A Philosopher’s Painting

Posted by on July 9, 2011

What we ought to do, and ought not to do are considered the precincts of moral responsibility.  Many philosophers have justified the existence of morality as a result of the existence of man’s free will; whether free will can be justified in itself, as the cause for existence of moral responsibility or be compatible with determinism, are questions that have been pondered by philosophers since the days of Aristotle and will continue to be pondered till, “mankind are raised from the dead,” suggests Rumi (426.).  Though this may be the case, it is important still for us to attempt to discover and improve our understanding of these issues.  Our society, where certain actions are deemed praiseworthy and others are deemed worthy of punishment, requires a social reasoning for such ideals of moral responsibility.  As reasoning is a philosopher’s life, discovering and better understanding these issues is a philosopher’s moral duty.  I shall through this work illustrate the discoveries of two such philosophers, Robert Kane and Walter T. Stace.  As you will observe, Kane’s discovery leads to a different conclusion than Stace’s, while his conclusion is an objection to Stace’s statement as well.  I shall expose an argument already present in Stace’s ideas as a defense against Kane’s objection, which proves Kane’s objection as illogical and unrealistic.

Determinism states that every action has a causal reasoning going backwards in time to infinity.  How may we hold a person morally responsible for actions which may be deemed worthy of praise or punishment if they commit an act for which there is a predictable explanation?  Stace attempts to answer this conceivably difficult question by arguing that determinism and free will are compatible, justifying moral responsibility.  The only problem that exists is the semantics used by philosophers in describing free will.  For example, a scientifically uneducated person may believe that a bird is a creature with three wings on its body.  In observing the world, this person continues to conclude that birds do not exist.  Just as this person has assigned an incorrect definition to the term ‘bird’, leading to an unrealistic conclusion of this world, philosophers tend to “assume an incorrect definition of free will,” as Stace suggests.  In a similar way, the philosopher leads himself to a nonsense conclusion due to an unrealistic definition of the word in the sense that it is incorrect because, “[a definition] is [only] correct if it accords with a common usage of the word defined” and if it does not, then “absurd and untrue results are likely to follow” (414).  In this way, it is suggested that even though the problem lies in the semantics, the solution will be found in the semantics as well.

Then, it follows that free will is defined by acts which are free and unfree. For example, a philosophy student may have refused to write his paper, due the next day, because he is sick and tired of writing papers; such an act we would consider to be free.  On the other hand, the philosophy student may not have written his paper because another student, jealous of his good grades, beat him physically to a state in which he could not possibly have written a paper; such an act we would consider unfree.  And Stace states “acts freely done are those whose immediate causes are psychological states in the agent,” and acts that are not freely done “are those whose immediate causes are states of affairs external to the agent” (416).  This implies that actions taken by men are due to them freely choosing to do them, because those actions have been caused by their very “own desires, wishes, thoughts, emotions, or other psychological states” (417).  So proves Stace that determinism is compatible with free will and moral responsibility is justified, because though an act may have had a determined cause, the cause of that act was a psychological state of the person; if the person had desired otherwise, the result would have been different.  If seen in light of common sense, this holds true still, because even though I may know my friend’s character very well to be a pious being, it does not mean that my friend goes to church on Sundays not due to his own free will, for if he desired to he could very well be going out with his friends instead of going to church; thus proving determinism and free will to be compatible.

Kane presents an objection to Stace that almost seems to subtly imply, and make the reader wonder, if Stace is an inept intellectual.  Kane does not object to Stace’s justification for free will, but through his argument states that Stace does not understand the meaning of free will and is therefore misguided in his conclusion that determinism and free will are compatible.  Stace’s free will is defined by Kane as surface freedoms, not free will.  Stating that free will is something much deeper than the ability to choose whom we vote for, which candy we eat, which sports team we root for, or any surface life events in which we have choices.  The deeper free will is the ability to be the creator of one’s own life, to have the ability to form one’s own character to one’s own liking and not because of deterministic causes of the past such as genetic makeup, parenting, environment, etc.  Kane states that this is what is traditionally known as free will; those other surface freedoms are merely child’s play and illusory of the deeper free will.  Kane illustrates this through the example of the novel, Walden Two, in which all the people residing in that community have been behaviorally engineered to have whatever they want by not desiring what they cannot have.  According to Stace’s definition, the people in Walden Two would be considered to have free will because they possess the choice to have all their surface desires, but it is implied that they do not truly possess free will because they are not “the creators of their own lives,” rather their creators are the behavioral engineers.  Through this argument it is also stated, that determinism is not compatible with free will because determinism of one’s character is essentially the same as being behaviorally engineered.  Since the real, deeper free will requires one to be able to at least at some point be the creators of our own character and life, the two cannot mutually exist; thus Stace’s ideas are shown to be inept in understanding free will.

It may feel amazing to be lost in a dream of swimming in the ocean, while one hopelessly traverses the vast desert, lost with no sight of water nearby.  Reality hits when the striking heat of the sun beats against one’s dehydrated body and essentially slowly kills them.  That person, dreamer, may not have had to fare that fate if they had only realized that instead of dreaming an illusion, it was possible to make best of what’s available by cutting the cacti and drinking the water stored in it.  Similarly, Kane’s views are presented as those of a dreamer, with no sense of reality because he defines the term, ‘free will’ to be such that it is utterly unrealistic.  Just as Stace states that the reason deniers of free will deny it is because “they have assumed an incorrect definitions of free will,” (414).  This can similarly be said of Kane’s denial of Stace’s free will.  Kane’s view can be seen in the same fashion as that of the scientifically uneducated person believing the correct definition of a bird to be a three winged-creature and by not seeing a three winged creature, claiming that birds do not exist.  Just because Kane’s definition of free will is not compatible with determinism, it does not mean free will and determinism are not compatible.  This is due to Kane’s definition of free will being incorrect because it does not follow the definition of common usage (realistic of the world), and therefore leads to an absurd claim.  I would agree Kane’s definition is a reality in some cases, but those are the cases of virtual reality, where in the Utopian mindset and Middle-Age time set, video games allow for the person to create a character from a vast variety of their own choices and then fill that character with whatever qualities they like best, good or bad.  Unfortunately, that being a video game and a virtual reality, we do not get to be our own creators in the same sense in this world.  Reality is that a lot of what shapes us as characters is people in our environment, our parental upbringing, our experiences, etc.  The difference is that those surface freedoms, free will, which Kane considers as so trivial, are not truly as trivial in the making of our character; those are the same choices, though small at that moment of time, which eventually accumulate to make a substantial difference in our character.  For example, if every day a person chooses to not brush their teeth or shower, over a period of time this type of behavior would lead the person to become an extremely unhygienic and loathsome character for the people surrounding them.  As I mentioned of the dreamer in the desert earlier, it would be better for the sanity of the men with Kane’s viewpoint to come back to reality and try to make the best of what they have.  In this reality, we are not the gods, we are only capable of having control over our desires, in essence free will, but that which shapes our character in the larger picture are our experiences that will neither change nor will one be able to go much beyond that, no matter how much one dreams.

Through this work, the two different approaches to the same questions posed earlier in the introduction, whether free will can be justified in itself, as the cause for existence of moral responsibility or be compatible with determinism, were all illustrated.  It was effectively proven that though Kane’s ideas were an interesting objection to the approach and ideas of Stace, they were still clearly misguided for they had nothing to do with the reality in which we exist.  To find solutions to problems through reason may be a philosopher’s moral duty, but to paint those solutions with strokes of illusion is a philosopher’s immoral absurdity.

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