Freedom without free will (?)

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The notions of free will and freedom appear to be inextricably bound up together. One’s freedom stems from their capacity to act freely, while purposeful behaviour is, it is believed, the manifestation of the inner workings of free will. But what if, as I have argued in my Confessions of a former libertarian, we have to let go of the idea of free will? What if there is compelling evidence pointing to an account of agency that deprives it of its perceived transcendental status, presenting it as yet another magnitude of this world, bound by external forces, causality, probability and other human-related factors (culture, economic status etc.)? In order to remain consistent with our skepticism of free will, must we also abandon the idea of freedom altogether? Can’t the two be decoupled, so that one may be treated as independent of the other? And if so, in what sense might that be?

These are the kind of questions I have been ruminating about since I converted to free will skepticism. In this article I will attempt to articulate my thoughts thus far, which basically amount to the distinction between freedom qua emergent political virtue and free will as belief in the transcendent, decontextualised status of agency. The gist of my argument is that one need not make dubious metaphysical claims in order to justify the basic, the mundane — albeit worthy — demands for political freedom.

Let me start by defining my somewhat idiosyncratic use of political [freedom]. My conception of politics is as that of the nominal context in which all things human occur (the natural context being the world of causality and probability). This is aligned with Aristotle’s notion of human as a political animal and with Socrates’/Plato’s understanding of ethics as an emergent quality of the polity, at least according to my reading. To distinguish such meaning from the one found in the common application of the term — “European Union politics amidst the economic crisis”, “American politics during Barack Obama’s presidency” — we will rename the latter political process, to signify the full array of events that take place in the formation, institution, regulation of aspects of daily experience within a given political unit.

Against this backdrop, we may draw delineations between free will and freedom. The former encapsulates a set of metaphysical claims that posit agency as transcendent, prior to — and independent of — the milieu in which it may ever be immersed in; a set of propositions that either omit the nominal and/or natural context altogether, or treat it as irrelevant to agency: “you are the person you choose to be and, thus, you are liable for your actions and must be held accountable for the consequences thereof”. In contradistinction, freedom, as I consider it, is not metaphysical, it rather is a feature of the nominal context, a set of conditions that may foster a given range of states of affairs within the polity. It is an emergent property, an emergent virtue if you will; emergent in that the absence of politics would decisively render it void.

The typical argument for transcendental/metaphysical freedom perceives of the context as, at best, a nexus of factors that may enable some otherwise “inner” freedom to be externalised in its fullness. The person, it is suggested, is the bearer of such freedom and none can deprive them of it. Though there may be a kernel of validity in that view, probably found in the epiphenomenal impression of having full control of one’s own thoughts and beliefs, the overall essentialism concerning freedom remains inadequate for two reasons: (1) it commits the error of elevating a partial truth, if true, into a whole truth, and (2) it fails to acknowledge the very possibility of there being external factors to the person that may cause the very perception of having full, unconditional control over oneself.

The idea of an inner freedom becomes quite implausible when a tyranny of sorts is brought into focus: in what meaningful way does, say, a female enjoy freedom in a misogynistic community, or an immigrant in an ultra-nationalist, xenophobic society? Even if, for the sake of dialectic, we are to assent to some version of inner freedom, it is my assumption that all of history’s oppressed would prefer something more than that, something more immediate and tangible. If that holds, then the discussion will inevitably come down to politics, in the aforementioned sense, and eventually freedom will be propounded as a programmatic objective that is achievable through the political process.

To think of freedom without free will is akin to thinking of justice while being an atheist or agnostic. You do not support your claims as per some externality’s — God’s — authority, as springing from some extra-contextual cradle of truthfulness. Rather, you inquire in the conditions that may render a state of affairs just or free or whatever virtue; qualities, features, properties that are immanent, discernible in the things being examined. For instance, one need not postulate the presence of some deity to ground their demands for, say, equal pay for equal labour and, further, to expect that principle to be applied universally and irrespective of one’s background, features or any other particularities. All that is needed, indeed all that matters, is an examination of the interoperating facts and the common in their multitude, to treat like as like, unlike as unlike.

Finally, and to recapitulate, I expound on a broader concept of politics as the nominal context, an interweaving web of factors that contribute to determining a person qua agent. In this light, freedom is not a metaphysical magnitude, but an emergent property of the polity, meaning that its intersubjective substantiation can be conducted with regard to the actuality of things. By striping freedom of its transcendental aspects, we are in a position to distinguish it from free will and the concomitant set of beliefs. This is done in an effort to examine whether one may argue for freedom while remaining skeptical of a worldview that is predicated on free will. The magma of ideas here outlined seems to place such a venture within the realm of possibility. Admittedly, further reflection is needed to gain a better grasp of the issue and the topics involved, and to recognise the full implications this sort of position may have.

Thank you for reading!