Humans are free despite being determined: The case for compatibilism 

Photo by: Greg Rakozy

*WARNING: The following features potentially triggering topics including sexual violence and genocide*

Human beings are free even though the world and everything in it, including us, are determined. 

Lately I have been venturing outside my usual wheelhouse of the humanities — mainly social theory, philosophy, and politics — to learn about special and general relativity in physics. To continue to whet my appetite, I had been constantly rereading popular physics communicator Brian Greene’s New York Times piece published on the centennial year of Albert Einstein’s famous publication of the E = MC^2 equation where he describes exactly what that equation is expressing through analogy. 

The philosophical issue that has stuck out to me after wrapping my head around some of the implications of Einstein’s revolutionary discovery last century that mass is just — to use Greene’s metaphor — a kind of frozen package of energy. This essentially gives a picture of the universe where, 13 billion years ago, in a sudden moment a whole bunch of energy was discharged and it slowly turned into mass that clumped into planets and human beings fit into a tiny slice of that process. Given this beginning as dictated by Einstenian physics, the “goal” of the universe has it that through stars, blackholes and various forms of radiation the matter in the universe is slowly being converted back to an ever expanding and thinning universe that will eventually just be a cold, massless expanse with light traces here and there. This is what scientists call the “Big Freeze.”

The picture is literally bleak. 

If things are ultimately determined in a particular direction that has little significance for us according to the most famous equation in the history of science, do I have any say in the direction of my life? In other words, that extremely tricky domain of free will versus determinism comes to the fore when we realize the universe is a deterministic model with no ultimate purpose other than its own entropy. 

This is a question that philosophers have been trying to work out for millenia: If the laws of cause and effect predetermine our thoughts, actions and desires—what say do we have in the trajectory of our lives? In ancient philosophy and throughout the medieval scholastic period, the existence of human free will even alongside accessions of material determinism were usually granted on the grounds of a God behind it all who was ultimately testing us. For example, God could have created the illusion of a deterministic universe to test our faith in His divinity and fear for his retribution. This is essentially the thrust of Pascal’s wager: the losses involved in not believing in God and potentially going to Hell are far worse than believing in God and him not existing in which case nothing happens after death. 

This is also why contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek asserts in How to Read Lacan that appeals to scientific authority on truth, in a sense, reinforces fundamentalist religious belief rather than refute them through the reducing of positive belief to positive knowledge:

“We find the same reduction of belief to knowledge in today’s Islam, which abounds with hundreds of books by scientists that ‘demonstrate’ how the latest scientific advances confirm the insights and injunctions of the Quran: the divine prohibition of incest is confirmed by recent genetic knowledge about the defective children born of incest. The same goes for Buddhism, where many scientists play on the motif of the ‘Tao of modern physics’, of how the contemporary scientific vision of reality as a substanceless flux of oscillating events has finally confirmed the ancient Buddhist ontology. One is compelled to draw the paradoxical conclusion that in opposition between traditional secular humanists and religious fundamentalists, it is the humanists who stand for belief, while fundamentalists stand for knowledge.”  

Circling back to the specific issue of free will against determinism, there is a camp that rejects the mutual exclusion of these terms that has been around since the Enlightenment called the compatibilists. Generally speaking, compatibilism holds that the deterministic nature of the universe and human actions grants us our freedom, or at least doesn’t contradict it. This is the position of Žižek who, in maybe the best piece of footage out there of him, makes an outlandish claim that he feels “a spontaneous affinity with quantum physics, where, you know, the idea there is that [the] universe is a void, but a kind of positively charged void, and then particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed… It means something went terribly wrong; what we call creation is a kind of cosmic imbalance, cosmic catastrophe and things exist by mistake… the only way to counteract this is to assume the mistake and go to the end.”

Here Žižek is taking us, in an odd way, back to Einsteinian determinism. Suddenly the void is filled with things, and it’s a mistake that will self-correct (when the Big Freeze happens), but we should assume the mistake nonetheless; human beings should get attached, pursue our desires, fall in love, etc. on condition of the mistaken state of positive reality as it unfolds with us in the fold, so to speak. 

This sounds more than a little abstract and idealist so it’s helpful to consider compatibilism in more rigorous terms with the most influential compatibilist position expounded in philosophy, that of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in his essay “Liberty and Necessity” and later slightly revised in A Treatise of Human Nature

According to the Treatise it’s only because the mind can infer certain effects and their antecedent causes being probable that human society is even possible. Crucially, there is nothing within or before the cause that makes the inference of its effect possible for our senses other than the consistent union of the cause and effect itself which informs our expectations. Hume thinks that for our mind there are Ys (causes) that follow with Zs (effects) and because of their regular uniformity we can make inferences as to the certainty of outcomes. Take rewards and punishments in society. We have rewards in place for individuals who do actions we deem to have good outcomes or effects and punishments for actions we deem to have bad effects to induce people to do the former over the latter. Without forms of reward and punishment in place, society simply wouldn’t work in Hume’s view.

