Free Will vs. Determinism

24 Nov 2007

I'd like to briefly pick up on my last post, in which I mentioned the band Rush. I never knew this, but they were apparently heavily influenced by Ayn Rand's writings . Now, if you know anything about Rand's philosophy, she was a big believer in a universe ruled by man's free will. I believe Rush built on that when composing their song, Free Will. Here's the chorus:

You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose free will

Bassist Geddy Lee sings those words, but an article I read referenced their legendary drummer, Neil Peart, as the primary philosopher of the group. I could be wrong on that, as I haven't researched it too much. Still, I just thought it was interesting to note the unusual coincidence of my struggling to articulate feelings about the draft in that last post, and how that story dovetailed with a story about an old friend's family (the old friend being a completely fanatical Rush disciple).

In my study of objectivism, however, the notion of free will quickly emerges as central to the entire philosophy. Interestingly, I haven't been this consumed by a line of philosophical enquiry in more than a decade -- not really, anyway. But, the last time I became so obsessive, it was specifically about the nature of the universe, whether it allows free will or is a solely deterministic place. To understand the history of this obsession, you'd probably have to read this old post of mine. (In it, I basically offer a bit of a layman's challenge to the nature of our volition -- down to the very root of it, really. Unfortunately, I was unable to come to a conclusion without first devoting my life to the study of quantum physics.)

Back to objectivism... Right away, I realized that I needed to understand the rational basis on which Rand concluded that free will is possible. So, I wrote to one of the leading scholars on objectivism, Dr. Leonard Peikoff. (Look up any Rand publication, and he'll likely be there with an intro.) I asked him:

Could you point me to any resources that cover the objectivist standpoint on free will vs. determinism? When an objectivist cites man's free will, does he or she mean simply our apparent freedom to choose any action we desire? But what if free will is simply a pleasant illusion? In other words, we all try to make rational decisions, but does objectivism hold that these decisions are truly "decisions" and not simply the product of extremely complex causality?

That probably sounds insane to many people, but I figured it'd be a standard question to pose to a professional philosopher. He wrote back, through his assistant:

Dear Mr. Hillman,
Dr. Peikoff believes that he has answered your questions fully in his discussion of free will in his book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, specifically chapter 2. Sincerely,
[Assistant to Dr. Peikoff]

Thanks Dr. Peikoff! [And, thanks to the assistant!] So, now it looks like I at least have a direction.

I understand that, in developing an ethos, one needs to take stands on certain major philosophical issues. For example... For Rand's atheism, the argument is clear, in my opinion. I'd always considered myself more or less an atheistic-leaning agnostic -- which I've never been truly comfortable with, as it's admittedly a flimsy philosophical stance. But, agnosticism, in my opinion, is often a transitional state related to one's upbringing. Psychologically speaking, it's quite difficult to simply reject 100% the teachings of one's childhood -- especially if you have or had a mother as religiously fanatical as my own. In fact, my screenplay Wood's Confection (available for free download from my other blog) can be read as a statement about the the sometimes lengthy transition from faith to atheism (although, hopefully, it's more entertaining than that description).

But, Rand's argument, which I suspect is a lot like Richard Dawkins' (author of the recent God Delusion) and many other prominent atheists, is rationally sound. So, I can easily accept atheism easily as a foundation for an overall ethos, even while the religious specters of my youth linger in my mind's periphery.

But, see, when you come to free will vs. determinism, I cannot yet grasp the rational rejection of a world dominated deterministic causes in favor of an environment in which free will is truly possible. Unless, of course, Rand's vision allowed for a version of free will in which free will itself is somewhat of an illusion.

So, I'll be checking out what Peikoff has to say on the subject and will report back next time with a final conclusion on whether or not the universe is ordered or chaotic.

[Current status on Atlas Shrugged: Up to page 550 or so!]

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