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Are We Free?


Norns by J. L. Lund (1777-1867)

4,748 words

Portuguese translation here [2]

1. The Problem

Do we have “free will”? It certainly seems to me that I freely choose what I do in life, with respect to things both major and minor. My decision to go to graduate school, for example, certainly seems to have been one that I made freely, without anyone or anything coercing me. Similarly, my decision not to brew a second cup of coffee moments ago also seems to have been made “of my own free will.” However, things are not always as they appear. It is entirely possible that my actions only seem to be freely chosen by me. They could, in fact, be caused by factors quite beyond my control. “Free will” might simply be an illusion.

This is, of course, one of the most famous problems in philosophy. It is generally framed as the problem of “free will vs. determinism,” determinism being the position that we are unfree; that we are caused, in one way or another, to do what we do (or to be what we are). The two most popular candidates for what might determine us are heredity (i.e., genes) and environment; or nature and nurture. One does not have to choose one or the other: it is quite permissible to hold that we are determined by a mixture of both hereditary and environmental factors.

Some philosophical problems seem like abstract questions divorced from real human concerns – but not this one. Here our dignity is at stake, and our deepest convictions about what it is to be human. That I freely choose to do what I do seems as obvious and self-evident to me as my impression that there really is a world out there, and that my senses put me in touch with it. The idea that this might be an illusion is deeply troubling. But the real problem is not just that I might be wrong about something very important. If determinism is correct, then I must now see myself in a wholly new light. I must abandon my image of myself as master of my life and my actions. If determinism is correct, I am actually a slave. I am a plaything of genes or environment, or both. I am worse than most slaves, in fact, because most slaves are aware that they are slaves. I think I am free, so I am not only a slave, I am a fool to boot. Thus, if determinism is right, human dignity seems to be abolished.

Not only this, human responsibility is abolished as well. We believe that individuals are responsible for their actions. On that basis, we judge them for the things that they do. We praise the actions of others or blame them only if we are convinced they freely chose those actions, and could have acted otherwise. In short, moral judgment – indeed, morality itself – is only possible if free will really exists. If determinism is true, then we cannot judge anyone for their actions, because in a real sense their actions are not their own. They were “caused,” or “forced” to do what they did, and cannot be held responsible.

In sum, a great deal is at stake here. And it seems we must have an answer. Either we must exorcize the specter of determinism and save free will, or we must somehow make peace with determinism (which seems a rather bleak prospect). I actually propose to do neither. My thesis is that the problem of free will and determinism is actually a pseudo-problem, and that it rests upon a false conception of personal identity, or “selfhood.”

2. The Opposable Self

You’ve no doubt heard the absurd claim that human accomplishments are due to our having opposable thumbs. Someone (I can’t remember who) responded to this once by saying that in fact what truly makes us human is our possession of an “opposable self.”

Human beings have the ability to mentally “step back” from the situations we find ourselves in, in a way that no other creature can. When I drive my car or do the dishes, I am seldom absorbed in either. My mind is often someplace else entirely. Sometimes, I am thinking about myself. This ability to mentally disengage from situations, in fact, is a pre-condition of self-awareness. Higher animals (and a good many lower ones, in fact) all seem to have the ability to adjust their behavior based upon how their actions are affecting things around them. For example, if the kitten scratches the family dog and the dog growls ominously, the kitten backs off. But we attribute much of this to the animal instinctually making a new choice from among its pre-set repertoire of behaviors.

Human beings, on the other hand, have the ability to “turn inward” and reflect on themselves in a sustained, prolonged, and profound way that animals just do not seem to be capable of. The reactions of others, for example, may even prompt me to go off on my own (literally or figuratively) and ask “What kind of person am I?” or “Am I a good person?”

The “opposable self” has the ability to abstract itself from all situations and all things – even from the self itself. Consider the following. Right now you are reading my words, taking them in, and (I hope) understanding them.

Reading the preceding sentence, however, caused you to shift your focus: for a moment I caused you to think not about my words but about yourself thinking about my words. Your opposable self awakened, and, in a sense a different “you” came momentarily into being. “You” confronted the “you” confronting the computer (and my words) in front of you.

