Aristotle and Free Will

Once again this topic rears its head… But two interesting connections have occurred to me based on some recent reading of Aristotle.  I have to say on the front end that this is not a topic that Aristotle ever consciously discussed- the debate over the nature of freedom post-dates Aristotle, believe it or not.  That said, I am trying to avoid being anachronistic.  My claim here is not that Aristotle argued for a particular model of freedom but that some aspects of Aristotle’s thought can be useful to explaining a later idea of freedom as espoused by more existentialist thinkers.

The first idea is a distinction that Aristotle makes between two parts of human reasoning: the “mathematical” and the “deliberative.”  The mathematical follows “necessary” principles to reach its conclusions.  The deliberative part is a bit more open-ended, though.  Its principles are not “necessary”, they are in some sense dependent on the goal of a person’s life or existence.  They are, in other words, deliberately chosen by the individual as part of the development of that person into their individual self.

The second idea from Aristotle that I think is particularly useful is his notion of chance.  For Aristotle “chance” does not imply the kind of randomness we think of perhaps associating with the string of numbers we might get from rolling a twenty-sided die over and over again or the order of a well-shuffled deck of cards.  That kind of randomness is not what Aristotle means when he says something happens by chance.  Nor does he mean “without cause,” which is often what libertarian freedom is accused of implying.  What Aristotle does mean by chance, however, might be termed “unintended circumstances.”  Two causally determined chains of action cross in a way not intended by either.  The farmer plowing their field comes across a chest buried there long ago.  The chest is not there “randomly”- it was intentionally hidden there.  Nor is the farmer there “randomly”- he intended to be plowing his field.  But neither the person who hid the chest nor the farmer intended for this discovery to happen, these two paths have crossed in a way that was unexpected, creating an “unintended circumstance.”

The model of free will I have found most compelling is one that I think can be greatly aided by both these concepts.  This model is one that I think is representative of how many existentialist writers think about free will, and in more analytic thinking something similar is argued for by Robert Kane.  Basically, the model argues that not every decision must be “free” in the sense of having “alternative possibilities.”  Instead, freedom refers to our ability to shape ourselves, to oversee the formation of our character and beliefs.  This requires that at crucial junctures in our life, what Kane calls “Self-Forming Moments,” we have the ability to choose which way we will go.  From Aristotle I think we can construct an account of how this works.  These moments arise from the kinds of “unintended circumstances” that we encounter throughout life.  In these moments where the chain of action we have taken part in leaves us entirely unprepared for the circumstance we find ourselves in, a decision must be made which will set the course of a new chain of action.  That decision is not necessitated by any of the previous actions that brought us to this place- it is a “new” moment, as it were.  Thus, we must deliberate and determine what principles will guide us through that moment.  It is in exactly these sorts of circumstances that our character is “formed” into the kind of person we are.

2 thoughts on “Aristotle and Free Will

  1. You don’t oversee the formation of your own character and beliefs. In fact, you have little to say about it. You begin at birth with a genetic history, you are thereafter shaped by your environment: your education, a continually growing library of experience, the influence of the people who surround you (from even further back, the people who influenced the people who influence you, and those who influenced them back for many generations), the expectations of your culture, your social relationships; at some point, you acquire attitudes and biases and are thereafter influenced by them. You are who you are through a life-long process of becoming, and any choosing of direction you make is determined by the cumulative total of the above. Your attitudes and behavior are inseparable from your experience and learning. Free will is a myth.

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