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The Free Will of Ebenezer Scrooge

Richard Kamber considers the possibility of changing destiny.

The eeriest episode in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) is the visit to Ebenezer Scrooge of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. The shrouded specter transports the old man to a bedroom where his own corpse lies “plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for,” and then to his grave in a churchyard “overrun by grass and weeds.” When Scrooge begs to “see some tenderness connected with a death” the ghost conducts him to the Cratchit family grieving over the death of Tiny Tim. Profoundly shaken, Scrooge implores: “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” The ghost remains silent, but we know from the end of Dickens’ tale that Scrooge begins altering his life on Christmas day.

Fate & Freedom

Ebenezer Scrooge (Alistair Sim) has a vision of his (possible) future

This story differs in a philosophically interesting way from fatalistic tales of protagonists who, although warned about calamities to come, are unable to avoid them. Oedipus for example, as foretold in prophecy, is fated to kill his father and marry his mother regardless of the steps taken to prevent these deeds from happening. Ignorant of how exactly his fate will unfold, and blind to its inevitability, he becomes the instrument of his own destruction. Scrooge, on the other hand, wisely asks whether the future that he has glimpsed is inevitable: “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” He sees at once the critical difference: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead… But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” Although the ghost remains silent, Scrooge bets on “May be” rather than “Will be.” Hoping that his fate is up to him, he begins to mend his miserly ways.

Scrooge’s mending of his miserly ways is relevant to current debates about free will because of the ‘consequence’ argument. The consequence argument asserts that if past events and the laws of nature determine everything that will ever happen, then no one has any choice about anything. There is no free will.

Since visits by ghosts violate the laws of nature, one might doubt that the consequence argument applies to Scrooge’s story at all. We can sidestep this doubt by interpreting his encounters as dreams or hallucinations. Dreams and hallucinations are natural events, and they have natural causes. Indeed, Scrooge himself suggests this interpretation when he says to the first ghost, his old partner, Jacob Marley, “There is more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Given a naturalistic interpretation, Scrooge’s hallucination of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is just another link in the causal chain. Past events, such as eating greasy gravy for dinner, and the laws of nature, have made it inevitable that Scrooge will have this terrifying vision, that he will resolve to become a better man, and that he will make a good start of it. These developments are lucky for Scrooge and the people around him; but if they are the necessary consequences of chains of events that started long before he was born, it seems doubtful that he can take credit for his change of heart, or be said to have done it out of free will.

Past & Future

Philosophers have been debating antecedents of the consequence argument since antiquity, but it gained new credibility at the end of the Seventeenth Century from the dazzlingly accurate predictions of Isaac Newton’s physics of matter and motion. In 1814, the Marquis de Laplace summarized what he took to be the implications of it: “We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and the cause of the one that is to follow” (A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, translated from the sixth French Edition by F.W. Truscott and F.L. Emory). This position is now known as determinism. Laplace claimed that if an intelligence (often called ‘Laplace’s demon’) were vast enough to know and analyze all the conditions and forces of nature at a certain moment, then “the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.”

In 1884 William James argued that determinism is tragic because it deprives us of any opportunity to make the future better than it is destined to be. Determinism, he says, implies an ‘iron block’ universe where the “future has no ambiguous possibilities bidden in its womb; the part we call the present is compatible with only one totality. Any other future complement than the one fixed from eternity is impossible” (‘The Dilemma of Determinism’, The Will to Believe: & Other Essays in Popular Philosophy).

In 1983, Peter van Inwagen breathed new life into this old argument about determinism and its consequences. He asserts: “Determinism is quite simply the thesis that the past determines a unique future” (An Essay on Free Will, p.2). He fleshes out this thesis with a lot of technical details, but restates it less technically in a later essay: “Determinism says that the past (the past at any given instant, a complete specification of the universe at any given instant in the past) and the laws of nature together determine everything, that they leave no open possibilities” (Metaphysics: The Big Questions, 2nd Edition, Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman, eds, 2008). He argues that if determinism is true, then it consigns us to a predestined future: “it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.” Although Van Inwagen doubts that determinism is true, many philosophers and scientists think otherwise and worry that it rules out open possibilities in our future (see An Essay on Free Will, pp.190-191.)

Causation & Free Will

All versions of the consequence argument begin with the premise that determinism is true. But is it?

First, there is disagreement over how to define determinism. Van Inwagen gives one common definition. Often, however, it is defined as universal causation – the thesis that everything that happens is caused by prior events and the laws of nature. But although this thesis may be true of a great many events, it is not true of every event. Most physicists believe that atoms and their parts are governed by the merely statistical probabilities of quantum mechanics, rather than by strict causal necessity. They believe, for example, that the emission of an electron from the nucleus of a radioactive atom at any particular time is not determined by prior events, but instead just happens (albeit with a measureable probability). This means that there is an element of pure chance or irreducible randomness in the timing of such emissions, or in any other quantum activity. We can hear this randomness by listening to the clicks of a Geiger counter.

