A Stoic's Perspective On Free Will

What is it, really? And do we have it?

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Considering I spend most of my time writing about a 2300-year-old Greek philosophy which had, as far as we know, no concept of “free will”, the subject of this week’s edition may seem a bit out of my purview. However, since I get about a dozen emails a month asking me some variation of the question, “Stoics and free will, what’s the deal with that?” here we are.

Our understanding of “free will” my be a misnomer

When we contemporary western people talk of “free will”, we seem, mostly, to be referring to some vague notion related to one’s ability to do whatever they want.

Consequently, we seem to define “freedom” the same way. 

And so it would seem our understanding of free will has more to do with our understanding of “free” than it does the understanding of “will.”

Let’s start there… what is will?

The easiest way to convey it, I think, is to quote the Bible (don’t worry, this won’t be a sermon):

“Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Matthew 6:10

In this familiar context we know exactly what “will” means. It means that the desire of, in this example, the God of Abraham will be brought to fruition.

“Will,” then, means something more like “what we want to happen” than it does “what we want to do.”

Free will is the freedom to will what is to happen.

To the Ancient Stoics, this would have been an absolutely absurd proposition.

For an individual to will outcomes, they would require “eph'hemin” (what was up to them, what was their’s to choose) be expanded to include power of choice over the external world.

However, no being, from the Stoic perspective, could have this degree of choice — and so any discussion of free will (as I’ve just defined it) would have been a complete non-starter.

Human beings do not have free will (again, in the way I’ve defined it), because human beings do not have the ability to enforce their will on anything other than their own thoughts, attitudes, and emotions — and even in the case of these few things, which are the dominion of the rational faculty, absolute will is not always possible.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that one cannot throw a frisbee and have it land where they intend. Instead it means that while one can throw a frisbee and have it land where they intend, one cannot will that a sudden gust of wind doesn’t carry the frisbee off course and into a tree.

Since we cannot will all variables involved in (for example) throwing a frisbee and having it land exactly where we want, it cannot be said that we have the freedom of will to throw a frisbee and have it land where we want — though it will often times seem that we do, as anyone who has ever thrown a frisbee and had it land exactly where they intended can attest.

The point isn’t that we can’t sometimes (or even frequently) achieve the things we set out to achieve, the point is only that when we do achieve the things we set out to achieve, there’s a significant amount of “luck” in achieving that outcome.

Another example — and and extreme one, just in case my frisbee example wasn’t clear enough — might be planning a trip to Tokyo.

You cannot will for all of Japan not to be hit by a massive earthquake that sinks it to the bottom of the ocean and prevents anyone from ever flying there again. You don’t have the freedom of will to ensure such a thing.

The fact that this event is very unlikely to happen, and that you are very likely to fly to (and land in) Japan safely and predictably, doesn’t mean you willed it to be so, it simply means countless potential variables didn’t get in the way.

This will bring us to a discussion about co-fating, in a moment, but for now…

We don’t have free will, but do we have the freedom of choice?

This is a much more explorable question than the one we started out with. And that’s good because, I think, this is the question those asking about “free will” are actually meaning to ask.

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Stoic Determinism

The Ancient Stoics believed in fate. They believed that a chain of events were set into motion at the beginning of time and that the Universe is destined to follow a determined — or, at least, determinable — sequence of events. 

I, personally, feel wonky about this, and firmly believe this sort of Determinism can only be the case for non-conscious, non-sentient, physical objects and only until such things come into contact with (or under the influence of) significantly sentient/conscious beings.

Let’s try a metaphor.

If I shoot a cueball at a cluster of high and lowballs, there is a mathematical determinism that is undeniable. With enough information about the speed, strength, and angles involved in my making contact with the cueball (along with a number of other variables), I could plot the exact resulting position of every ball before putting that cueball into motion. 

But how could one determine the flightpath of these pool balls, without error, in a universe where human beings exist? Human beings that could decide to pick up one of those balls and chuck it across the room, mid-flight? How could the external world account for choices originating in the the “internal world” of conscious minds?

I feel strongly that the physical world outside the hegemonikon (the rational faculty, the brain), and the hegemonikon itself, are “air-gapped.”

The Ancient Stoics would likely have disagreed, though.

The Ancient Stoics weren’t just Determinists (Soft-Determinists, actually), they were also Materialists.

To the Stoics, nothing which existed could be incorporeal (without bodily form; not being composed of matter).

Only those things which did not exist, or which subsisted instead of existed, could be incorporeal.

Here are two examples to help explain the confusing thing I just said:

Void is incorporeal and so does not exist. But void is clearly a thing, right? We all know what a void is. But a void is a thing which does not exist (does not have a bodily form).

Sayables (words; what were called “lekton” in Stoic logic) do exist, but they don’t possess bodies, so they do a special sort of existing… they do “subsisting” — they subsist within existence.

You might compare this to the way an art “style” subsists in a piece of art. A painting, let’s say.

Certainly the art style exists, and you can identify it apart from other art styles, but it doesn’t exist in the same way as the painting exists.

All of what I just is confusing, and I recognise that, but this edition is already quite long and I don’t think it will help matters to dive any deeper into Stoic physics (and I’m not really the right person to do that anyway). If you’re still confused, that’s okay. The important thing is that you’re now, perhaps, a little less-confused and can more easily understand the reason why the Stoics would have disagreed with what I said about the pool balls.

Since everything that exists is corporeal (has a bodily form), then the impact of pool balls on a table could impact, in a determinable way, the behaviour of conscious beings.

Here’s how:

Pool balls make a noise when they collide. That noise is a physical wave of energy, and it makes impact with our brain — it is impressed upon our brain, literally, like a seal pressed into hot wax — and then our brain kicks off a bunch of physical activities which result in our choices and behaviours.

