Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
4 May 2015

Rowan Williams: can we ever be in charge of our own lives?

The debate over freedom is a complex, extended one.

By Rowan Williams

Pulling the strings. Picture: Tina Modotti/AKG-Images


Freedom Regained: the Possibility of Free Will
Julian Baggini
Granta Books, 239pp, £14.99

Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will
Alfred R Mele
Oxford University Press USA, 112pp, £12.99

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
John Gray
Allen Lane, 192pp, £17.99

Content from our partners
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping

William Golding opens his novel Free Fall with its narrator, Sammy Mountjoy, recalling the lost freedom of childhood as something that “cannot be debated but only experienced, like a colour or the taste of potatoes”. Playing in the park, the child is aware of an absolute freedom about what to do. “The gravelled paths of the park radiated from me: and all at once I was overcome by a new knowledge. I could take whichever I would of these paths. There was nothing to draw me down one more than the other. I danced down one for joy in the taste of potatoes.”

Well, the dieticians have been tirelessly at work, and potatoes are frowned upon as much in philosophy these days as they are in nutritional advice. Even if we experience something similar to Sammy Mountjoy – a complete lack of constraint – does this make sense when analysed philosophically? And can it be defended in a strictly material account of what causes human behaviour?

Three new books, strikingly different in style and tone, reflect an intensely complicated and extended debate in recent writing; and all of them insist in one way or another that Golding’s picture won’t do. Freedom as the sheer abstract capacity to do whatever I want, unconstrained by anything internal or external, just might be a possibility in certain limited cases, but it is too eccentric to have anything to say that is morally or politically interesting.

We have (as Wittgenstein would say) become the prisoners of a picture, in which to be free is to be able to determine absolutely who or what I am. A mixture of second-hand existentialist rhetoric and misplaced religious anxiety has encouraged us in the view that to be responsible for our actions we must be unequivocally the cause of our actions. And we need only look at our culture’s aspirational language and fetishising of maximal choice to see how tightly we are gripped by the idea that we are, or can be, the sole authors of our lives.

This is not to say that all our actions are determined in the same sense as mechanical processes are determined. Alfred Mele’s book is a very short and businesslike essay (though part of a much longer research project, nearing completion) whose main focus is to explain the simple conceptual mistakes made by some experimental scientists – and echoed by philosophers who ought to know better – in the light of Benjamin Libet’s demonstration that certain neural circuits in the brain are engaged before a conscious decision is registered. In an experiment in which subjects were asked to press a button at a random moment, there was electronic evidence of brain activity some nanoseconds before the pressing of the button, apparently suggesting that conscious decision is a surface phenomenon, beneath which there is simply physical process.

Mele sees this off without too much difficulty and with exemplary clarity; his book is a model of accessible philosophical argument. The detected neural changes may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for conscious decision; the point at which I register a decision (by pressing the button) may not be identical with the moment when a decision is deliberately made; most importantly, testing around a deliberately random decision process (subjects are supposed to press buttons as irregularly as possible) tells us absolutely nothing about decision-making as we normally understand it – that is, as accompanied by reflection or deliberation. And Mele notes the point missed by a depressingly large number of deterministically inclined commentators: that, were it possible to tell a subject that they were about to make a “determined” decision, the same information would allow them instantly the possibility of deciding the opposite; an argument from bloody-mindedness, adumbrated by Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground.

Mele points out that it is fatuous to look for single causes for complex courses of action. To say that non-intentional processes are always linked with decision-making is very different from saying that intentional processes of “making up my mind” have no role to play. As Mele notes, there is solid experimental evidence that when decisions are made that are deliberately linked with a specific time or place to implement them, they are more likely to be carried through. In other words, when there is a deliberate reinforcing of the intentional element, imagining a time and place for acting, there is more likely to be an outcome.

Mele and Julian Baggini both argue effect­ively against an absolute material determinism, and in favour of a much-chastened account of free will in terms of the freedom to do what we intend to do without external interference or dictation. Such freedom does not depend on a mythical idea of self-determination by a sovereign “will”. And so the kind of freedom that a legitimate and sensible political order should be promoting is one anchored in the nurturing of a realistic and intelligent capacity to shape one’s own life in the light of complex circumstances. Baggini briefly refers us to Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen on “capabilities”, and makes much of the need to see the will as open to education and refinement, rather than as an arbitrary element of human psychology.

For Baggini – Mele is much more cautious – being free now doesn’t necessarily mean that our past actions were not determined. “Responsibility does not depend on having the ability to have done otherwise on any given occasion, but on generally being in control of our behaviour and having the ability to alter it.” This is puzzling. I think I see what is in Baggini’s sights: he is eager to dismantle a picture of deciding in which all possibilities are open and I opt for one by a pure (potato-flavoured) act of self-assertion. But if it is true of every past action that I could not have done otherwise, it will be true tomorrow that I could not have done otherwise today; in which case, what is the nature of my “ability” to alter my behaviour?

