There is a philosophical argument against determinism based on the idea that we, internally within ourselves, are capable of deliberation, since we can deliberate and chose alternatives, ergo determinism is false. We feel ourselves free in other words.
I am not so much interested in the question of determinism but in this “feeling” that we have that we are free. My argument here is that this “feeling” is actually an illusion and propose the following highly counter-intuitive thesis:
It is not so much we who think but *our thoughts* which think and choose.
I am suggesting something very much the Hegelian idea that our minds are just occupied by various “memes” or thoughts which does the thinking for us and we just go along. Even if we do say to ourselves “I chose this path because this is who I am/want to be”, my contention would be it is the *thought* of yourself rather than yourself which is doing the choosing. We are, as it it were, nothing more than a passive receptacle for all these ideas jostling in our minds. If it is our thoughts/ideas/words which are doing the choosing and thinking, and our facility with words, concepts, and logic is a sort of mental technology which both constrains and expands the field of action for us.
But this is rather abstract so I will try to build it up via various examples to make it more plausible.
Imagine a native living on a completely isolated island with no contact with the wider world. Now we ask, does this native have the freewill to choose to learn German? The answer obviously is no simply because there is literally no *causal contact* which such a person has to anyone who speaks German. The range of actions whereby you can choose obviously has to be materially present to you in the first place before you can chose it and before it can be an intentional object or choice.
If the range of objects which you can think or act upon is limited by what’s materially/empirically present to your mind, let’s then go one step back and ask, can you chose what to think? Think about this for a moment and then consider: Could you have chosen to think about what music you listened to as a teen when you first read the previous question? In a bare metaphysical sense obviously you could in the way that it is possible for the universe to be created with a different gravitational constant, but in the practical sense, of all the billions upon billions of memories, thoughts, and ideas jostling in your brain, only a very small and tiny field was ever present in your mind for you to think and recall. The probability of you choosing to think about what maths problem you did when you were 14 or what food you ate while in college *at the very moment* I asked you the question of what you could think is 1 in a zillion.
My contention is that there is a *direct analogy* between the possibility of the native “choosing” to learn German as you “choosing” to think about Han Feizi could have approached the Duke of Qin differently at the time I asked you the question. It is impossible for the native, there and then in his circumstance, to chose to learn German simply because of his empirical and material distance from German, it is near impossible for you to consider whether or not the concept of trust in English law lead to socialism simply because of the empirical distance that idea has from your mind, unless you yourself were immersed in such studies and regularly think about such things.
I have so far demonstrated that the *range* of objects and thoughts you can think at any given moment is limited by your material and empirical circumstances, you don’t have unlimited freewill as it were. To use a computing analogy, you have limited mental bandwidth. Even if the thought was in your mind, your capacity to recall *that very thought* at the very moment is extremely limited. You may think here that I am going to argue that we should infer that at any given moment we can only think *one* thing or object, but I am *not* going to argue for determinism here where given one set of antecedent conditions there is only one outcome.
I am just going to ask a different question. If the *range* of objects you can think is limited at any moment, then what *causes* you to think something at the very moment? Our thoughts just seem to “flow” into us, seamlessly as it were, magically just coalescing from the ether. Think about the paradox of *choosing* what to think. If I said now “Chose to think!” Your first question would be “Chose to think what?” You can’t actually just “chose to think” out of the zillions of thoughts in your brain, as if shopping in a supermarket of ideas. Your thoughts just flow out *from other thoughts*.
Even if you think about the thoughts in your head, you can’t just think all of the zillions of them at once, you will pick what is “present” to your mind there and then, what you were thinking of earlier in the day, just now, what you see before you, etc. If in the context of a sociology lecture the lecturer was saying something like, “These people are taught from birth that pleasure is a good, but chose to think!” Then your thoughts would flow to thinking about what you were taught from birth or about the goodness or badness of pleasure. The sociology lecturer *put the thought* as it were into your head, to present it to your mind there and then as an intentional object for you to chose, and from *that thought* about how people’s beliefs are formed from what they were taught, you can think *other thoughts* suggested by the previous thought. Therefore, it is not so much you doing the thinking but your thoughts doing the thinking.
