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Free William?

by Rick Lewis

Many years ago, there was a Hollywood blockbuster called Free Willy. It was a movie about a whale called… yes, you guessed it. The choice of name betrayed the studio’s innocence of British slang, for the posters incited friends of mine to fits of giggles. The plot however, was a touching story of a young orphan’s struggle to rescue the whale from an amusement park.

U.S. Dept Of Defense via Wikimedia Commons

Orcas are renowned for their social skills, their intelligence and their literally massive brains. In the amusement park, Willy was unfree in the sense that he could not chose to return to the ocean, could not mingle with other orcas and could not escape the doom that the park owner had planned for him. People respond to the film because we instinctively sympathise with the need of an intelligent creature to be free, to make its own choices in accordance with its own needs and desires. In the film, the role of Willy was played by an orca called Keiko. A few years later, well-wishers and marine biologists joined in a protracted and noble effort to re-introduce Keiko into the wild. Eventually, he was released into the North Atlantic, but it seems he never succeeded in fully integrating into a pod of wild orcas, and continually sought out human company instead, until he died as a result of following a fishing boat too far up a fjord. Was he genuinely free?

Philosophers have argued for centuries about the related question of whether human beings (including ones called Willy) are genuinely free. According to existentialists such as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, we are all, inescapably, free. Yet our freedom is a burden, because with it comes responsibility for our choices. Our all-too-frequent attempts to deny our freedom and its associated responsibilities are nothing but a particular type of self-deception that Sartre and friends called Bad Faith. We always have choices. Just remember that, next time somebody points a bazooka at your pet rabbit and tells you to hand over all your goodies.

While Sartre’s claim of radical freedom can seem implausible in many situations, our own daily experience of living suggests that we are free, at least to an extent, at least most of the time. We constantly weigh decisions both large and small, make choices and then experience the results of those choices, for better or worse. There can therefore be few propositions for which we have more abundant evidence than this: that we are to some extent free. So where’s the problem? Well, another proposition for which we also have extremely abundant evidence is that one thing causes another. That second thing then causes a third and so on. Laplace wrote back in 1820: “An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes.” If our actions and the whole unfolding of events could even in principle be predicted, can we still say we make choices? The question matters deeply for our sense of who we are and of our place in the world. If all of our choices were predetermined before we were even born, does that make it ridiculous to praise or blame people for the good or bad things that they do? Many therefore argue that determinism would imply the end of ethics. You see why people get worked up about free will and determinism?

Our contributors to the free-will special section of this magazine scrutinize these problems from all angles. My colleague Grant Bartley has freely contributed his own article exploring what free will is – complete with accompanying video. Myint Zan considers several versions of the opposing view, determinism, particularly that of Spinoza. However, couldn’t free will and determinism both be true, at the same time? That’s my own view – that they both describe the same phenomena but from different perspectives. But compatibilism, like belief in free will or in determinism, comes in a hundred and one varieties. Nurana Rajabova criticises the compatibilist ideas that the late Peter Strawson developed in his magnificently-titled paper ‘Freedom and Resentment’. Phil Badger takes the ethical football and runs with it by trying to construct a materialist, compatibilist basis for ethics, and Basil Gala looks at the limits imposed on our free choices by our upbringings, our personal circumstances and the habits and addictions into which we can easily stumble. We can break free, he says ­– but it isn’t easy and we have to really work at it.

And then, just as you break free from the heat and dust of the free will debate, yearning perhaps for a less contentious topic, you will find an article on Cancel Culture by the renowned, irrepressible and incisive Slavoj Žižek!

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