But if you have understood what I have just now said, still another “you” (or “opposable self”) has come into being: for now “you” are thinking about the “you” that thought about the “you” that was thinking about my words. And so on. J. G. Fichte illustrated this point to his classes by saying “Gentlemen, think the wall! Now think him who thought the wall . . . .”

This remarkable ability that we have to step back reflectively from our surroundings – even from ourselves – generating multiple “selves” confronting selves, is made possible by the fact that we contain nothingness (or negativity) This is how Jean-Paul Sartre put the matter. We have the ability to negate otherness. On a literal, physical level I can destroy or transform things around me. On the mental level, I can refuse engagement with what is immediately present and send my mind off elsewhere (as when, bored at a lecture, I begin imagining how tomorrow’s events will unfold). Or I can deny or repudiate something as it is and imagine or affirm how it ought to be. This is uniquely human, this ability to oppose what ought to be to what is – but it is founded on the more basic ability to disengage from or negate the given.

Consider that when you stepped back and considered yourself considering my words, you had the feeling of being, in that moment, distinctly different from the you that you were thinking about. Have you ever repudiated your own actions or thoughts with the claim – either tacit or explicit – that “that was not me” or “that’s not who I am”? Your opposable self can consider who and what you are only because it has the ability to stand apart from who and what you are; to say “I am not that.” This is how we can look back on ourselves in the past and say (or feel) “I am not that person.” And this is also the basis of our ability to utter what seems, on reflection, to be a very strange statement: “I have a body.” One can only say “I have a body” if one’s “I” has already differentiated itself from the body; i.e., you cannot say “I have a body,” unless this “I” thinks it is not the body. This “I” that “has” the body is the opposable self.

The opposable self or detached “I” shows up quite a lot in the history of philosophy, in one guise or another. It is what’s behind Aristotle’s concept of nous (intellect), the part of our soul that is separate from the body and really nothing at all – a little version of Aristotle’s God, a truly detached “I” that thinks only itself. It was Descartes’s detached “I” that said “I think, therefore I am,” after doubting everything else in existence, including its body. (Descartes goes on to claim that just because we can think of the soul as distinct from the body, it really must be.) We see the detached “I” again in Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception (the “I think” that is in principle appended to any act of awareness), in Fichte’s Absolute Ego which “posits” itself absolutely, and in Sartre’s authentic man, who has the freedom to negate all facticity.

Now, my claim is that “the problem of free will vs. determinism” arises as a result of identifying oneself with this detached “I”; as a result of thinking that the opposable self is who I really am. This is an almost irresistible error. The very act through which the opposable self constitutes itself involves negation; saying I am not this or that. It therefore feels perfectly right to say I am not my body. But, of course, it is perfectly wrong. The truth is that I am my body.

3. Who “I” Am

I do not “have” a body at all. It would be wrong even to say something like “I live in this body.” No, I am my body. We moderns tend to locate consciousness and selfhood in the brain. This is actually a problematic idea – only partially correct — but for the moment let’s just assume that it’s true. And suppose I told you “I have a brain.” This is a perfectly meaningful sentence, as meaningful as saying “I have a left foot.” But it is obviously much stranger. If I lost my left foot I could say, unproblematically, “I had a left foot.” But if I lost my brain you won’t catch me saying “I had a brain,” because “I” would be gone. Yet this peculiar “I” still wants to insist that it “has” a brain.

We begin to wonder just what this “I” can be – this “I” that distinguishes itself from anything and everything. The suspicion emerges that it is nothing at all, a kind of epiphenomenon or will-o’-the-wisp. Albeit a necessary one, as the capacity to step back from our ourselves and our surroundings and distinguish ourselves from them is the foundation of human consciousness. Still, to think that this detachable “I” is myself is a gross error – an error at the root of our horror in the face of “determinism.”

