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Are We Free or Determined (or Both), Essay Example

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Words: 1365

Essay

One of the classical problems of the philosophy of mind is whether we as individual subjects are free in our decisions, or whether these decisions are in fact determined by a source that is exterior to our what we perceive to be our individual consciousness. In other words, this problematic takes the form of the question of the existence or non-existence of the concept of free will. It is worth noting, however, some potential nuances to this question. For example, if we possess a certain degree of individual autonomy in our subjective decision-making processes, can this be still considered to be free will? Where do we draw the limit as to where freedom truly lies? Because of these potential ambiguities concerning the concept of free will itself, perhaps a more nuanced account of autonomy and determination is needed. In the following essay, therefore, I will defend an account of free will based on the Eastern concept of karma, relying upon the interpretation of the latter by the philosopher Saverpalli Radhakrishnan. I will use this approach because the theory of karma reveals some of the conceptual preconceptions regarding the free will or determinism debate, particularly in terms of its reduction in the Western context to a question of material causality, which simplifies the debate itself, insofar as it becomes either a yes or no proposition. In my interpretation of karma, I believe a more thorough account of autonomy and its limits is advanced, insofar as this theory captures some of the problems concerning where we can draw the limits of freedom. In essence, such an approach forces us to re-formulate the question of free will and determinism, understanding that we may be both free and determined at the same time.

In Western society, there is a tendency to view the question of free will in terms of the aforementioned notion of physical causality. Radharkishnan, in contrast, takes an Eastern approach to this idea, which does not view physical causality as the ultimate reality of our existence. As opposed to the natural sciences, therefore, free will or determinism does not take the form of a presupposed context of materialism. In the natural sciences, human beings are nothing but aggregates of some type of “matter”: the question is to what extent this matter can explain our own free will. For example, if we follow such a materialism, we may offer an account of a type of causation, whereby effects follow from causes: the question is to what extent are we free in establishing causes. Instead of taking this materialist approach, Radhakrishnan re-connects the problem of free will and determination to our existence in the world itself. In this regard, it could be said that he is taking an existential approach to this problem, linking it up to how we exist as individuals in the world, as influenced by Eastern philosophy. This approach represents what amounts to a synthesis of the binary split existing in Western physicalist approaches. As Radhakrishnan writes, “the two pervasive features of all nature, connection with the past and creation of the future, are present in the human level.” (486) In other words, Radhakrishnan combines both determinism and free will in the individual existence and realizes it as essential to our existence. This is a crucial move, insofar as it shows a certain presupposition operative in the Western discourse: either free will or determinism. However, by taking this existential view, Radhakrishnan confronts us with another framework with which to view the problem: the point at this stage is not whether his framework is more valid than the “Western” framework, but rather, by proposing another framework, we debunk the apparent rigorousness of the initial debate by offering another conceptual alternative and starting-point. We therefore understand that the thesis “we are both free and determined” is just a veracious beginning-point as “we are either free or determined”, and therefore we are forced to take another angle on the debate, one which critiques the apparent legitimacy of the either-or question in the first place.

With this starting point in place, Radhakrishnan develops his existential account. This starting point, in essence, foreshadows the notion that theories of causality in the Western model are, simply put, too simplistic. Radhakrishnan rather preserves causality, while also preserving freedom. He writes, “Human choice is not unmotivated or uncaused. If our acts were irrelevant to our past, then there would be no moral responsibility or scope for improvement.” (488) The point about morality is not so important in this context. Rather, the very question of human choice itself is the result of some causality: namely, we are confronted with an established, irrefutable decision and therefore must make a choice. In other words, it makes no sense to speak of having free will in a context in which there is no determinism. We only can exercise our freedom in light of a specific situation: if there was no situation, our specific individual freedom would be indistinguishable from the chaos around us, and therefore would not be our own individual freedom, but just another part of this blob of free wills. Insofar as our free will exists in a causally determined context, we are both agents of free will and determined by our environment.

Moreover, a crucial argument from the Eastern tradition which seems relevant to this debate is that there is a sense in which our own freed choices themselves bear a deterministic character. For example, the result of our free choice itself becomes deterministic, determining the situation around us and our relationships to the situation. This is a point which we also encounter in Radhakrishnan, when he writes: “freedom is dogged by automatism. When we make up our mind to do a thing, our mind is different from what it was before. When a possibility becomes an actuality, it assumes the character of necessity.” (488) In other words, all our choices of the free will are possibilities; when they are decided upon they become necessary and actual. However, if they did not have the possibility to become actual, then our free will would be an illusion – when we are free and make free decisions, we once again create determinism, or rather, free will is only free will if it can determine us.

An objection to this approach could be found in the work of Robert Blatchford, which attempted to eradicate any notion of free will in favor of what is called “hard determinism.” The British philosopher concisely summarizes his position as follows: “free will” is really controlled by hereditary and environment.” (474) Here, Blatchford takes a classical materialist approach: man is nothing but a part of the causal chain that is hereditary and environment, therefore man himself is nothing but hereditary and environment. In other words, Blatchford’s argument against free will is essentially by erasing individual existence.

However, this radical elimination of existence does nothing to eliminate the existential view that Radhakrishnan develops. Blatchford’s account merely identifies the illusion of free will, in terms of environment. But Radhakrishnan instead combines free will and determinism, such that the very means by which this elimination itself is performed in favour of the physical causal world is itself an action of free will. To understand the physical causal as physical causal is itself an autonomous decision, taken against a backdrop of particular relations and contexts, such as the West’s reliance upon materialism. Blatchford’s argument in essence shows the free will operative in every deterministic account.

Accordingly, it appears that the either-or situation of free will and determinism is too simple to account for the necessity of their relationship. We can only understand free will in terms of its opposite and therefore these definitions have a dialectic form. When we understand this complex relation, we can understand why it becomes legitimate to think of ourselves both as free and determined: our freedom only occurs against a determined backdrop to have any meaning; but this freedom itself introduces determinism when it changes the parameters of world. A philosopher such as Radhakrishnan is thus invaluable in uncovering some of the prejudices that underline the debate, while helping us work towards a more nuanced account of the latter.

Works Cited

Blatchford, Robert. “Not Guilty.”

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. “Karma and Freedom.”

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