What is a Paradox?
A paradox is a small con game created by a subtle deception that initially escapes our attention. In Zeno’s “Achilles and the Tortoise” we have a race between Achilles, the fastest runner in Greece, and a tortoise, perhaps the slowest animal on the planet. Because the tortoise is very slow, we give him a long head start. Then Achilles looks to see where the tortoise is, and he runs there as fast as he can. But while Achilles is running, the tortoise, even at his slow pace, has continued to move forward. When Achilles gets to where the tortoise was, the tortoise is gone. Achilles looks to find the tortoise again, and races to the new location. But, once again, while he’s running, the tortoise has moved beyond that spot. No matter how many times he repeats this, it is impossible for Achilles to catch the tortoise.
The key to resolving a paradox is to uncover the deception. In this case, Achilles is always running to where the tortoise was, instead of to where the tortoise will be.
The paradox of “Determinism versus Free Will” begins with these assumptions of determinism:
(1) Every event is the reliable result of one or more prior causes;
(2) Every prior cause is itself an event, with its own set of prior causes, each of which, in turn, have their prior causes;
(3) This pattern reliably repeats going back as far as we can imagine;
(4) This pattern also repeats going forward as far as we can imagine;
(5) Therefore, it is a logical fact that every event that ever happened, is happening, or will happen, is “causally necessary” and inevitably will happen.
So, what does this mean? How does this change the way that we view our world, and our place in it?
It may surprise you but, nothing changes. The “new” information is the same as that in the Doris Day song: “Que Sera, Sera. Whatever will be, will be.” It is a useless triviality. Why? Because what we will inevitably do is exactly the same as what we would have done anyway. It is us, just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is neither a meaningful nor a relevant constraint.
So, what about free will? Well, “free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. Because reliable cause and effect, in itself, is neither coercive nor undue, it poses no threat to free will.
Only specific causes, things that actually prevent us from deciding for ourselves, can compromise our free will. If someone were holding a gun to our head, or we were under hypnosis, or if we had a mental illness that impaired our perception of reality or our reasoning, then such extraordinary influences may be said to interfere with the control that we normally exercise over our choice.
We should note that choices that we make of our own free will are also deterministic. Our choice will be the reliable result of who we are at that moment. It will reflect our own purpose and our own reasons, our own values and beliefs, our own genetic dispositions and life experiences, our own thoughts and feelings. These are all things that make us uniquely us. Free will is when “that which is us” is the same as “that which is choosing”.
Because our choice is both reliably caused (deterministic) and reliably caused by us (free will), the two concepts are naturally compatible.
So, how can we screw this up? I know, let’s build ourselves a paradox!
Down the Rabbit Hole (It’s Just a Question, Right?)
An innocent man was accused of beating his wife. At the trial, the prosecutor asked a simple question: “Sir, have you stopped beating your wife? Just answer Yes or No.” This trick question contains an embedded presumption that he had been beating his wife. Either answer, yes or no, admits to something that he did not do.
In the “Determinism versus Free Will” paradox, we begin with this simple question: “How can we be free to choose what we will do, if our choice was already determined for us, long before we were born?”
Embedded in this question is the presumption that something other than us has already made all our choices, without our knowledge or consent. Wow. That’s heavy.
It’s not true, of course. But it draws us into the paradox by suggesting that we must somehow get free from something (reliable cause and effect) which does not bind us in any meaningful or relevant way. That’s the hoax played by this paradox.
The deception, buried in the question, is accomplished using figurative speech. Such statements are always literally false. They carry an implicit “as if”. So, to identify them, we make the “as if” explicit.
For example: “Given the assumptions of determinism, it is as if our choices were already made for us, long before we were born”. To confirm the distinction between figurative and literal, consider this question, “Were our choices actually made for us before we were born?” Well, no, that would be logically impossible. Prior to our birth, neither our purpose, nor our reasons, nor our interests in any issue, could be found anywhere in the universe. All that could be found of us, before our birth, were the conditions required for us to be born.
And, from the moment we were born, we’ve been an active participant in our own development. Even as a newborn we were negotiating with our social and physical environment, and changing it as well as it changing us. Ask any new parent, awakened by cries for food or comfort at 2 AM.
We may say that it was inevitable that we would face an issue requiring our decision. And we may say that, because of who we were at that moment, our choice was also inevitable. But we cannot say that it happened before it actually happened. Nor can we say that it was anything other than us, as we were at that moment, that did the choosing.
Once we get our facts straight, by speaking literally rather than figuratively, we rediscover ourselves as the meaningful and relevant cause of our choice.
And that resolves the paradox. There was never any real “versus” between determinism and free will. Most people already assume both, reliable causation and free will. They see no conflict between the fact that they are making the choice and the fact that they have good reasons causing them to make that choice rather than another.
So, to all the philosophy professors and scientists who have been taken in by this hoax, please wise up, and let’s stop playing this little joke upon others. Okay?