An Alternative Take on Free Will

A while back I wrote a post about the tension between free will and determinism and the seemingly negative consequences both sides of this debate take us to when followed to their logical conclusions.

Lately I have been reading quite a bit of ancient philosophy. Two thoughts have been in the background of this reading.

First, I have often wondered if there is an inconsistency in ancient philosophy over the issue of free will. Most ancient philosophers conception of deity (I’m using this term loosely) is one of a completely transcendent deity whose very being creates the world. This is Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover or Neo-Platonism’s Perfect Being. Many of these concepts have been adapted by Christians to form the ideas of Classical Theism- an omnipotent, omniscient God who transcends space and time. It has always seemed to me that such conceptions of deity should imply a kind of determinism. However, in the ancient world, they firmly believed in free will, leading me to ask: is there a logical inconsistency in the ancient understanding of God and free will?

Another thing that has been in the background of my reading has been my own criticisms of Modern philosophy. Basically I think that Modern philosophy, which has replaced the ancient concept of telos with scientism, is self-defeating and collapses into skepticism. I find the ancient concept of telos– that all things are striving toward an innate purpose within them- to be a very appealing concept for explaining not only the regularity of our scientific observations but also avoiding the absurdity of naturalistic scientism.

I also think that this concept of telos answers my first question about the consistency of ancient philosophy and provides a solution to the free will dilemma.

The ancient conception of telos was that everything has a purpose or a goal that is innate to it. This goal stems from the defining characteristics of the thing- a tree has the telos of being a tree: growing tall, sprouting limbs, making fruit, etc. If it doesn’t do these things, we consider something to be wrong with the tree. This idea of innate purpose applies to everything, including humans. We have a goal: to be human, maybe even to be a particular kind of human. Its in our DNA, so to speak, that we will be a certain way. And so unconsciously, all our lives, we work toward this end because that is what we are meant to do. It is our telos. (Side note: from a more modern perspective, this is a very similar concept to Heidegger’s Dasein)

So far, this sounds somewhat deterministic, and in a way it is, but with a major difference from standard, Modern accounts of determinism.

Telos is internal and subconscious. I don’t consciously set out to be a human, I am one. So telos, without our thinking about it, sets parameters on what we do and do not do. I don’t breathe through gills underwater because as a human, that is simply something I do not do. Yet, specific actions are not really laid out by my telos. Whether I will walk across the street or not is not really defined by my telos. Either walking across or staying on this side of it are perfectly consistent with my being a human and being the kind of human that I am.

Lets use DNA as a metaphor again. DNA may define the kind of species an organism is and may define many particular traits of that organism. But it doesn’t lay out every action the organism takes. Two oak trees may have very different arrangements of their branches. Two children with the same parents may have very different traits. Even identical twins can have drastically different personalities. The cloned sheep Dolly doesn’t do everything exactly the same way its clone-parent does.

And so my telos may set parameters of who I am and what kind of person I am, but it also leaves a lot open to choice. Which means that ancient philosophers could be consistent in believing in a transcendent deity and in free will. The transcendent deity may impart telos on creation, but this telos does not determine every individual choice a person makes, it simply sets a course to be followed. Likewise, a theist can consistently embrace both a belief that God bestows an order or will upon the world and that we participate in this order freely. 

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What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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