The Irony of Free Will in a World of Order and Chaos

Within popular philosophic discussions, there’s typically an argument surrounding free will and moral responsibility that has the conflict between order and chaos as its focal point. Determinism is the theory that the phenomena of reality, which is no more than a series of reactions between various states of matter, are comparable to the falling of dominoes lined up next to each other. One phenomenon or event happens because of the previous link in the chain, and it too causes the next phenomenon as each cause in reality is also the effect of a previous cause. This is based on the idea of cause and effect, which states that there are mechanical and necessarily causal reasons for the phenomena that occur in reality. Determinism, as an implication of the cause and effect theory, states that for all physical phenomena, either there is an infinite chain of causes to fill the infinite stretch of time, or that at the beginning of time, there was a First Cause, that had the unique quality of being self-fulfilling as far as the necessity of its existence was concerned, and since then everything has been determined by it.

One example to demonstrate this idea of determinism is as follows: Imagine a branch was broken from a tree during a strong storm. As an explanation of how this phenomenon occurred, someone adhering to determinism would say that the strong winds of the storm likely caused the branch, which may have either been too weak for the wind or already damaged by disease or animals burrowing into the wood, to break at its weakest point and fall to the ground. These strong winds in the storm were caused by global climate patterns and local weather effects, and the weakness in the branch was caused by disease, age, or internal destruction cause by animals. When all these conditions were fulfilled, there was sufficient cause for the phenomenon of the branch’s falling. So the branch’s falling was determined by the collective effects contributing to the branch’s weakness and deterioration, the most significant of which being the strong wind of the storm.

One of the main implications of determinism is the diffusing of causal responsibility. For the previous example, the branch did not fall because it was weak and apt to fall, it fell because of a myriad of reasons, or causes, that contributed to its weakness and ultimately its breaking. If it weren’t for these causes, the branch would not have become weak, and upon the coming of the storm, it may not have fallen. For the sake of contrast, it can be said that even if there were some “causes” that weakened the branch, if the branch did not fall, then there was no cause for it to fall. In this counter example, it would likely be the strength of the fibers in the wood that caused or determined the branch to stay unbroken.

This is an interesting conceptual model to use when studying and conceptualizing natural phenomena, as different patterns of matter and different patterns of action or behavior can be given different names, and various noun-things and happenings can be described. For instance, the sentence “A man punched a wood plate and split it in half” is a very scientific description of the phenomenal and material patterns that were demonstrated in the “reality” that occurred. The man lunged a fist with a lot of force into the wood plate; this is called a punch. And the plate’s splitting in half is described as being caused by the force of the punch and the subsequent transference of energy from the fist to the wood fibers, of which the bonds holding the matter together were too weak to sustain themselves, like the branch in the first example.

When applied to phenomena surrounding things such as people, however, determinism has some implications that can seem disturbingly restrictive. For instance, there are some typical questions raised in light of determinism that call to question our justifications for punishment, our identity and individuality, and even the existence of anything immaterial. If everything that happens is just the effect of a collection of previous causes, and each effect goes on to cause more effects, is there only one way that things will happen from here on out? Does the chain of causes, which either leads back infinitely or begins with a first cause, exempt people from the responsibility of their own actions? If you’re not responsible for your own actions because it was the culmination of various effects throughout all of time, is it just to blame or praise people for what they do? And lastly (the most significant question raised, in my opinion), if you are not responsible for your own actions because it was the end result or effect of a series of near infinite causes, do we have free will, or are we like machines pretending to be living things?

The theory of physical determinism is often countered by a perspective of reality that does not originate from our conceptual and scientific understandings of existence and natural phenomena, but instead is made to contrast our conceptual understandings while ultimately explaining the exact same phenomena. This perspective, which has no formal name as far as I know but is referred to by many, holds that our conceptions of natural reality give less insight (almost none, actually) than our direct experience of reality, even given how unreliable direct sense experience can be. It holds that if you want to understand physically why the branch or the wood plate broke, you would need to experience the entirety of reality throughout time to understand the patterns of changes that happened; otherwise, you could only say that the branch broke because that’s just what it did at that point in time.

The main difference from this perspective and that of physical determinism is that physical determinism suggests that the conditions of existence, at any particular space and point in time, are caused by, or it exists that way because of, everything preceding that point in time; whereas, the counter theory suggests that existence and natural phenomena are immediately self-fulfilling, and that there is no such thing as causation or causal links. It holds that the branch did not fall because the wind caused it to, but at that point in time, the branch just fell. This theory holds that although it was entirely possible that the branch could not fall, it would be a different pattern from the real one that actually took place because the branch did indeed fall; so, it should have fallen. This theory supposes that what exists and what is real, or what phenomena happen in reality, are the absolute necessary conditions of existence at whatever point in time they happen, even though there are no “real” deterministic laws of nature.

This theory counters the idea of deterministic laws by stating that what happens is purely chaotic and all of reality is a self-fulfilling existence. In other words, when something exists, it has to exist a certain way. Something cannot be two ways at once. Though science can form conceptual frames of reality, the conceptual is not the real. These conceptions may line up with the patterns that we observe, but that does not mean that the patterns we observe are beholden to these conceptions. In the frame of a dualistic perception where there are material and immaterial things (matter and ideas/thought), in reality, there is only what actually is, and there is no distinction between the “things” that exist, just the ways in which existence is.

