Freedom is so important that America paradoxically conflates liberty with wage slavery and obsessive consumerism, and nobody seems to mind because FREEDOM.
I can’t tonight. I’m actually too busy selling my labour to buy products I don’t need.
Freedom by itself, however, is merely chaos. Viktor Frankl wonders at the necessity of a Statue of Responsibility on the Pacific side of the United States to complement the well-established Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. Responsibility, and by extension morality, is not only predicated on freedom, but ought to exist in partnership. We cannot be moral unless we are free to choose, and we cannot be free to choose without understanding the moral weight of those choices. Jean-Paul Sartre based his entire ethical philosophy on the primacy of freedom, claiming that not only was morality linked to freedom, but was inextricably bound to it: recognizing the freedom of others pushes us to respect our shared humanity within it.
Today, this dyad of freedom and morality is under considerable threat. Not from radical Islamic terrorists who lurk in the shadows of political dissidence, or even from their Communist predecessors. This insidious saboteur is determinism. If the universe is primarily based on causal relationships, then all our decisions have already been preordained by the inviolable laws of the universe. We are not human beings, but an ecology. Growing like plants, we are fixed in our rigid binds, incapable of even struggling against them. Morality becomes impossible for the same reason that we don’t consider earthquakes to be capable of moral judgement.
There are those who not only accept this causal prison, but revel in it. Sam “Sam Handwich” Harris sought to illustrate how morality could still exist within a deterministic framework, and I honestly wish I had a better source for my readers here, because he failed so abysmally that I feel bad that this is my only reference. He claims that human choices can still be made, even without free will, because we feel that we are making a choice. The ontology of the universe be damned; our feelings supersede reality. This guy is supposed to be a scientist, keep in mind. Sam Handwich later goes on to say that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion, and if we really think rationally about it, we’ll realize that we don’t actually possess free will at all. This means that those feelings of choice that separate us from from the amoral grizzly bear, who kills only from biological instinct, are themselves the illusion, and Sam Handwich manages to contradict his own point a few idiotic paragraphs later. The moral solution in his determined universe is an abortion of utilitarianism which I won’t get into for the sake of avoiding a long rant. Personally I’d recommend reading John Stuart Mill or Peter Singer if you’re curious about utilitarian ethics. They at least have functioning brains.
Outside of this moron, however, people still desperately fight for freedom. Not only for the moral implications of avoiding determinism, but because freedom is simply worth having. Consider this quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
But when I see the others sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom.
I believe that is a suitable rejoinder to Sam Handwich‘s drivel.
However, I can’t say that freedom exists just because it’s nice and has a lot of cool quotations associated with it. I can say that freedom exists because causality as we understand it doesn’t. The first argument against causality is David Hume’s theory of necessary connections. A necessary connection is something we perceive as a cause. For example, there is a necessary connection between fire, gunpowder, and an explosion. Hume argues that this perceived necessity is actually a human construct, and postulates the problem of induction. Just because something has happened before, even repeatedly, does not necessarily mean it will happen again. You ever flick a light switch that doesn’t turn on right away? Maybe it’s something weird with the electricity; maybe it’s because the causal link suffered a bit of a hiccup.
This might sound like philosophical malarkey, but some theories of quantum physics prove Hume right. The quantum leap of an electron from one atomic orbit to the next is entirely unpredictable, and the minuteness of Planck’s constant is the only barrier against the chaos of the quantum universe overflowing into our experiential realm. Functions of the brain also exist outside of causality, with the opening and closing of ion channels and the release of synaptic vesicles operating randomly. Randomness is no determinate of free will, however, as every decision would become arbitrary and equally outside of our choices. On the other hand, it does exclude causality from being the defining characteristic of our universe.
I believe that if we are looking for a quantum solution to the problem of free will, then we should not be focusing on randomness but on probability. Given the indeterminate nature of electrons, as the position of an electron cannot be measured without abandoning the knowledge of its momentum, scientists are only able to make educated guesses based on probability. Adaptive mutation fortifies this argument by showing that bacteria and yeast can evolve useful mutations rather than completely random ones (as traditional Darwinian evolution theorized). Not all bacteria develop the adaptive gene in these studies, however, which shows that reacting to stimuli is neither random nor deterministic, but based on probability.
Probability when applied to human society makes sense. Statistics show a strong correlation between someone’s environment and their behaviour, but at the individual level, one cannot look at trends and predict a definite outcome. A street urchin raised by addicts will likely become an addict, but there is no way to tell with 100% certainty. It is that uncertainty that allows for choice. We can coast with the social conditioning, environmental pressures, and biological impulses that will push us along a predetermined path, allowing us the dubious honour of simply being another statistic, or we can make choices and break the mould. There is always a choice. Some scenarios will offer fewer choices than others, and fewer choices means a lesser degree of moral responsibility. A lesser degree of morality means those of us with more choice are responsible for elevating these ignoble souls to an equitable level where we can all claim access to a full spectrum of opportunities. That is the link between morality and freedom.