Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?

It is common to think that determinism contradicts free will. One way to put this is that if everything that will happen has been determined by past events, then you cannot change what happens. Another way it could be put is that if past events are the causes of your actions, then you cannot be the author of them.

When I discuss free will and determinism with people, I constantly run into the problem that some people cannot really think about what they mean by it. As I argued last week, every event is either deterministically caused or not, and there’s no third option. Yet people will insist, by either explicitly saying it or unknowingly assuming it, that something can be neither determined nor random (undetermined) but instead be a free choice. From this, we can get the idea of ultimate self-determination: that a choice is not random because it is under the person’s control, but is also not determined because the person could have chosen otherwise and prior events in the universe do not determine what they choose.

This is already proven impossible by the fact that any action is either deterministic or not and indeterminism can only mean (some degree of) randomness. But let’s look at it from a different point of view: what would it mean for a choice to be grounded only in the person themselves and not, even at a greater distance in time, in any prior events?

Most people would not think random events could be choices. If what happens is not ultimately selected by any reasons, then it’s just random, and that’s it. This also goes for anything involving only partial randomness, as I keep having to say in case of indeterminists who think the choice is undetermined between different existing desires or whatever. (Maybe I should write another article to clarify that.) Now, if we take a libertarian position on free will (not to be confused with any other kinds of “libertarian”) seriously, that means that there are free choices and they are undetermined. This isn’t entirely incoherent; we could just say that some random happenings are, by definition, the actions/choices of a particular agent. But then, it’s not really what almost anyone wants. When they say this, they’re really thinking of freedom as a “third thing”. They are not facing up to the consequence that then those choices would be random events. Further, “your” random choices are not in any actual way different from other random events. There’s no way you have control over them except in the sense that it has been postulated they are your actions. The end result is still the same: what happens is random.

So, for choice, we want it to be the case that our reasons affect our choices. We don’t want to do something we wouldn’t want to do — obviously. But if we want to be the ultimate origins of our choices, that means at the same time that nothing outside of us in the past must determine the choices. So, it must not be the case that the circumstances before our birth were already such that what we would choose later would be in principle predictable from those circumstances.

Some incompatibilists (concerning free will and determinism) actually think that it’s not a requirement for freedom that your every action be undetermined by past events, as long as past choices that formed your character were free in this way. So it’s enough that you chose in some indeterministic way what you will be like and then your later actions follow from that rather than from circumstances before your birth.

In any case, the problem is the same. Randomness is not choosing. You want your choices to flow from what you are — what you want and all that. A meaningful choice is the choice of some agent with certain properties, things like what they want to happen, what they think will happen if they do a certain thing, etc. (Compare: practical syllogism.) You can’t choose without aims, otherwise it’s randomness again. And this means that it’s logically impossible to choose what you will be like without already being like something. But this in turn means no-one can choose unless that someone already has certain properties. It’s the same reason as why you cannot create yourself from literally nothing, because if such a creation could take place, then you don’t exist, and you can’t do anything.

This is also a difficulty for views where your choices are only partly determined, eg. where the choice between which desire to follow is undetermined. For you to have those desires in the first place, they must have come from somewhere.

So, no. You cannot be the ultimate origin of your choices. The closest to something like that would be the dubiously coherent idea of god as a necessary being that creates itself, but even such a god would be predetermined in the supposed logical necessity.

We can certainly be the authors of our own choices. But we must exist first. We cannot be the authors of ourselves — except, and this is important, after we have already been given a start. We can and should grow and become more through our own choices. The universe is a constant process of development and evolution, and even to the extent that it’s physically deterministic, it’s only determined “in advance” in the weakest sense, as new things keep emerging. This is almost a way around determinism, a kind of third way, but it’s still not a logical third option. The same can be said of free choice for almost the same reasons.

When you make a choice, either it has reasons that can be tracked back into the past, or it doesn’t. If you’re the author of it, then it does. This is perfectly fine for freedom. People get confused when they think about past choices before one’s existence determining something, because it seems to erase the role of the choice. Indeed, if something in the past determined what you do no matter what other things you might want to consider at the time, that would be unfree, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The causality goes through you; it’s embodied in nothing but you at the moment you make a free choice. Those actions may be part of a greater chain of events, but that does not make them not yours. Remember, anyway, that there is no option that gets past this. If the universe were fully deterministic and a tree fell down and snapped a powerline, we would not say that the tree falling did not cause or did not make a difference to the powerline snapping. It would be what caused it. A tree is not free, but that’s not because the tree couldn’t have randomly done something else, it’s because the tree would not have goals or preferences and could not consider different options for what to do to reach them.

This also ties to my last week’s post’s point about why free will cannot solve the problem of god allowing human evil. God would either be the ultimate author of everything (except himself), or he would willingly choose some things to be random instead. It’s not possible for some actions to be ultimately caused by us instead, because no-one can be the ultimate origin of their choices.


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