What about us? Are human choices and actions determined? Free will is sometimes equated with being able to do otherwise under exactly the same circumstances, but this libertarian notion of free will is hard to square with some interpretations of neuroscience. If our choices depend entirely on the operations of our brains, the argument goes, the same brain state under exactly the same circumstances will produce the same choice.

Some philosophers seek to save free will here by bringing in indeterminism, such as a measure of quantum randomness in the operations of our brains. However, randomness in the relevant brain activity would actually threaten free will. An action triggered by a random event would be more like an uncontrolled spasm than a voluntary choice. Indeed, free will seems to require that our choices and actions be determined in accordance with our beliefs and desires, not simply left to chance. If you found yourself choosing to do what you don’t want to do, and don’t believe you should be doing – say, hitting your head against a wall – you would probably think you were losing your mind rather than exercising your free will. So even advocates of free will might have a stake in defending the claim that causal determination is in force when we choose a course of action.

Another popular view among philosophers today rejects the equation of free will with being able to do otherwise under the exactly the same circumstances. This view claims that free will and moral responsibility can be understood in ways that make them compatible with determinism. These compatibilists believe that free will and moral responsibility are grounded in special features of deterministic causal processes that produce voluntary choice and action. Among the causes they stress are: 1) Guidance of our actions by our personal core values; and, 2) Correction of our selves and values through rational responses to what we learn about ourselves and the world. But the consequence argument threatens to nullify these grounds of supposed compatibility by declaring that if determinism is true, then no process of guidance or self correction can alter in the slightest the future that awaits us. Consider Scrooge again. Although he resolves to alter the course of his life by becoming a better man, and begins his transformation by the end of A Christmas Carol, the consequence argument implies that whatever success he makes will be the actualization of an unavoidable future, not the alteration of a malleable one.

Scrooge Vadim
Cartoon © Vadim Dozmorov 2015. Please visit vadim.crevado.com

Inference & Impenetrability

Is there any way to salvage Scrooge’s free will and moral responsibility in the face of the consequence argument? I think there is. Determinism, under either definition, implies an intellectually friendly universe. Unlike the mysterious Fates of antiquity, determinism holds nothing back from the possibility of discovery. That is to say, in a determined universe it is theoretically possible to discover precisely what causes what, and so infer the future from the past.

The human brain is adept at picking out short causal chains and inferring outcomes from them. I infer that the tennis ball that you just lobbed over the net is going to come down in the back right corner of the court. You infer that the half pound of salt I accidentally dropped in the stew is going to make the stew taste salty. We rely on inferences such as these to guide our actions: to return a tennis ball, or to avoid eating salty stew. However, our ability to infer future events in this way is limited. We have difficulty foreseeing the results of clashes with other causal chains, such as a sudden gust of wind that blows the tennis ball off the court. Moreover, we are not adept at inferring the future from the remote, or even the relatively recent, past. I cannot infer where the tennis ball is going to land now from events that happened yesterday, much less a thousand years ago. This is why Laplace assumed that only an intelligence much vaster than a human mind could infer future events from the present condition of the universe.

Does our ability to infer the future, albeit in limited ways, enable us to alter the future in any way? There is a trivial sense in which we cannot. As an old Doris Day song reminds us, “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.” This is a tautology – a truth about the meaning of words rather than an informative statement about the world. The consequence argument may also be tautological, though less obviously so. Let’s define determinism to mean that the state of the world at any given instant plus the laws of nature determine a unique future that leaves no other possibilities. What I think the consequence argument claims is that if determinism is true then the actualization of one possibility rather than another (say, avoiding rather than committing murder) is not up to us.

This is a clever argument, but it tells us only what follows logically from a particular definition of determinism. What we really want to know is whether the future is in fact unalterable. In particular, we want to discover whether possible occurrences in our personal futures can turn out just one way – whether they “Will be” or “May be.” How can we discover this? We can get a clue by envisioning human actions that are impossible to predict.

Predictability & Liberty

Consider a new version of an old thought experiment. In this experiment Laplace’s demon is replaced by a supercomputer that can calculate what you will do by meticulously observing presents events and applying the laws of nature to them. To test this wonderful machine you ask it to tell you whether you will next move your right hand up or down. The computer says ‘down’; but then, just to defy its prediction, you move your hand up. The computer can’t win. Even though it can calculate that you are going to defy its predictions, it can’t use that recognition to trump what you’re going to choose to do. As long as you know what it predicts you will do, it will be impossible for it to predict correctly whether you will move your hand up or down. A champion of the consequence argument might protest that this is because the experiment imposes a self-defeating constraint on the computer – namely, that the computer must tell you what it predicts you are going do before you do it. But determinism imposes a similar constraint on the universe. By rendering the universe intellectually friendly, determinism makes it possible in principle for us to infer the outcomes of causal chains, and so prevent some of those outcomes from happening in the same way as we can with the supercomputer.

