An English essay. Because everyone loves to read those in their spare time, amirite?
-Written October 2012
I know that my as-yet-nonexistent daughter will one day get her driver’s license. I know that she will blow out candles on a cake at her birthday party. I know that she will have hair on her head and calcium inside her bones. Have I just removed all free will from her life? Have I doomed my future child to be pushed about by determinism? Or is it that perhaps free will is not the opposite of determinism? There rages on a great philosophical debate about free will vs. determinism, with some arguments stretching back to Lucretius1 and earlier, and with some arguments being as recent as those put forth by the behaviorist B.F. Skinner. The idea that the two concepts cannot exist at the same time is called “Incompatibilism,” but this artificial dichotomy can be demonstrated to be fallacious. We shall see that free will and determinism are not actually at odds with one another.
Free will is the power of beings of choosing with respect to certain matters without the restraints of physical or divinely imposed necessity or outside causal law.2 Determinism, on the other hand, is the theory that acts and choices are predestined by God or the laws of nature. Although the two ideas seem contradictory, they can coexist. To understand how, we shall examine two conceptually opposing works which turn out to not be so different after all: first, The Epic of Gilgamesh which is marked by free will; and “The Odyssey” which, just as with all other Greek literature, subscribes to the theory that the gods and fates are in control of all mankind.
Although the gods in The Epic of Gilgamesh played an important role in the story and helped shape the events that unfolded, every decision that Gilgamesh himself made was of his own choosing. In the start he chose to abuse his people [Tablet 1], in the middle he chose to go on adventures with Enkidu (despite the latter’s warnings) [Tablets 4-6] and chose to seek out Ut-Napishtim [Tablets 9-11]. In the end, Gilgamesh chose to be a better king so that he could live eternally in the hearts of his people [Tablet 11].
There is never any indication that any god forced Gilgamesh toward any action, nor any implication that Gilgamesh is powerless to prevent his own actions. Even when Enkidu and Uruk’s council of elders attempt to talk him out of going on dangerous adventures, Gilgamesh is not dissuaded. The continued adventures make the gods regret having created Enkidu and they decide to have him killed. This shows that the gods had not planned all of Gilgamesh’s actions, since they had to reverse their decision on account of two men’s adventures. It takes divine intervention to remove Enkidu from Gilgamesh’s life, at which point he resolves to seek out Ut-Napishtim. Although it was his decision to start this journey, the gods nudged him forward.
And here we can see the other side of the coin. It was divine intervention that distracted Gilgamesh from his evil ways (read: the creation of Enkidu) and it was divine intervention that started his journey for eternal life (the death of Enkidu). No gods ever forced Gilgamesh to fight Enkidu and become his companion, but they knew that Gilgamesh would not resist Enkidu’s challenge. The gods knowing that Gilgamesh would choose to fight Enkidu was deterministic, since they foresaw the action. Nevertheless, Gilgamesh chose to fight Enkidu without being forced by the gods. It was his own decision to retain his arrogance that led to his decision to fight. Had Gilgamesh chosen to yield to Enkidu instead of fighting him, then the gods’ deterministic plan would have failed. But, Gilgamesh chose to fulfill the gods’ prognostication by his willful actions and thus the plan worked, as the gods surely knew it would.
This ties in rather nicely with the scenario in the opening paragraph wherein I prophesize that my future daughter will attain a driver’s license. My foreknowledge of such an event does not negate her free will. Just the opposite; by her willful actions she will fulfill my prophecy! In this manner the two concepts are not at all contradictory; in fact they almost seem to rely upon one another.
The ancient Greeks did not believe in free will. They did not even believe that the gods were completely free, being at the mercy of the Moirai (Fates). In The Iliad, Zeus knows that Sarpedon will be killed, but knows he cannot save Sarpedon because it is decided by the Fates that he will die.4 Meanwhile Agamemnon knows that he must be absolved of all wrongdoings in his life, since they were determined by the Fates (Iliad, 19.87): “Howbeit it is not I that am at fault, but Zeus and Fate (Moira) and Erinys, that … cast upon my soul fierce blindness on that day, when of mine own arrogance I took from Achilles his prize.” This is a dangerous and frightening philosophy to have, since it means no man ever commits evil or good but merely what the gods and Fates decreed, and thus no man should be held accountable for his actions; but I digress.