Determinism bothers me because I do not want to believe that my actions are caused by something other than myself. When someone suggests that I might be determined by genetics, I am troubled by this because I think that I am not my genes. Just as I can say “I have a body” or “I have a brain,” so I can say “I have genes.” And again, the precondition of being able to say we “have” those things is our mental ability to artificially distinguish ourselves from them. I have learned much over the years about genetics, and about how our appearance, behavior, and even our thoughts are shaped by genes. But I have this stubborn conviction that I am not my genes; I “have” genes,” but they are not me.

Of course, this is just as problematic a claim as “I have a body,” or “I have a brain.” In fact, in a very real sense my genes are me. My body and my mind have been shaped by my heredity. My “opposable self” revolts against this: “I am not my genes!” But once we realize that my self is something far more complicated and richer than just this phantom that says “I,” this becomes a completely untenable claim.

To begin purely with externals, I am a person with a certain height and build. I have a certain hair and eye color and facial structure. All these have affected my life in important ways and have shaped my experiences and hence shaped my mind as well. My bodily structure means that I am good at some things and not at others. My height and build might have suited me well for the football field, but not for being a jockey. I didn’t pursue being a football player because I had my nose in a book most of the time. Why? There is ample reason to think that such personality traits are heritable. I am an intellectual, and my family tree includes a number of them. I am also impatient, conservative, melancholy – all probably inherited traits. And these inherited traits have made me what I am.

In a real sense I can say that they are me. Once this is realized, the specter of “genetic determinism” seems to be exorcized. Again, what troubles us is the prospect that our actions might be determined by some alien force – something outside us. But my genes are not something alien to me; again, they are me. I am an utterly unique combination of genes inherited from my mother and father (this is true, of course, of all of us – unless we have an identical twin!). When “I” act it is this unique constellation of genetic factors that act – and nothing else. The genes are not alien bodies that “cause” me to do things. I am the cause of my actions, and nothing else – but I am just this unique interweaving of genetic factors.

I am my genes just as I am my body. My genes link me to my parents and to their parents before them, and so on. So that my being is inextricably tied to the being of certain others, and to the past. (As I will discuss later on, modernity is built upon the “opposable self,” and we moderns don’t like the idea that our being is tied to the past, or anything else for that matter.)

Now, what I have argued in the case of heredity can also be argued for what gets called “environment.” Hegel said that true freedom consists in “willing our determination.” He recognized that we are “determined” by all sorts of social factors over which we have little or no control. The truth of the matter, however, is that these make us who we are; they give us a determinate identity without which we would be nothing at all. Further, social constraints which seem, on the one hand, to limit and “determine” us actually create the concrete circumstances within which our character, preferences, and abilities take shape and unfold.

Tarzan is the most “unfree” man of all. Yes, he is free of all social constraints – but he is bereft of community and of the social institutions which make available to us the means to become what we are. For instance, it might be in my nature to be musical, or to be an artist, or a scientist, or a leader of men. But I can realize none of these possibilities outside of a concrete social setting. But any particular social setting will also “limit” me.

It cannot be any other way: freedom is only possible through determination. Hence we must not see our heredity and environment as alien factors limiting and constraining us. We must “will” our determination – affirm it and make it our own. There is something truly liberating about this: about affirming who we are, and all that has made that possible, and knowing that freedom means becoming who we are. The truth is that we are the cause of our actions, not something else. And if being the cause of our actions is freedom, then we are free. But what we are is shaped by many factors – genetic and otherwise — that we do not choose.

4. True and False Freedom

Here an obvious objection will occur: “But if we don’t choose these factors that shape us, then we are not free!” The trouble with this objection, however, is that it implicitly appeals to a conception of freedom that is so utterly fantastic as to be meaningless. Essentially, the objector is assuming that we are free only if we can choose and control exactly what we are. But this is completely impossible. At this point, therefore, we have a choice. If we accept the objector’s ideal of true freedom, we can bite the bullet and declare that we are unfree. A better approach, however, would be to consider whether there might be a more reasonable understanding of being “free” and “unfree.”

