(Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler. Chapter Seven, “Freedom of Choice.”)
Back a couple of centuries ago, there was a general belief that nothing was uncaused, nothing happened by chance, in the natural world, or otherwise. The trouble with that belief, if you followed it to its logical extreme (as some philosophers did), was that you could then not be praised or blamed for moral choices, because there was no such thing as a true “random” act. Any choice you made was not truly your own. Criminals could not logically be held responsible for their own acts if they did not actually choose them themselves.
When scientists later started to recognize certain “random” elements in science (such as in quantum mechanics), the logicians thought that the same allowance for randomness could apply to human morality and freedom of choice. If some unpredictable behaviour was admitted to exist in the physical universe, then that might give logical grounds for the same in human beings. Some amount of chance was agreed to be acceptable. (Adler points out that even in scientifically “random” events, there is a degree of possible prediction. We talk about the probability of an earthquake occurring in a particular place over the next fifty years.)
But is freedom of choice an actual physical event? Adler says no, and that identifying freedom of choice with chance is a very big mistake.
“The human mind consists of intellect and will, and is sharply distinguished from the senses, the memory, the imagination, and the passions. It is immaterial and does not act in accordance with scientific principles and laws, it is governed by laws of its own.”
In other words, the physical world is not all there is, and the human mind does not behave according to the laws of the physical world anyway. If our mind is composed, as Adler says, of intellect and will, sometimes each of those two acts out of necessity–seeing a self-evident truth and having to believe it, or obeying the natural will to seek happiness. Sometimes the intellect makes a “freedom of choice” decision–choosing one argument over another. Sometimes the will does the same thing–setting priorities, choosing one thing over another one. Choosing the road less travelled by, maybe. None of these acts are uncaused; none of them are chance. We did not chance them; we chose them.To believe in freedom of choice, we need to see the difference between the way our minds work and the way the physical universe operates.
“However, unless freedom of choice does exist, it is difficult to understand the basis of our right to these other freedoms. If we do not have freedom of choice, what reason can be given for our right to do as we please or to exercise a voice in our own government?”
If freedom of choice does not exist, then there is no point in striving to do what is right. There is really no point to education. Adler asks, “What merit would attach to moral virtue if the acts that form such habitual tendencies and dispositions were not acts of free choice?” But turn that one around. Take it that we, and our students, are able to act in free choice, in forming morally virtuous habits, tendencies, and dispositions–which is a large part of education. What was it Charlotte Mason called the discovery of that potential?
“The charter of our liberties.”