But this places too much agency on the mind and leads to a kind of Hobbesian view on punishment, where society can only exist due to probable punishing effects for actions deemed undesirable by society. It’s important to note that Hume was the progenitor for one of the main players in Enlightenment philosophy, Immanuel Kant, who also held that objective cause and effect was a creation of the mind as the mind mediated what Kant called the transcendental categories. This created a split of phenomenon, which can be understood by the mind’s a priori categorical frames, and the noumenon (derived from the Ancient Greek nooúmenon, meaning “thing that is known”) which is what things are in themselves and which can’t be grasped by the human mind because for Kant the mind is something of a conceptual machine. 

Kant’s views, again, leads to a kind of viewing of law that is necessary for human organization because it is free and rational in a noumenal sense outside of the phenomenal determinist framework of consciousness, hence why Kant provided supplied his epistemic uncertainty with the ethical categorical imperative which states that regardless of extenuating circumstances you must follow laws is if they were universal and unquestionable. To this, one of Kant’s greatest contenders and debtors, G.F.W. Hegel accused Kant of creating an empty formalism with the CI that has no practical grounds to base itself on, it merely fills itself out with contingent social practices to prove its need to be elevated to the status of supreme law.

Hegel, in many respects the apotheosis of German idealism in the early 19th century, then argued for a kind of freedom that was both universal and grounded in the objective differences of different human contexts. This is because Hegel took Kant’s transcendental categories and freed them from the mind and placed them into the logic of things in the world as they existed in themselves, radically asserting that human beings can have an objective understanding of reality. For Hegel, then, human beings are free because this process of understanding ourselves as Geist (German for mind/spirit) has been unfolding since the dawn of humanity and reaches higher levels of freedom through objective spirit as found in political institutions, for example. 

Returning again to the more “continental” world of Lacan/Žižek, both working in or alongside the Hegelian tradition, there’s another way to think about reconciling our freedom in a deterministic world. 

Neuroscientists have been sounding the death knell of free will for years over experiments where, when a subject is given two choices, brain scans can determine which option will be chosen just a fraction of a second before the subject consciously decides. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris, a determinist incompatibilist, has cited such experiments as reason to believe we aren’t free. However, the subject of these experiments still has the option to say no to the whole thing, to just outright reject the two choices presented. This is why for psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the prohibitive “No!” that finally supplants our primal connection to our mothers or caretakers as we come to be linguistic human beings is so central to human desire, because to have desire there has to be some fundamental prohibition that creates a lack to create desire in the first place. 

Sigmund Freud was clear that the unconscious doesn’t know “No.” So when Sam Harris argues in favour of an incompatibilist determinism by stating that it would be absurd to punish someone born psychotic, maybe due to a tumour or genetics, for murdering when they didn’t have a real choice in the matter, it’s important to remember that for Lacan psychotics don’t have an unconscious precisely because there is no “No,” there is no primary repression, no primordially repressed signifier (the “No!”). This is why psychotic symptoms often involve speech disorders such as aphasia. Using Lacan one can be a compatibilist and still see the predicament of those afflicted with mental illness or disease as being tragically not in control, instead of a kind of draconian approach that would be akin to a Kantian categorical imperative of “we must treat the mentally ill/diseased as though they had a choice otherwise there is no moral responsibility for anyone!” Interestingly Kant argued against Hume’s compatibilism for not granting enough freedom. 

At the end of the day, human action is completely determined, it’s just that we get to freely determine our lives because that’s what’s determinant about being a human being. This also should have political corollaries for those of us in the affluent West to fight for the political rights of those in less fortunate countries on the grounds that they have less options to determine themselves because of the objective constraints placed on them by the interplay of nations and their geography and histories and how these clash and sublate each other. 

For example, when the East Timorese began to implement rural reforms and Indonesia invaded in 1975 and committed genocide to  implement the Timorese into their ruthless authoritarian capitalist regime, the backing of Suharto by the United States and Israel directly effected the spectrum of freedoms of the East Timorese by narrowing its range of political determinism

Is this not also why rape is considered not only a violent physical crime but a violent mental crime as well? It effectively takes away the choice of one person by the other who asserts their subjective will on them, reducing them to an object of use. It makes the victim feel as if they never had a choice in the first place when they always did, it was just taken by force, hence the sheer brutality that victim-blaming can enact on the victim’s psyche, as if they failed to assert their choice simply because they survived through the crime.

For the consciousness that commits rape, too, they’ve debased themselves and the possibilities of human determinism because their choice declares that some human beings can be reduced to objects at the behest of a more overpowering will, which ultimately limits the potential freedom of all human will for self-determinism because a caste of “superior” wills that triumph over others has been created which can never truly persist because of a constant attempted conquest of competing wills to enter that caste. There is a name for the logical outcome of this view of freedom when expressed in political form: Fascism

Ultimately, human actions being determined means that we are radically free to choose our determined paths and those of others, and with that knowledge we should act towards the ideal of social justice because it’s the only way to increase our own freedom as individuals. 

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