In his Vocation of Man (1800), Fichte writes the following about freedom:

Give a tree consciousness and let it grow unchecked; let it spread its branches and bring forth leaves, buds, blossoms, and fruits peculiar to its species. It will surely not feel limited by the circumstance that it just happens to be a tree, a tree of just this species and just this particular tree of this species. It will feel free because in all those expressions it does nothing but what is demanded by its nature; it will not want to do anything else because it can only want what its nature demands. But let its growth be retarded by unfavorable weather, by inadequate nourishment, or by other causes: it will feel limited and restrained because a drive which really lies in its nature is not being satisfied. Tie its freely striving branches to a trellis, impose alien branches on it by grafting: it will feel forced to act a certain way. Its branches will, of course, continue to grow, but not in the direction they would have taken had they been left to themselves; and it will, after all, bear fruit, but not the fruit demanded by its original nature.[1]

In short, true freedom means freedom to become what you are – but you don’t get to choose what you are, anymore than the tree gets to choose that it’s a tree, or what kind of tree it is. We are “unfree” not as a result of the various factors that have shaped what we are; we are unfree when circumstances prevent us from becoming what we are. All of us are determinate beings of one kind or another, and what has given us determinate form is a whole host of factors we did not choose. It cannot be any other way. The man who bemoans the fact that this makes him “unfree” is really the man whose ideal of freedom is to be nothing at all.

This is the dirty little secret of modernity: the desire not to be anything determinate. We moderns want to believe that we are “free” in the sense of having the ability, if we so choose, to be completely unaffected by the past, by heredity, by ties to others, by hormones, by anatomy, by culture, by ethnicity, and, in general, by any and all physical or social circumstances. We want to “have it all.” And we teach our children “you can be anything you want to be.” We believe that such things as biology, human desires, and the structure of societies are infinitely changeable and perfectible. We regard nature itself as a “social construct,” and feel ourselves unburdened by any limits of any kind. We revolt against the very idea that we – and other things — might be something; something definite, with immovable boundaries that might hinder our desires.

But in this idealism there is a profound and terrible nihilism. To be means to be something – something definite. The will to be nothing definite is simply the will not to be. This is the awful telos of modern, Western civilization. Our quest for a false freedom is at root a will to erase ourselves from the world; a death wish. Life is identity, definiteness, form, order, hierarchy, and limits. Those who would affirm life must affirm all of these things. We must say a great YES to all that which says a still greater NO to our hubris, a voice to which we moderns have become practically deaf.

5. Some Replies to Objections

Essentially, I have argued that the choice between “free will” and “determinism” involves a false dichotomy. That which is supposed to “determine” us (heredity and environment) is not something alien and other that acts upon us. Instead, in a real sense, it is us. Once this is understood, we will realize that I am free just in the sense that my acts are my own – but that what I am has been shaped and determined by all manner of things I haven’t chosen and cannot control. We are free when we are able to act on our nature and to become what we are. The only objectionable form of “determination” would be circumstances in which I am prevented from flourishing; prevented from actualizing my potentialities and becoming what I am.

On this account, both human dignity and moral responsibility are preserved (you will recall that I mentioned at the outset that these were at stake). My acts are still my own, because all those things that are said to “determine” me are not alien and other but a part of my being. Hence, I am not merely the plaything of “external” forces. Further, if this is the case, it follows that I and I alone am responsible for my actions.

I have argued, further, that the “free will and determinism” problem really arises from a false conception of the self – from which we have constructed the idea that true freedom would be a kind of absolute choice, free of any influence by anything that the self has not chosen. I have tried my best to banish this false notion of freedom and of the self. However, it tends — in various ways — to creep back in.

For instance, I could imagine someone objecting to what I’ve argued so far by saying “All right, perhaps true freedom consists simply in our having the choice to will – or not to will – our determination. And this choice, unlike all our other choices is truly free in the sense that it is not ‘caused’ or affected by any factors over which we have no control.” It is tempting to affirm this — precisely because the ideal of the “opposable self,” the detached judge, free of any constraints is so attractive. Sartre has a similar conception of “true freedom”: our “opposable self” is absolutely free to negate anything and everything, in some fashion or other. “Authenticity” means recognizing this and knowing that we are “condemned to be free,” whereas “bad faith” means disowning this freedom, and saying “I couldn’t help it . . .”

