"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


If you can possibly get to see the new animated film called Igor, in theaters now, please do. A take-off on the Frankenstein theme, it was written by my friend and former student Chris McKenna, and much of it is very witty and very funny. Careful observers will notice a nod to your humble blogger among the credits, his first time in lights. (Only 15 milliseconds of fame, what with inflation and all, but he's not complaining.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Free Will and Determinism

A student of mine now at Princeton sends a link to a long discussion of free will and determinism ("Luck Swallows Everything") that attempts an analysis of possible rational positions on the subject: we have no free will; we have some free will; we have absolute free will. After pages of Enlightenment argument, exhausting in trying to be exhaustive, the article concludes with a Romantic implication: truth is a matter of individual opinion. This is what happens when one worships human reason.

The most annoying passages in the article attempt to assess whether we have “ultimate responsibility” for our choices, as if human free will could ever be ultimate. (However we have come into being, we have certainly not created ourselves.)

Such a discussion may be useful for intellectual training. It is not a path to truth.

Here are my own guidelines for thinking about free will and predetermination:

1. Oedipus Rex is the extra-biblical world’s most powerful articulation of the relation between free will and fate, which, in a mystery, are one. Reading it is humbling tonic.

2. In The Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Akiba says, “All is foreseen and free choice is given . . . .” He is asserting that God (the only possible bearer of “ultimate responsibility”) foresees everything and gives man free will. The implication of this condensed statement is that we live in mystery and must live with paradox, and that our mission is not to solve the mystery or resolve the paradox but to choose the good. The sentence concludes, “and the world is judged by goodness and all is according to the amount of work.” That is, God is good in his judgment and rewards virtuous deeds, assertions that would be pointless if we had no free will.

3. Dante agrees. In the Paradiso he asserts that free will is God’s greatest gift to man, that God predestines all things, and that no created being can comprehend the divine predestination or its relation to our free will.

4. Milton agrees. In Paradise Lost, he asserts that God’s foreknowledge does not limit man’s freedom of choice, the only basis for the justice of reward and punishment, whether human or divine.

5. The modern concept of predetermination depends on the belief that all events are physical, every event being a deterministic function of all previous events. But since it is not provable or disprovable that all reality is comprehended by the physical universe, the actual existence of free will remains a matter of faith, not knowledge. The strictly deterministic science of physics itself arrives at quantum theory, which paradoxically contradicts absolute physical determinism. (As Jeffrey Satinover argues in The Quantum Brain, quantum indeterminacy may be the very locus of our freedom.)

6. Belief in the absence of human free will goes against the mainstream of Western intellectual and religious tradition, and the question of the precise relation of free will to determinism is a profound mystery that cannot be solved by the human mind. (Those who think otherwise, despite their apparent commitment to Enlightenment rationality, are fantasizing.)

7. Mary Holmes said, “It doesn't matter whether we actually have free will; we think we do.” We experience ourselves as making choices, an experience not altered by imagining the choices to be illusory. Every participant in the upcoming colloquy, however deterministic his abstract picture of reality, will nonetheless be living in practice under the assumption that he is making free choices. Thus it seems silly to embrace a philosophical position that posits that a universal foundation of the thought and behavior of actual human beings—even determinists—is an empty shell. One might as soon believe that desire, language, or breathing were illusory.

My advice is to laugh at them.