Of course, an advocate of the consequence argument might pounce on my words and declare that we mistakenly think we can alter the future only because we don’t have a broad or clear enough view of the chains of causes that bring that future about. “Scrooge,” that advocate might say, “assumes that his fate is up to him because he is focused on the probable outcome of his miserly ways, but his view is too narrow. There are a multitude of physical, physiological – remember the gravy – psychological and cultural causes that have brought him to this point in his life. But indeed, it is the minutely intricate successive states of the universe from one instant to the next that sweep him along in an iron progression to an unalterable future.”

This reply sounds better than it is. We have already acknowledged the limited scope of our ability to infer future events; but that does not settle the question of whether we are being swept along by the successive states of the universe to an unalterable future, or rather, whether we can alter the future by our choices.

Here are three reasons for doubting the deterministic argument that the future is in fact unalterable (I am indebted here to Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Gifford Lectures, reprinted in his Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, 2011). First, Einstein showed that it is mistake to talk about ‘the state of the universe at a particular instant in time’. Newton was wrong, in that the countless processes going on in the universe are not synchronized. Experiments with extremely precise clocks have confirmed Einstein’s predictions that what time it is varies with relative speed and gravity. When you get off a plane you have aged a tiny bit less than the people waiting at the airport because they have been stuck in the airport while you were speeding toward them. A clock in your basement runs a tiny bit more slowly than a clock in your attic because gravity varies with distance from the Earth.

Second, very little that is happening in the universe affects the whole universe. Other than gravity and the inflation of space itself, the processes going on in the universe are local. Except for the strange case of quantum entanglements, events and processes do not affect one another unless they locally interact, like the gust of wind blowing the lobbed tennis ball. So there is no hard evidence that these processes together yield a unique universal future rather than a plurality of possible outcomes.

Third, biological evolution has produced organisms of astonishing complexity whose behavior is guided in part by their consciousness. Humans are a prime example. It remains unknown whether all of our conscious experiences, social interactions, and cultural practices can be reduced to physical brain events and so be fully explained by the laws that govern matter. Rather, the emergent realities of mental, social, and cultural life may very well in some ways constrain or control the very atoms that make their existence possible.

Determination & Control

The determinism supposed by the consequence argument asks us to believe that events of great social and cultural complexity, such as the writing of A Christmas Carol, or daily stock market fluctuations, are the inevitable consequences of the state of the universe and laws of nature after the Big Bang. It asks us to believe that if time could be rolled back even to one second after the Big Bang, then history would unfold in exactly the same way, and all these events would occur again without the slightest variation. There can be no wiggle room in the iron block universe as it rolls forward. This is a lot to ask us to believe, and is far too speculative to be taken on faith. As far as we now know, it is just as likely that the past and present could have turned out differently than they did, and that the future that lies before us is alterable in important respects.

Yet even if this is so, even in an alterable universe we still need an explanation of how particular outcomes in the future can be up to human agents – someone like you. The extent of your responsibility for bringing about a future outcome depends both on causal agency (your making it happen) and motive (why you made it happen). Here I think the compatibilists offer the most plausible account. The more intentional, deliberate, and deeply anchored in your values and aspirations your chosen action is, the more the outcome you make happen is up to you. There is no need to insert indeterminism into voluntary acts: the ‘will’ in free will depends on causality being operative when you do one thing rather than another. However, the ‘free’ in free will depends on your choice not being the unalterable outcome of causal chains that extend from the remote past. In other words, your freedom depends on there being times in your life when the acts you end up doing are open possibilities; and as you look to the future you can infer other open possibilities, both acts and outcomes of acts, and alter your actions in an ongoing endeavor to actualize your values and aspirations.

So it seems to me that Scrooge (and Dickens) got it right. He bets that his terrifying visions of the future are the “shadows of things that May be” rather than the “shadows of the things that Will be.” Although Scrooge cannot be sure this is true, he recognizes that he cannot change the end toward which the course of his life is leading unless it is true.

Perhaps science will someday confirm the openness of future possibilities in ways relevant to human choice. In the meantime, it is instructive to consider that if we have free will, it is probably the free will of Ebenezer Scrooge.

© Prof. Richard Kamber 2015

Richard Kamber is Professor of Philosophy at The College of New Jersey.

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