This goes to the Humean critique of Descartes’s “I think therefore I am”. As Hume pointed out, when he introspects he doesn’t find this “I”, all he feels are this thought, that thought, etc but where is the “I”? Our minds as such are just a repository of various ideas at any moment, naturally you can think of the word “I”, and you can label the sum of your thoughts “I”, but then this “I” itself would just become a thought among other thoughts, not enjoying any special privilege.
This and the sociology lecturer example also suggests something very much like *words are mental technology*. The presence of words and concepts in your mind *expands what you can think*. So, contra the common Lockean tradition that we have thoughts which we just slap words on, the words as it were precede our thoughts. *Words put ideas into our heads*. Most of the time our thoughts are reactive and habitual, upon being presented A thought or feeling, we think or feel B, then C… etc. Much like how parrots, dogs, or computers can just mechanically process stimuli/input to generate outputs. We rarely interrogate or examine our thoughts *unless some other thoughts goes against it” or unless someone literally puts the thought into our head. Reflection usually arises from tension, unless one had already developed philosophical habits of reflecting regularly, we would normally not reflect or think.
We have all as a child demanded things from our parents and then been told no. Then our parents will normally say something like, “In life we don’t always get what we want.” Part of growing up and maturing is obviously being able to interrogate our visceral desires and impulses, to ask ourselves why we want it, do we need it, what’s the point or purpose, etc, and finally to be able to chose *not* to act on those desires and impulses. It is only animals and computers who have no mental capacity to interrogate their programming/training/instinct. However our capacity to act against these desires have to be enabled and taught by *the idea that we can act independent of them*, for *other reasons*, ideas, goals or and purposes above those desires. Someone has to put the idea into our heads that we don’t have to act according to our impulses, to act otherwise for *these other* reasons and ideas. Some children clearly have never mastered or learnt this mental technology to be able to interrogate their visceral reactions or instinctive impulses.
Philosophical training goes a step further in that it goes one the thinking toolbox for structuring the logic of these thoughts into premises and conclusion, and enables us to interrogate the basis of those premises, potentially ad infinitum. Suppose you read of waterboarding torture techniques, and then you just reactively feel and think, well, that’s horrible and wrong. Normally most of us just stop there and don’t reflect further. However, if one were in the habit of asking “but why” or reflecting on moral questions or interrogating our instinctive reactions, the moral questions which we have read will give us the mental facilities and technology to interrogate our reactions to torture, to ask why exactly it is bad, etc.
Reacting instinctively and viscerally is not always a bad thing as the Enlightenment British philosophers have argued. Paley, of watchmaker analogy and utilitarian fame, has argued that reflection normally enters in specific moments when we are considering what rules to adopt, but most of the time we should just be habituated to acting on those rules instinctively and reactively and not interrogate them all the time, especially when it comes to specific moments of temptation where we are liable to rationalise our way out of acting on the rule.
If these considerations are correct, that it is our thoughts which thinks, and it is words which puts thoughts in our heads, and that we have very limited mental bandwidth which selects only those thoughts which are predominantly materially present, then I suggest that it is very important as a matter of culture what words and thoughts we frequently encounter and which consumes our mental bandwidth. I have critiqued numerous times the idea of “freedom of speech and ideas” that we have limited mental bandwidth and computing power, and naturally we tend to take the path of least resistance and normally “compute” whatever is input by our culture by and large. It is very important as such for civil authorities to police and control the flow of information in society, etc, as these thoughts are what enables and restricts the sphere of action and choices.
I would like to conclude by some considerations on prayer and bible reading. There is a reason why the Old Testament are full of sage advise and praises on contemplating upon God’s law and his commandments. Again, the “mental technology” for us to interrogate our desires and act against “bad ones” are enabled by the presence of God’s Word in our hearts and minds. If we don’t read, the thought is not placed in our hearts and minds to be expand our sphere of actions. Many things would not occur to us except as what has come from reading the Bible, even the very obscure, esoteric and arcane Old Testament laws, the more we read, the larger our mental toolbox.
It is in this sense that the man who is immersed in the Bible is free, his range of actions and thoughts are as wide as the counsel of God himself, he is not enslaved to his desires, emotions, or the things of this world, but he has words and counsel from above which is capable of interrogating, circumscribing, and subjecting all things to Christ. We are enslaved to Christ, that we might be masters of this world, and the path to freedom runs through the Word Divine.