The Stoics might have disagreed that there was an “air gap.” In fact, they probably would have.

To give the Stoics their due, it’s not a stretch to think that the sound of colliding pool balls might be the cause of us having a reaction, and so a deterministic cause and effect could certainly be said to exist (at least in this basic example involving pool balls).

But could it be said to exist on as grand a scale as, “the Universe was born, and its birth resulted in pool balls colliding on a pool table in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the year 2024, billions of years later, which caused Tanner Campbell to turn around toward the sound and shout to his friend Dave, ‘Nice shot Dave!’”?

I say no. Further, though many, if not all, contemporary “Traditional Stoics” would disagree, I think the Ancient Stoics would have also said no.

I’ll try to articulate why I think this, and I want to be clear before doing so that I’m trying to think beyond the fragments of text we still have to define what Stoicism was and thought (a lot of what we “know” of Stoicism could be turned on its head tomorrow if we found just one lost work of Zeno or Chrysippus). I’m trying to think like I think an Ancient Stoic might have thought based on what little we know for sure.

I’m not suggesting that what follows is orthodox, only that it seems reasonable to me.

Why do we make the choices we make? 

This is a question the ancient Stoics did ask themselves (and each other), and I think their answer was/is quite clever.

The Greek Stoic, Chrysippus said that we make the choices we make because of the “shape” we’ve made ourselves into. Once we’re that shape, we behave the way that shape behaves when manipulated (or, you might say, prompted to choose/act) by outside events. 

This is the basis of so-called “co-fating” in Stoicism.

The deterministic nature of the Universe decided what would happen to you, but the shape of your character would determine what you would put into motion in response to that external, deterministic stimulation. 

Meaning your fate happens through you, not to you — you are an active participant in the Stoic’s idea of fate and its process.

Chrysippus illustrated this idea by talking about how cones and cylinders roll differently when they are toppled over. The cone will roll in a circle, while the cylinder will roll in whatever direction the ground is sloped toward. 

This is a handy way of thinking about it, but how do we become cones or cylinders in the first place? 

Through the choices we habituated

If we habituate these sort of choices, we become a cone.

If we habituate those sort of choices, we become a cylinder. 

But why did we make the choices we wound up habituating? Because we’re a certain shape. But why are we a certain shape? Because of the choices we wound up habituating. But why did we make those ch… oh, shit. This is a paradoxical loop — or, at least, it seems like one.

But I might have a solve for it.

In my opinion, causal determinism exists in the physical world right up until it comes into contact with a highly conscious or sentient being.

The second that happens, the being in question will play an active part in furthering (changing) the causal chain by behaving as it is inclined to (by its character or nature).

The degree of participation in the furthering of the causal chain will depend on the level of consciousness and sentience the being possesses.

In the case of humans, the participation is highly active and highly influential. 

The character we have before we have the faculty of choice, is a proto-character. This proto-character is both inherited from our parents and shaped for us by our environment and other external influences when we are young and before we possess the degree of control over our rational faculties necessary to choose anything for ourselves.

As a Stoic, or as anyone who realised they were capable of making choices ( and that the habituation of choice is the only thing which can remould their proto-character), I am fully conscious of my ability to choose and how important it is to choose in the direction of becoming the person I want myself to become

But before I knew that, I didn’t know that.

Before I knew that, I didn’t choose so much as I passively modeled my environment, caregivers, parents, friends, and, perhaps, characters in books & movies, or personalities in media. 

I think the loop I mentioned earlier is an illusion caused by both our tendency not to see ourselves as dynamic (ever-changing) beings and our stubborn insistency that we are X, or Y, or Z — that our character is ever just one thing instead of an evolving amalgamation of countless things.

Imagine your 10-year-old self. Was that you? Certainly. But is it you now? No. Of course it isn’t. And what made you you then? And what makes you you now?

Got back far enough and you wind up at a time when you were a version of you that had no agency or authorship over the “you-ness” of you.

The ability to choose and shape our character is an emergent feature of a developing rational faculty (and of consciousness — I think the two are inextricably linked).

We are the shape we are, at first, because we are born that way, raised by certain people, and exposed to certain things.

As we grow, we begin to look more and more like a recognisable shape instead of a blob un-sculpted clay. 

At some point our emergent ability to choose, and the awareness of the importance of choosing, becomes apparent to us and we can (if we’ve learned that we should) set out to mould ourselves the way we believe is best.

But our window to exercise this freedom of choice, to take an active role in the authoring of our character, may be very small

The Ancient Stoics say that the sage is someone who has habituated moral excellence to such an extent that they have lost the ability to choose to act immorally

That means the achievement of sagehood is also the loss of one’s freedom of choice.

If the habituation of behaviour can lead toward moral perfection (sagehood), and the loss of one’s freedom of choice, then it must also be true that the habituation of behaviour can lead toward moral imperfection (vicehood) and the same loss of one’s freedom of choice.

But the

But don’t worry, I think our freedom of choice will be lost well before any of us become sages or their polar opposite.

I think this because, if we imagine the journey to sagehood or “vicehood” (I guess that’s what I’ll call sagehood’s opposite) as having a gravitational pull, at some point we will pass the moral event horizon and be unable to choose our way back.

Scary thought — but also one worth having from time to time!

So, we don’t have free will. But…

We do have freedom of choice — at least until we habituate our character, through those choices, beyond the point of no return (what I called the “moral event horizon”). 

With all this in mind, I hope you agree it is best for us to habituate in the direction of sagehood, rather than in that vicehood, even if we never get there.

Thanks for reading,

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