Free will and creative reverie

Alan asked:

Is the essential freedom proposed by Sartre contradicted by all types of determinism?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a question about which I have changed my mind. I had a view — quite a strong view — about this, but I now realize I was wrong.

This is what I used to think: that everything that Sartre says about ‘free will’ and ‘bad faith’ can be fully taken on board by a ‘compatibilist’ — someone who believes that free will is compatible with determinism. What exactly is the debate over compatibilism?

The debate got going with a thought famously expressed by David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil.”

In unit 2 of The Possible World Machine, I offer the following gloss on Hume’s remark, put into the mouth of my fictional student ‘Derek’:

“What it means… is that if your idea of free will is not being determined to do whatever it is that you’re going to do next by your own unique character and innate dispositions, then you’re no better, in effect, than a roulette wheel. The action you ‘freely’ choose to do, according the this idea, is just the accidental result of whatever number in the roulette wheel in your head happens to come up. That’s not anything anyone would recognise as freedom.”

If Derek’s claim were true, then in order to have good Sartrean ‘free will’ we would want determinism to be true. The actions I do in good faith, or avoiding bad faith, proceed from my ‘unique character and dispositions’. They are caused by me, the kind of person, the agent that I am. Actions that are not the product of my character are actions that I can take no credit for. They are not ‘mine’ in any meaningful sense. Ergo, someone who believes in Sartrean free will ought to believe in determinism, or at least hope that determinism is true.

Schopenhauer makes a similar point when he argues against a conception of free will conceived as the ‘freedom of indifference’. If my free actions are only those that occur in cases where my character and motivations are not sufficient to decide one way or the other, then they are of no interest. What interests us, as moral agents, are those actions that we have a reason and a motivation to do, the actions we choose, for reasons.

This is just plain wrong!

If there is one thing we know about the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, absolutely and for sure, is that he is adamant that determinism cannot be true. He doesn’t merely express the hope that determinism is false. He knows that it is false. He knows that he is radically free. But, in that case, how does he escape Hume’s dilemma?

There is a way to avoid the dilemma. But in order to see it we have to rid our minds of the kinds of example that are normally put forward in discussions of free will. (It was Wittgenstein who remarked, ‘A main cause of philosophical disease — a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example’ Philosophical Investigations para. 593.) We imagine cases where there are reasons for doing A and also reasons for doing B. We balance the reasons for A and B against one another and decide that A is, all things considered, stronger than B. So we do A.

It is true that we do sometimes balance two incompatible courses of action against one another and decide which to opt for. But far more commonly, we find ourselves in a situation were we don’t know what to do. There are lots of possibilities, not just two. And thinking ahead, through the various things that could happen, more and more possibilities branch off.

I would argue that it is far closer to the human decision-making process to see it as a kind of creative reverie. We indulge in this kind of reverie even when we are not required to make any decision. The thought comes into my head, ‘Suppose that such-and-such were to happen.’ It might be extremely unlikely that such-and-such could ever happen in any possible world that I was remotely connected to, but such considerations are irrelevant in pure reverie. In reverie, I can travel the universe, or become Pope, or machine gun my enemies to death.

When creative reverie is put to use, on the other hand, we find ourselves at the apex of multiple story lines, any one of which could actually come to pass, but at most only one of them will. But here’s the thing: The story lines have to occur to me. I entertain them in my mind, let them in to my consciousness. They crowd round. Which one should I choose first? It is true that at this precise point my freedom is indeed the ‘freedom of indifference’ as Schopenhauer calls it. My thoughts go one way when they could just as well have gone another. Nevertheless, I take responsibility for that choice. The thoughts are indeed mine.

Though I could hardly see myself committing murder in the real world, the thought of what I would do to so-and-so with my machine gun really did happen, I cannot deny it. And now suppose that by some incredible sequence of events my enemy stands before me, and I just happen to have a fully-working machine gun in my hands…

It is in this sense, and for these reasons, that I can imagine that I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place, who ten minutes ago when I started composing this answer decided to watch the TV news instead. With the result that this answer was never written.

Writing this answer today was an act of free will, an event that could not have been predicted by a Laplacian Super-Mind on the basis of the way the Big Bang banged because a possible world not just similar to but exactly like the actual world, up to ten minutes ago exists, with someone exactly like me in it, who happened to wonder what Boris was up to today and decided to put on the TV news.

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