Libertarian free will and the swerve

After articulating a view of the universe that made all actions follow necessarily from initial conditions, Lucretius felt the need to modify the picture to account for free choice. He did so by introducing his infamous “swerve”, or completely unpredictable and uncaused atomic motion. The argument fell stillborn from the text and was a cause of embarrassment and amazement, since it’s obvious that I would be no more free if my actions were caused by a random a swerve than by an atomic cascade as old as the universe. Put analogously: it’s an interesting philosophical question whether the tree that fell on a dog killed it randomly or necessarily, but no resolution to the question will find the tree guilty of a free choice.

The swerve is therefore not a sufficient cause of freedom, but how could it be necessary one? It seems to be a sort of condition that the person could exploit to get to a goal that would be rigidly forbidden to them if all things were determined a tergo. Swerves would thus function as material or instrumental causes allowing for free agents to modify the universe in ways that would not be possible if it were purely deterministic. The atomic swerve is thus necessary not on the side of the agent, but on the side of the thing acted upon.

That’s all set up for a more interesting thesis: many discussions of free will misdefine it in a way that allows the swerve to count as free will. If free will is “the ability for some human action to be otherwise” then it’s a swerve, i.e. no different from a particle that might follow universal laws or “act otherwise” by swerving. So defined, we might do interesting work about what is necessary for the universe in order for it to be a locus of free action, but we’re not one step closer to explaining the free action of agents. When defining freedom by contingency or indeterminacy we cease to talk about free agents and start talking about patients or environments of action. It’s peculiar to matter that it “can be otherwise”. Spirit is what acts by itself.

The consequences of conflating freedom and contingency are easiest to spot in confusions about how God could be absolutely perfect and yet freely create or act upon the world. If freedom is contingency this is impossible, but contingency is not necessary formally on the side of the agent but on the side of what is made. All that the free creation of a necessary being means is that it is ex nihilo. 

Free action in humans is messier since qua natural beings humans are moved movers, i.e. our actions are a melange of active and passive elements. Nature is essentially passive, and so qua natural human beings are more a locus of their free action than a source of it. The central nervous system is thus a source of our freedom by being the first thing apt to receive it, or the first and innermost environment of free action. Whether this is “substance dualism” depends on the answer one gives to whether a central nervous system without this addition of a free principle is a substance. I say it isn’t, and that it’s not even a nervous system, but at best a corpse.

On my own idiosyncratic reading of Aristotle the potential and agent intellect are really just intellect in the state of union with body and in the state of separation; and in the same way there is a potential and agent free will. There is a difference between the two that is central to the moral life, however, because while potential intellect can only known things in themselves when they are beneath intellect, potential free will can love and hate even things above itself as they are in themselves. This gives potential free will a union or separation from what transcends it that cannot be given to it intellectually. Potential free will is thus essentially a disciple who does not walk by sight.

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