The primary flaw in Greek literature’s dismissal of free will consists in its misunderstanding of what constitutes a choice, and what is simply being controlled against one’s will. We must remember that there is a great difference between the concept of someone determining our choices, and someone else determining what happens to us. If, for example, I were wearing a pair of roller skates and someone pushed me from behind without my consent my forward motion would be predetermined. That does not mean that I have no free will, only that I was unable to prevent my motion. Once I realized that I was moving forward, however, I would apply the brakes or coast to a stop (or keep moving if so inclined). This determinism would illustrate my lack of ability to remain still, not my lack of ability to choose to remain still. This, I believe, is the primary source of confusion when arguing against the concept of free will. To say that Odysseus was stranded in the wilderness for ten years because he was being thrown around by Poseidon is a world’s difference from saying that he couldn’t choose to go home. He did make the choice to return home at the end of the Iliad war, but his finite powers as a mortal left him at the mercy of the gods. Does the man being hanged by a noose have no choice to escape, or does he have no ability to escape? Were the ropes binding that prisoner’s hands be cut, he would not remain hanging in the air, but would climb up the noose and escape his death. So it was with Odysseus.
So does the determinism of Greek literature override free will? There seems to be some confusion even within Greek mythology of this, as we can see in “The Odyssey,” in lines 41-44 of Book 13:
Alas! how prone are human-kind to blame
The Pow’rs of Heav’n! From us, they say, proceed
The ills which they endure, yet more than Fate
Herself inflicts, by their own crimes incur.
By the reckoning of these lines, we are to believe that the gods are made to suffer because of mankind’s evil, and from this suffering comes divine punishment which causes human suffering. If, however, we have no free will and the gods and fates determine our actions, then the gods by choosing our actions only cause us to commit more evils, which leads to an unending cycle of evil. But where did this cycle begin? For if from humans evil stems, then the first evil which established the cycle must have come from a human. In Greek mythology the first human to commit an evil act was Pandora, who opened a box which sent all evil into the world. If there was no evil among men or gods before this, then Pandora must have chosen of her own volition to open the box, meaning that her exercise of free will was what set the cycle of suffering in motion. It should be noted, however, that Zeus created Pandora knowing that her curiosity would compel her to open the box.
This seems to be a perfect example of free will coexisting with determinism, for Zeus knew that Pandora would open the box, and she did of her own choosing just as he knew she would. Thus we see that “The Epic of Gilgamesh” was painted by free will with a tinge of determinism, and so too was The Odyssey painted with both hues, albeit unintentionally. It is by ignorance, not by a lack of choice, that these men make mistakes. Queen Jocasta and King Laius chose to fulfill the Oracle’s prophecy by attempting to kill Œdipus out of ignorance, and Œdipus fulfilled the prophecy by choosing to kill his father and marry his mother out of ignorance. It’s not that we can’t escape fate; it’s that we choose to validate it by remaining ignorant.
And now we can see that these seemingly disparate situations, these seemingly contradictory ideas, these seemingly opposing stories are actually much closer that they appeared to be. Neither the environment, nor the laws of nature, neither God nor gods, neither the Fates nor fate control our actions. Our actions, instead, verify these determinations. We may allow ourselves to be conditioned by rules of society or nature, but we are not their slaves unless we choose to be. You can count on it. But because I often like to give my opponent the last argument, I will leave you with these parting words: If you, dear reader, truly believe in free will then stop reading this essay before it ends.
1. Lucretius, ii. 216-224. Translation from Brad Inwood, L. P. Gerson, (1994), The Epicurus Reader, page 66. Hackett
2. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Editorial Staff. (2002) Print
3. Homer, The Odyssey, 1.41-44. from Homer. The Odyssey with an English translation. A. T. Murray, Ph.D. (1919), in two volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.
4. Homer, The Iliad, 16.433. “Ah, woe is me, for that it is fated that Sarpedon, dearest of men to me, be slain by Patroclus, son of Menoetius!….” from Homer. The Ilias with an English translation. A. T. Murray, Ph.D. (1924), in two volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.