It’s funny how any extended conversation with my friend Yang gets me thinking about everything a little harder.
We got to talking about free will and birth. Our birth is not our choice. Or so it seems. This is an issue of great importance to me, because it problematizes human existence itself. It threatens to annul all notion of free will: If even our birth wasn’t our choice, do we have any choice at all? As you can see, it makes for a rather bleak human condition.
Her: What’s the point of thinking about it if that’s just the way it is and nothing can be done to change it?
Me: Well, for one, i enjoy thinking about it, and trying to understand this unsolvable problem can help to fuel other philosophical projects which could contribute something real and practical to society.
Even more importantly, the way in which we decide to accept or reject this truth could have great implications on our actions. In other words, this is a question of moral responsibility.
In my post on Peter Singer’s contribution to The Stone, i couldn’t decide whether having children is ethical, since i couldn’t reconcile birth with free will, while at the same time, my tendency to innately believe that nature is usually “right” restrained me from jumping to the conclusion that it is flat-out wrong to procreate.
But here’s another question to consider: Our birth aside, on what grounds do we accept or reject our unchosen existence, and if we accept it, how do we cope with it?
I’m not sure if i can answer that for myself yet, but the following is a half-assed and clueless attempt at categorizing and characterizing possible ways that we might do this.
First, some definitions:
will – The faculty of deciding, choosing, or acting. (Philosophical Dictionary: Whately-Wollstonecraft)
free will – a will that is free from all compulsion and restraint
freedom – The human capacity to act (or not to act) as we choose or prefer, without any external compulsion or restraint. (Philosophical Dictionary: Whately-Wollstonecraft)
As such, free will is an abstract concept, a will characterized, whereas freedom is free will realized. Some philosophers use the terms interchangeably, but i like to draw this difference. I’m not sure if this difference is even commonly drawn, but this is how i conceptualize the difference, if there is one.
In human life…
Birth is not a choice.
Successful birth results in existence.
∴ Existence is not a choice.
For a thing to be free, it must have been chosen.
∴ Existence is not free.
[I realize this isn’t an exhaustive argument outline, but for the purposes of this post, only the final proposition itself matters. I can’t argue it without being able to objectively measure the significance of birth to existence, which i can’t. There are probably other things too that i need to be able to do make that argument, which i won’t bother trying to identify at the moment. So essentially, i’m not trying to do philosophy here so much as i am attempting to speculate how one might cope with one’s unchosen existence should seeing it as such become (or even merit) an existential crisis. I did pose a question about this issue on AskPhilosophers.org, and i will follow-up on this with another post if i get a reply. Meanwhile, i would love to hear any objections to the above premises.]
And now, some possible positions (assuming acceptance of the premises):
A. Rejection of the proposition
1) with pursuit of freedom as a value: “I refuse to believe that my existence is not free just because my birth was not so. To the extent that i can assert my freedom as i live, my existence is free.” This individual takes heart, despite the possibility that free will might not exist, and strives to exercise his self-perceived freedom in everything he does. He will never be able to tell whether his life is really and absolutely free, because life as we know it always begins with an unchosen birth, and we can’t know if a different kind of life with a certain free will exists, or could exist. However, this does not matter to him because he believes that his ability to make free choices after his birth somehow makes up for the fact that his birth was not his choice.
2) with renouncement of freedom as a value: “My existence seems free, but i feel no need to pursue freedom.” A happy-go-lucky individual, if you will. Either nothing has made him suspect that his existence might not be free, or he doesn’t care to look deeply enough into the issue to be skeptical.
B. Acceptance of the proposition
1) with pursuit of freedom as a value: “My existence is not free, but i must be free.” This individual’s only alternative is to commit suicide. If his existence is not free but he must be free, he cannot live.
2) with renouncement of freedom as a value: “My existence might not be free, but i could think of it as a gift, nothing more.” This individual considers his life as an opportunity that was generously bestowed upon him, resigning himself to live the life he was given without a real free will.
Next question: How might these positions play out in a society?
A1: To this individual, it doesn’t matter whether anyone can verify or prove that human free will exists. As long as he personally values freedom as an essential human necessity and believes that he can be free if he chooses to be, he will protect others’ freedom as well, barring any moral failings. An A1-minded society will, at least by principle, look out for everyone’s freedom. A1’s could potentially drive A2’s to value and exercise freedom and save B1’s from suicide by persuasion. A1’s and B2’s would probably agree to disagree.
A2: The individual least in despair, Kierkegaard would say. Or as Heidegger might say, the individual forever trapped in “everydayness.” These individuals go with the flow, not stopping to question whether their existence is really free. Depending on how deeply they are immersed in their everyday lives, it would be difficult for A1’s and B1’s to get them to consider that their existence might not be free. These individuals could live with B2’s in harmony, agreeing to disagree, or they could even cite B2s’ argument of seeing the opportunity of life as valuable in itself as the reason for not valuing freedom. Ultimately, there could be infinite arguments for the renouncement of freedom as a value. Still, A2’s are the most susceptible to persuasion from other positions, since their position is the least reasoned.
B1: Could B1’s lead a mass suicide? Maybe. Could they argue their position to A1’s, A2’s, and B2’s, and get them to resort to suicide as well? Possibly. But could they offer counter-objections to objections to their arguments? I’m not so sure. For instance, how might they respond to the objection, “But why must we value freedom? What objective reason do we have to value it?” And how might they argue against B2s’ case that whether birth was a free choice or not, it afforded them the opportunity of life, which could have value in itself? Troublingly, B1’s have no sense of morality, since they see no value or meaning in human existence. For everyone’s well-being, it would be best if they kept to themselves.
B2: The least susceptible to the argument that freedom should be valued. These individuals see life as an opportunity that would not have been given to them had they not been born, so they already see value in existence. They are the most content, because they value life even with the understanding that it might not have been a free choice. Unless A1’s and B1’s can successfully argue for freedom as an objective value, these individuals will never be fazed. At the same time, they have no compulsion to make their case to anyone who thinks otherwise, because as far as they know, there are no objective values to argue for.
I think that’s enough for now. A little sloppy and not really reasoned at all, but i’m hoping someone from AskPhilosophers.org will shed some light on the relationship between birth and existence. I think that’s what’s really key here, but i haven’t found any discussion of free will that considers the relationship. So here’s to hoping i get a reply, and in the meantime, have a kick-ass July 4th weekend, Americans.