But I am sceptical. All sorts of factors – genetic and social – determine whether or not a person has it in them to will, or not to will their determination. There are individuals who are constitutionally incapable of willing their determination, because for them this means defeat. It means complacency, surrendering control, “settling” for what has been handed to them by nature or nurture. And this can be a tremendous virtue – but it is not a “choice” that sprang out of nowhere, without antecedent factors or influences. Such an attitude belongs to a certain sort of character, and character is never self-caused. (Of course, the person who will not affirm his determination does not realize that this characteristic too is something he did not choose.)

Some individuals will affirm their determination, and others will not. Ultimately, we can never explain exactly why some do and some don’t. But one thing is certain: it is not the result of a magical “choice” that was completely free of any antecedent factors or conditions. It is a choice that flows from the sort of man one happens to be – but that is shaped and formed by myriad things we do not choose.

The same thing can be said about the Sartrean “true freedom” as negation. Whether or not I have the will to negate – to rebel against, change, or transform – what nature or society has handed me is a matter of character. And it is also a matter of intelligence. It is a well known fact that stupid people tend to simply accept what they are handed much more readily than intelligent people. Smart people are able to conceive of many more possibilities than stupid people, so they have more choices in life. Though, as I have argued, many factors will determine what choice a person makes from the options of which they are aware, it is nonetheless true that intelligent people will be able to think of a wider array of options. Of course, intelligence is a hereditary trait; we don’t get to choose how smart we are. The will to “negate” the given is thus not something absolutely “free” in the sense of being devoid of antecedent factors or influences: it is very much the result of character traits, hereditary environmental influences, and IQ.

Further, I could imagine someone objecting to what I have argued by invoking a subject dear to my heart: the Left Hand Path. Isn’t that all about rebelling against limits and boundaries, biological and social? Isn’t it about “self-overcoming”? My answer to this is really implicit in what has already been said: yes, the Left Hand Path is all of these things. But it is not for everyone. Who will choose the Left Hand Path? Only those who can. And this is, again, a matter of character. “Self-overcoming” is literally impossible. All that one can do is to realize or develop hitherto undeveloped aspects of one’s self. Again, freedom means becoming who you are.

I suppose someone might also object to everything I have written by saying that it sounds awfully fatalistic. People sometimes confuse determinism and fatalism and think that the determinist position asserts that everything that happens to us is “fated” to happen. But this is not the case. Though who we may be “determined,” this does not mean that everything that happens to us has been somehow pre-determined. When I walk out the door tomorrow I may encounter a salesman out to sell my something – or a madman out to take my life. There is nothing about me that necessitates either one happening. But there is much about me that necessitates how I will react to either occurrence. In a certain sense then, yes, one can say that I am “fated” to act and react in particular ways.

And this leads me to the last point I will make. This has been a philosophical essay; an attempt to arrive at the truth about free will and determinism, without presuppositions. But the position I have arrived at is one that is, in fact, the Traditional position – and it is certainly quite similar to the understanding of fate and personal destiny that we find specifically in the Germanic lore.

According to that tradition, even the gods are subject to fate. Some of the words used to refer to fate include Old Icelandic urðr and Old English wyrd, both of which are related to modern German werden, which means “to become.” There is also Old Saxon metod and Old English me(o)tod, which both mean “measure.”

Fate, for our ancestors, is therefore something measured out to you, and something you become. Fate is not a “plan” for the individual or for the world laid out in advance: fate is what you are handed by heredity, by the past, and by the present circumstances you enter into. Fate is the “lot” that is cast for the individual by the three Norns: Urð (“what has become”), Verðandi (“what is becoming”), and Skuld (“what shall be” – given antecedent factors or conditions).


1.  J.G. Fichte, The Vocation of Man, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 14-15. It should be noted that here Fichte is taking a position he believes to be completely legitimate and rationally defensible – but also one that he does not himself endorse. The argument of the text is a complicated one.