.

Even though I support Leibniz and his claim that God knows what we will do, but it is our free will that allows us to choose, I can’t help but think that it is possible to support Locke as well, in a sense. Locke claimed that we must will, therefore our will isn’t free. Well, I feel that yes, we must will, based on the fact that willing is the action of doing X, and either you will to do X or if you don’t do X, then you have willed to not do X. However, I think that even though we must will to make decisions, I don’t think that is an accurate reason for the will to not free. It seems to me that if we must will, then that claim of support for the will not being free is used incorrectly. When Locke says we must will, therefore it isn’t free, that basically causes me to think that if we must will, then Locke should claim that our ability to will simply exists. When reviewing Locke’s support for his claim, I find that he doesn’t incorporate God into his support very extensively. Even though he is and empiricist and believes that innate ideas are a falsehood, this does not constitute God’s presence in the issue of free will. Would Locke say that, since he believes we are clean slates at birth, and we must will, that God forces us do what we do? As I stated earlier, I do not see that that claim can be true. Also, it seems to me that it would be hard not to think that the idea of infinite regress can’t date back to God being the beginning point. As I review Locke’s theory, without much support through the use of God to claim that the will isn’t free, I find it hard to understand that his support proves why the will isn’t free instead of the fact that the will simply exists.

Leibniz and Locke have both provided extensive accounts on their beliefs about free will and whether or not our actions are determined. Even though each of them support opposing sides of the argument of free will, I find that this issue is not proven to be cut and dried, one way or the other, by either of the philosophers. If you take the time to review each of their views and support, then look to yourself to try to understand both sides, you can see how it is hard to firmly believe one or the other based on the simple fact that you can believe in selective parts of each person’s view. However, in the end, I have found that in order to make a most persuasive argument, it is necessary to incorporate God and how He fits into improving the credibility of the philosopher’s argument.



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