The first one is this:
Every event is the result of a preceding event. For every result there is a cause. There is no free will.
This question – whether we have free will or whether we are subject to determinism – is a big one and debate on the topic shows no sign of reaching any resolution. A determinist – one who believes that we have no free will – can always argue that whatever we do, say or think is the effect of some cause or causes and that we have no choice in the matter. Even the fact that we believe something is merely the effect of some cause or causes. It is an argument that the determinist cannot lose.
The argument goes something like this*: everything is the effect of some cause therefore our actions, words and thoughts are also the effects of some causes and therefore we do not have free will. The difficulty is that while most of us agree that this is true of the physical world – and perhaps even of the simpler organisms – we feel that our minds are different, that we are reflective, decision-making creatures, that our minds somehow escape the laws that apply to dead matter and that we therefore possess, at least to some extent, free will. The problem is proving it.
And no trivial problem this turns out to be. We haven’t the space to pursue the subject in depth but here are a couple of ideas. Some people propose that “I” am not my brain-body combination but my “soul”. My soul exists in some unspecified relationship to my body, storing my memories and the attributes that form my personality – everything that makes me me. Not being physical, it neither depends on the body nor perishes with the body when this dies. More importantly for our argument, it is not constrained by the physical laws of cause and effect that apply to brute nature. It is a free agent and therefore has free will.
Well, if the soul is not affected by the laws of physics, how does it “acquire” my thoughts, memories, knowledge, etc.? How does it feed these back into my brain when needed? How, in short, does the soul “drive” the body if there is no physical interaction? Why, if an injury to my brain removes part of my memory, is the soul’s memory similarly afflicted: shouldn’t it remain immune? If not, what is the point of it, anyway?
Some people have picked up on the fact that there appears to be indeterminism at the sub-atomic particle level. If particles can act unpredictably, they suggest, why cannot the mind also do so? Firstly, it is not obvious how processes at the micro level can scale up to the macro level. For example, just because particles go around spontaneously decaying into smaller particles doesn’t mean that human beings go around spontaneously decaying into smaller human beings. But even if the sub-atomic level somehow affects us “up here”, how does that help us: just because an event is unpredictable doesn’t mean there is choice involved in it. Indeterminism would simply act as one more cause of things over which I have no control.
The more deeply you go into the topic, the gloomier the situation becomes. Bodies (including brains) are physical systems; physical systems are subject to the laws of cause and effect; therefore the human body and brain are subject to the laws of cause and effect; therefore there is no free will. Not a glimmer of hope.
In fact, there is just one glimmer, as far as I can see. This takes the form of a paradox: why, if there is no free will, do we spend so much time debating whether there is free will?
Few people would today disagree with the proposition that we human beings are the result of a process of evolution and that evolution has given us the characteristics it has because these are useful to the way we live or, putting it another way, if we were not successful organisms, our race would not survive. Admittedly the pace of evolution often leaves things have finished or leaves in place features that are no longer useful (e.g. the human appendix) but I can see no obvious reason why evolution would endow us with the capacity to debate whether or not we have free will if we do not have free will. That seems a very odd effect to have arisen as a result of past causes, especially as the debate is itself (according to determinists) deterministic. The only way it would make sense to me is if we really did have free will and evolution has necessarily had to let us know this.
It’s not much to go on, I agree. Will we ever get to the bottom of it? It’s hard to see how, since the determinist can always argue that whatever conclusions we draw are drawn because we have no option but to draw them. And yet, and yet…
*For a competent account of the free will v determinism debate presented amusingly but rigorously for the layman, see Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher at the end of the Universe.