Every deliberate choice begins at a point of uncertainty. At that point, the decider can honestly say, “I might choose A or I might choose B. I just don’t know yet. Let me think about it.”
For all practical purposes, “I could choose A or I could choose B” is always true at that point in time. At the point of uncertainty, all of our options are still real possibilities.
In terms of deterministic inevitability, only one option is inevitable. And that option was inevitable since the beginning of time. This is certainly a fact, but not a useful fact. Deterministic inevitability makes itself irrelevant by its very ubiquity. Like a constant on both sides of every equation, it can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result. It cannot make any practical difference in any real world scenario.
The mental process of deliberate choosing is itself deterministic. Choosing is the process by which a biological organism sorts out a number of options and resolves them into a single choice. After choosing, we may review our thinking, and, if we are very certain of our choice, we can see that it was in fact inevitable. If at the end there is still some uncertainty about the wisdom of our choice, then it may not seem inevitable. Still, we assume there was some reason why we made this choice, even if we only flipped a coin.
A choice is the person’s “will” at that moment. One’s “will” is a specific intention for a future outcome. Acting upon that intention is expected to bring about a desired result.
If we were free to make that choice for ourselves, then we say we made that choice “of our own free will”. If someone forced that choice upon us, against our will, then our choice was not free. This is a meaningful and relevant distinction that comes up in many real life scenarios.
If children in a school classroom are required to say the pledge of allegiance with the “under God” phrase, those who believe in God will do so of their own free will, but the atheist child is forced against his will.
When one of the Boston Marathon Bombers hijacked a car and made the driver help him escape, the driver was not acting of his own free will, so he was not guilty of aiding in the escape.
In none of these ordinary real life scenarios is there any expectation of “freedom from causation”. The only relevant issue is whether the person was making the choice for himself, or forced to act against his will.
People are intelligent enough to know that they cannot do the impossible. When interpreting what they are trying to say, it would make sense to apply an interpretation that gives them the benefit of the doubt.
When someone says, “I could have done otherwise”, they are not making any claims of super-human powers. All that they mean is that they had more than one option, and that they might have chosen the other option instead.
Perhaps at a restaurant they were offered lobster or steak. Both were very attractive options. And because the waiter had both on the menu, it was possible to choose either one.
Later that night, the butter sauce begins to irritate his stomach, and the decider says, “I should have chosen the steak instead”. If someone were to asked him if he actually could have chosen the steak, he would have to say yes, because he was offered both. Both were possible at the time of the offer.
And that is all that “I could have done otherwise” means.
When the “hard” determinist interprets this to be a metaphysical claim to freedom from causation and insists that there were never two real possibilities, but only one, he introduces mental confusion. After all, the waiter offered two splendid choices, steak and lobster, and at the time of the offer, both were possible.
In fact, both were possible until the decision was made. At the point of decision we all discovered which possible choice was in fact the inevitable choice. And, although the choice was inevitable since the Big Bang, it was not yet caused (brought into actuality) until the decider made his choice.
Why is it that we are not more consciously aware of universal inevitability?
Because it’s useless. There is nothing we can or should do about it. It remains true whatever we decide to do. And it can provide no help to us in making any decision, because whatever we decide will be inevitable. We can’t get around it by saying, “I was going to choose A, but I’ll choose B instead just to spite inevitability”, because that spite now makes B inevitable!
Can the criminal use inevitability to excuse his crimes? Nope, because the judge can also explain why it was inevitable that society outlawed and penalizes that behavior. Like I said earlier, it is a background constant, always on both sides of every equation. It can never affect the results.
So it is set aside, and it is ignored, and it is eventually forgotten. And that is the only appropriate thing to do with the fact of universal inevitability — acknowledge it and then ignore it.
All of the utility of determinism comes from the study of specific causes and their specific effects — not from the idea of inevitability.
The social sciences like psychology, sociology, and criminology address the many influences of a community’s culture and its subcultures upon an individual’s character development. None of these sciences require the abandonment of free will or moral responsibility that some hard determinists are promoting today.
The truth is that every decision we make of our own free will is also inevitable. Autonomy and inevitability are both right there, simultaneously, in every decision.
But these two facts do not have equal value. The fact of autonomy opens up infinite possibilities. The fact of inevitability is a dead end concept with no useful implications.
For example, when the community feels a moral responsibility to address its social issues of discrimination, crime, disengagement, poverty, and economic depression, then these things will change. But if it decides instead to think that these things are inevitable, nothing changes.
The same applies to the offender who commits a crime. Rehabilitation is based upon the idea of an autonomous person, a person who makes choices of his own free will. The goal of rehabilitation is to supply the education, training, and counseling needed to provide the offender with new and better choices when he is released. With new options and attitudes, we may expect the prisoner to function as an autonomously righteous individual when returned to society.
Without autonomy there is no rehabilitation.
All biological organisms are purposeful causal agents. Our own species comes with an advanced neurological system from which consciousness, imagination, planning, evaluation, and choosing emerge. We change both ourselves and our environments according to purposes which actually exist only within ourselves, and nowhere else in the universe.
That which we can imagine and have the skills to carry out are our real possibilities. That which we choose to do is the final responsible cause of what we make inevitable.