There are confusions here that need some ironing out. My capacity to change as a result of mental activity is a basic given of any understanding of action or intention, and without it we could have no account of human learning. I talk to myself, I imagine courses of action and test whether they will fit into the narrative of myself that I am constructing; I look at these images and work out my attitude towards them; this is what many earlier generations of philosophers and theologians would have understood by “will”. As Mele and Baggini rightly point out, the more mature a person is, the less time they will waste working this out: their moral reactions will be second nature.

Writers as diverse as Ursula Le Guin and Simone Weil have noted that the supreme moral or spiritual liberty is not to deliberate, but to have a sense of naturalness, at least, if not “necessity”, about what we decide. It is the sense in which God’s freedom, for a theist, is the opposite of an infinite number of choices; it is God’s capacity simply to be actively what God is, uninterrupted by any external pressure or internal doubt. But, granted all this, the process by which I as a human being might arrive at such “second-nature” moral/spiritual maturity involves the capacity to picture myself, to question myself, and so to explore and modify my intentions. You could say that at the exact moment of my deciding something, those intentions have been settled or determined; but that is only trivially true. It will have been possible for other decisions to have been made. Saying this does not commit us to the free-will mythology Baggini rightly deplores, but it recognises the role played by “talking to myself” at every stage of a decision becoming “determined” .

John Gray’s book is, as his constant readers might expect, very different from both the crisp points ticked off by Mele and the laid-back anecdotalism of Baggini (do we really need the references to “when I met X and asked him/her about this”?) but he assumes something of the same basic position. Absolute freedom would be absolutely friction-free existence: a moral life beyond conflict, a Godlike life. But while traditional (classical and Christian) ethics describes the long and incomplete process of self-exploration by which we move closer to some such integrated existence, contemporary thought looks to something very different – a modern version of ancient gnostic heresies in which there is a fixed opposition, or at least polarity, between will and matter.

By accumulating comprehensive knowledge of the material world, so that will triumphs absolutely over matter, we can secure a steady reduction of friction and come increasingly to approximate to the condition of a creator. But this expanded know­ledge of the material world erodes the reality of will at the same pace as it increases the capacity for control. We are ever more deeply alienated from the natural world, ever more reluctant to understand how we are located in animal instinct and matter. The human will’s self-image becomes increasingly detached from history, flesh, learning, error. We insist simultaneously on a supposed human power of self-creation (as in the aspirations of cryogenics to preserve a virtual selfhood independent of organic embodiment) and on a rational scheme of causal determination that strips us of actual initiative.

Human freedom is, for Gray as for our other authors, a fairly modest affair: “Only creatures that are as flawed and ignorant as humans can be free in the way humans are free.” And that kind of freedom should make us deeply suspicious of rational (or religious) systems that claim to make us more than we could ever be and to know more than we could ever know; suspicious of conspiracy theories that try to impose on the world a pattern or explanation that will lift from us the burden of just being where we are and seeing what little we can see.

The first and third of Gray’s chapters develop this with his usual erudition and subversive edginess, though I am not sure how the long middle section fits. There is a typically provocative discussion of Aztec religion and society, arguing that the combination of intermittent ritualised savagery with general harmony is a way of managing the social awareness of inevitable risk and horror that is not much less “reasonable” than our own fusions of mechanised slaughter, global exploitation and schemes for universalised social rationality. But while it sparks off all kinds of unexpected connections, it is too freewheeling to make much contribution to a coherent argument; some editing and tightening, with fewer digressions (intriguing as they are) on the bizarre lives of various prophets of a new humanity, would have helped to give Gray’s book more of the force it needs to make its case – a case that is as insistent, unwelcome and necessary as all that he has to say about the risks of transplanted religiosity disguised as rationalism.

Anyone reading these three books will emerge with enormous questions about the loose ways in which we talk about freedom as if we know what we mean. Gray’s comprehensive scepticism about social meliorism and Baggini’s ever-so-slightly bland commitment to democratic capacity-building are in sharp tension; but both press on us the need always to think about freedom in relation to the limits imposed by our embodiment, our history, our psychological moulding.

Commitment, public or private, to human dignity should not entail perpetuating fictions about free will, even if we need to ward off the counter-mythology of mechanical models of agency. And behind all these discussions stands the need to remind ourselves to go on being surprised, puzzled and prompted by what we take for granted about action itself – initiating events in the world – and language: speech that makes things different. No philosophy, politics or sociology worth the name will survive without that surprise; without at least a faint taste of Golding’s potatoes.

Rowan Williams is a lead reviewer for the New Statesman. His books include “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury Continuum)