This an attempt to describe the objective perspective, one unadulterated by the subjective notions and illusions cast on reality by a human mind. It attempts to describe things as if the universe were describing itself. Of course this isn’t going to make sense immediately to a person who scrutinizes these theories and ideas, but the whole point of the perspective is to try to see beyond the limits of human perception. If one could determine or grasp metaphysical truth, which is the supposed goal of many scientists and mystical philosophers, then you would see existence as it is, rather than through the lens of perception. In either case though, the implications on free will are not what common sense dictates.

Let’s assume that by “free will” we mean the ability to make random, “un-caused” actions. For physical determinism, there could be no such thing as free will, or freedom in general, because there is a destined order of existence that is necessarily caused by the physical reactions of reality, and it cannot be avoided no matter how intensely one wishes it to be. For the objective perspective however, there can be free will, as reality is modeled by pure freedom (i.e. chaos), but there can still only be one mode of existence at a time, so what we call “free will” is more like the sudden changes within patterns that cause them to be seen as the patterns they are rather than one big amorphous thing. Since in this chaotic model nothing has to be any particular way, things and people just assume various ways or modes of existence that don’t hinder the rule of chaos, which is perpetual change and lack of necessity.

What’s most important to us, though, are the implications of both models for the will of the human person. In both perspectives, the notion of the I, or the egoic identity of a self-aware being, is an illusion of perception. Since our perception is seemingly always held within the limits of one organism’s senses, we believe ourselves to BE that organism. This is a mistake, because in the model of physical deterministic order, there is no material thing in existence that accounts for consciousness, and within the model of perpetual chaos (which can include dualistic metaphysical realities like Plato’s realm of Forms), even including the existence of consciousness, there is no such thing as individuality or separateness, and therefore no such thing as causation, so any identity or “I” is a fictitious idea that simply believes itself to be real.

The only two explanations for the validity of free will within these models are as follows:

  • Within the deterministic model, which represents a reality bound by laws of undefiable order, even if you existed as an individual I, you would have no control over anything you do as everything you desire and intend is determined by the conditions or history of your existence. So if free will were to exist, it would be in the first cause, or the beginning of existence, because that is the only thing that was not determined by another thing.
  • Within the objectively chaotic model, which represents a reality made of patterns of different modes of existence, there is no causation, so every choice we make is just another sign of the changes and shifts in the patterns of reality, and it does not correlate to an individual will (because there’s no individuality). If free will were to exist, it would be in the will of reality itself to form whatever patterns it wants to demonstrate throughout its existence, like different seasonal decorations.

Both of these conclusions suggest that we may act as if and believe that we have free will, but in actuality, whatever we desire and intend are simply the characteristics of our particular, illusory existence. We won’t care, however, because as far as we’re concerned, we still believe that we, the “I”, that thing we refer to with our identity, exists. The I cannot believe that it isn’t real, so we’ll always feel like we’re as free as the whole universe is. And when you think of human persons as one such pattern in the universe that is a sort of self-reflection of it (referring to our intuitive Self-awareness), it seems fitting that we should feel like we have all the reality, freedom, and power that the entirety of existence has. After all, if we are a self-aware consciousness within the universe, then that means we are the universe being aware of itself, right?

Featured Photo by Travis Saylor from Pexels

3 thoughts on “The Irony of Free Will in a World of Order and Chaos

  1. “After all, if we are a self-aware consciousness within the universe, then that means we are the universe being aware of itself, right?”

    Well, that assumes that it is reasonable to take our perspective as representative of ‘the universe as a whole,’ doesn’t it? I mean, your statement is kind of tautological. A frog is ‘kinda conscious’ so does that mean that “the universe is conscious” ?

    But more to the point, I am curious what kind of sources, readings, your position is associated with. You say it has “no formal name” and has something to do with the “direct experience of reality” ? Just curious. I write on similar topics on my blog “naturereligionconnection.org”.

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    • I mostly write from whatever topics I’ve been reading about or listening to from online lectures. Most of my interpretations of metaphysics have recently been derived from my understandings of the lectures of Alan Watts, but I also try to conceptualize the results of my lived experiences as well, without necessarily adhering to specific intellectual traditions. I think around the time I wrote this I was also listening to lectures and interviews with Terrence McKenna, and much of my understanding of metaphysics and our conceptualizations of it come from reading some of the philosophies of Kant, Hume, and Hegel as well.

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    • My comment about our consciousness being evidence for the universal self-conscious is derived from the notion that nothing necessarily has to exist. If the universe exists, it isn’t necessarily an accident just because we can’t find the exact reason, and everything that is produced within it is produced in the same manner that the universe itself came to be, which I am interpreting as per circumstances. Therefore, if consciousness exists as a discernible phenomenological pattern in the universe, it is jus as much belonging to the universe as that to which it is ascribed. So the mind, as an abstract pattern of the universe with self-consciousness, is itself the mind (or at least one instance of it) of the universe.

      Thank you for commenting and challenging my assertion.

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