Bilbo’s poem “The Road Goes Ever On” from “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” encapsulates the opposed and surely incompatible concepts of “free will” and “determinism”. Wikipedia puts it this way:
Earlier, when leaving the Shire, Frodo tells the other hobbits Bilbo’s thoughts on ‘The Road’: “He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'”.
Firstly Bilbo refers to the many choices that a journey forces on the traveller with the metaphor of a river, its branching and its tributaries, but he also acknowledges that one might be “swept off”, of the travellers path being beyond his control.
I feel that the second case (of one’s path being beyond one’s control) is a nod to the concept of determinism. I never set out to post mainly about food, though that is what has happened. I intended, as I stated in my very first post that there would be a triple focus to this blog. So this is in part an attempt to address the lack of balance.
So I’ve chosen to tackle a philosophical topic this time. Or did I? Did I actually make a choice, or was my switch to a philosophical topic pre-destined, and simply predetermined by previous events? Could I have chosen not to have written on this topic?
There are three main views expressed on the topic of freewill versus predestination. The first is that we do have freewill and many people consider this “obvious” and not really worth debating. The second view is that each and every action is pre-destined and that choice is an illusion. A third view tries to sidestep the debate by claiming that the two views are not mutually exclusive. Compatibilists (who espouse this third view) argue that, provided we were in a position to make a choice between two courses of action and we later turn out to have taken one of them (or as it is more usually put, if we could have chosen to do take the other course) then we have made a choice, even if the outcome of making the choice was predestined and therefore both of the other two views are valid.
I’ve always thought that the compatibilist viewpoint was a cop out, or a case of trying to have your cake and eat it. I’ve thought that it devalues choice, which to me means the ability to opt for one course freely and without the outcome being decided or predestined. However I’ve recently thought of an analogy that could support the compatibilist viewpoint.
The analogy is a computer program. There are “decision points” in a program. Should this bit of code be executed next or that bit of code? Should the program perform the loop one more time, or just carry on with the next bit of code? In each case the decision is made depending on the state of the program at the time, perhaps determined by the state of a variable. It could be said that there is a choice involved in each of these decisions, but when the program is executing and it comes to a decision point its state is determined and the course of the execution is completely determined.
So, humans are not computers, are they? But the underlying point of the analogy is that the programmer writes the software program to make a decision depending on the situation when the program is run. When the program is run, the decision is made depending on the situation at the time. Similarly with humans, perhaps. At one level there is the choice “programmed into” the situation by the past state of the universe. At another level the decision is predetermined by the current state of the universe. Asking the question “Is there free will, or is everything predetermined?” is comparing apples with oranges.
Possibly. I’m not completely convinced. The compatibilists still have an ethical issue – is it ethical to punish someone for a crime even though they (presumably) chose to commit it, because their choice was predetermined.