In his essay, “Freedom and Necessity”, A.J. Ayer maps out his argument for Determinism, the idea that humans act the way they do because of the way already existing factors in their lives incline them to, and not of their own free will. These already existing factors are known as casual laws. These casual laws are past experiences, feelings, and other factors that make people be who they are. He believes that this theory of Determinism and the idea of free will can coexist in relation to human behaviour. Meaning that even though people are compelled to act a certain way by certain casual laws, they are not constrained to their choices and are therefore responsible for them. He argues this theory by redefining the term free will. He defines free will as the absence of constraint.
A.J. Ayer said that Freewill and determinism are compatible. He said free will is only free if one’s actions could have differed and because of one’s actions he/she is held morally responsible. He also stated that if the agent would have acted otherwise if the causes of his actions had been different. But being what they were it seems to follow that he was bound to act as he did. And if there is any causal determinism then there is no way for it to be free will, therefore defining determinism.
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Ayer believes that once you acknowledge your free will, it is no longer free. He believes it should be in your unconscious. Once you think to yourself “I am acting on free will.” You no longer are. It is now determined that you will act this way. Also just because you think your will is free. It very well might not be.
Ayer tells about a scientist he meets back in the day, who always stops an experiment before he can come to a conclusion. He stops because he thinks it is his lack of knowledge that is keeping him from reaching any conclusions when really it is just that he is not going deep enough into the experiment. What Ayer is inadvertently saying is that the scientist is acting on free will when he stops the experiment. The experiment is always open for more research, it’s not like he went as far as he could, and there was just nothing there, he chose to stop.
While speaking of human conduct we are able to predict most things but not everything. We are able to predict, as Ayer says, a man is angry. We know he will scream, but we are not sure how loud or what he will say. This is only a small amount of what we know about human actions because we have stopped going far enough into our research. Ayer believes that as the field of Psychology grows we will be able to delve deeper into the mind and predict things down to the last detail. Although this sounds crazy, it is theoretically attainable.
Ayer tells me to suppose there is a limit to human actions. And this limit, ironically, is set by human freedoms. He says that it is not always the case that when a man believes that he has acted on his own free will, that we are in fact able to account for his actions in causal terms. For a determinist, this would be accounted for if we had more knowledge of the circumstances, but if we have no causal terms shouldn’t it be that he acted on his free will? This might very well be true but it does not give the moralists what they want. What they want to be able to say is that he acted on free will, so he is morally responsible. When a person’s actions are predicted they are determined, but when a man’s actions are unpredictable we look at him as like he belongs in a loonie bin.
Ayer continues on about how it is we come to make our choice of actions. He says it is either an accident or it is not. If it is an accident then it is merely by chance that he did not choose otherwise, which in that case it is totally irrational to hold him morally responsible. But if it is not an accident then presumably there is some causal explanation, and that just lands us right back at determinism. The moralist would say that your choice is based on your character, but at what point are we responsible for our character? Supposing I have made myself what I am without anything from the outside, it would be legitimate to ask how it is I chose to make myself one thing instead of another.
Well, it was either an accident or it wasn’t. And it all comes right back to determinism. But to say my actions are a result of my character is to say my behaviour is consistent. And if it is then I should be held morally responsible for my actions. “So it seems if we are to retain the idea moral responsibility we must find some way of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will.” (A.J. Ayer Freedom and Necessity Pg. 483)
Ayer continues with the meaning of the word freedom. He says if we could attach any meaning to it then we could for sure find a meaning to reconcile it with determinism. He uses the example, “…our present problem that the fact the word ‘horse’ could be arbitrarily used to mean what is ordinarily meant by ‘sparrow’ is a proof that horses have wings.” (A.J. Ayer Freedom and Necessity Pg. 483) He thinks that one reason people are inclined to think of freedom as the consciousness of necessity is that they think that if one is conscious of necessity one may somehow be able to master it. But this is not at all true. It would be as if someone wished they could look into the future to avoid any problems they may have, but if they avoided them then they don’t lie in the future and it is not true that he sees them.
People tend to use ‘Freedom’ in an ordinary sense, he told me. Now we begin to use the word in contrast with casualty so that a man cannot be said to be acting freely if his action is causally determined. He does not think the word freedom should be linked to the word casualty, but instead to the word constraint. If one is constrained then they are not able to act freely. If a man points a gun at another’s head, you may still choose to not do what he tells you, but if you do, then it is true the man compelled you to do so. And in this situation no reasonable person would be expected to choose the other alternative, then the action that one is made to do is not one someone should be held morally responsible for. Somewhat the same idea follows for a kleptomaniac.
They really are not free agents. Their own mind does not let them decide if they are going to steal something, like a regular thief’s mind would. Ayer uses yet another example. “If I suffered from a compulsion neurosis, so that I got up and walked across the room, whether I wanted to or not, or if I did so because somebody compelled me, then I should not be acting freely.” (A.J. Ayer Freedom and Necessity Pg. 485) But if he does it on his own, he is acting freely. He also believes that there is some sort of generalizing going on when it comes to constraint and human behaviour. He says it is well known that when you suffer as a child it affects your behaviour as an adult. If his behaviour is altered because of something that happened years ago then he must not be acting under constraint.
For example, say a man chooses to forever avoid a serious relationship with another woman, and he chooses to do this because the last woman he committed to cheated on him and stole all his money. He would be refusing any future relationship because his past experience has made him terrified of being hurt again and he is not willing to take the chance. But if you were to tell him that he never wants another relationship because certain casual laws make it impossible for him to want one, he would not agree.
In his mind, he thinks he made the choice based on his own free will. This is because he knows his choice is not the only one that could be made. So in this case, his future love life is not constrained to one possible choice for all people. This is what Ayer defines as free will, choosing to do something in which other choices could possibly be made, even if the choice is a product of certain casual laws.
If it wasn’t enough we use the word freedom wrong, we are also using the word determinism wrong. “For it tends to suggest that one event is somehow in the power of another, whereas the truth is mere that they are factually correlated.” (A.J. Ayer Freedom and Necessity Pg. 485)
For example, say a woman goes to a restaurant with a large menu and cannot decide what to order. There is nothing physically constraining her choice. She will not be hurt or punished if she decides to order the fish instead of the steak. Since she is not being affected by Logical Necessity nor being forced to choose a certain meal, under Ayer’s definition of free will, whatever she orders will be based on her own free will. In reality, though, what kind of food she likes, how hungry she is, and an almost inconceivable number of other casual laws are affecting her decision, and whatever she does end up choosing will be a product of how those laws affected her. Someone observing the situation might not realize that her decision is being controlled by these casual laws, but that is simply because they are so complex and numerous that to calculate them all is impossible in the human mind, but she is being affected nonetheless.
While it may appear that Ayer’s argument has successfully combined the theories of free will and Determinism, he has simply done so by turning freewill into something it is not. Freewill is not defined as simply the lack of constraint. A choice made by Causal Necessity is in no way freer than one made by Logical Necessity. It is simply a more complex one.
Because of his incorrect definition of freewill, Ayer is also wrong in his views on moral responsibility. He feels that since people act based on their own free will, or his version of the term, they can be held responsible for their actions. In truth though, people’s choices are really the products of countless casual laws, and not of that person’s free will in the real sense of the word. Therefore they are still being compelled to certain actions without fault of their own and shouldn’t be held responsible for them.
So in the end, no matter what sense of freewill we may have, we are still forced by our personal sets of casual laws to do what we do. The argument that we have free will because we are compelled for several Causal Necessities instead of one simple Logical one just goes to show that we are too stupid to be able to comprehend all the casual laws that affect us.
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