… and why it’s bullshit.
Sartre Argument for Freedom is one of philosophy’s most influential argument against Determinism; the depressing idea that despite feeling in control about the daily choices we make in life, we do not have free will. But like all ideas, determinism isn’t accepted by everyone and consequentially, the problem of Free Will becomes one of, if not the most perturbing head scratcher in metaphysical philosophy.
As the name would suggest, metaphysical arguments is often unyielding since philosophers are the only ones that can be keenly involved through gedankenexperiment, neither the mathematician nor the scientist can have a profound say by drawing graphs or fiddling with test tubes.
In the relentless war of semantics on free will, philosophers had recognized themselves into two main groups. The Determinist and the Compatibilist. The Determinist believes that free will is nothing more than an illusion, and everything that happens inevitably does(Eg. Harry likes Sally and not Peter because he is biologically determined to do so). The Compatibilist believes that despite it being true that our lives are highly determined by uncontrollable factors, Free Will and Determinism are still compatible ideas.
Although they do it in varying degrees, which dichotomizes them accordingly into the two groups as mentioned, almost all philosophers admit to the influence of determinism – but not Sartre.
Sartre specialized in existentialism philosophy, who popularized the then heretical idea of Existence Precedes Essence, extended his ideas from Existentialism into the problem of Free Will. “Man is Freedom”, claims Sartre, treating freedom to be an essential characteristic of human consciousness as opposed to a property or capacity of consciousness. In simpler words, only existence is true and essence on all objects is interpreted through the consciousness from freedom. According to Sartre, the world has no intrinsic meaning, and whatever meaning it has can only be putative and interpreted from an agent. When it is so, it is up to the agent to interiorize and be bounded by his interpretation and therefore, for determinism to work, it requires a concrete essence in things themselves, and has no real efficacy and can only work around the agent’s interpretation. So between the world and our interpretation of it, our freedom to choose is a definite, allowing us free will.
Sartre’s argument is comforting and sound. But for it to be justified there are two questions that it must first overcome. Firstly, must we recognize X rules for us to be constrained by X? Secondly, how well does freedom, that gives us the platform of consciousness to find meaning in things, associate itself free will?
Is the apple fresh just because I think it is? Will I suffer from a tummy ache by thinking the rotten apple that I just had as a fresh one? This isn’t an epistemic question but a question against Sartre’s idealistic surmise that the essence and properties in things is absolutely dependent on an agent’s interpretation of it. This is true in some circumstances and false in some. On the example above, which I will call B circumstance, it is the latter. Assuming there are no in betweens, an apple can only either be fresh or rotten. Although it is my freedom to interpret it to be either way, if it’s rotten, I will inevitably suffer a tummy ache from eating it.
But if I were an African American aspiring to be a naval diver before the 1950s(a reference from “Men of Honor”), whose odds would pile against me due to the racial discrimination then, my pursuit can only be deterred through the understanding of my bleak circumstances. If I am oblivious to hatred or bigotry, although it does not increase the odds of my success, my pursuit to be a naval diver will remain the same; for determinism to have any efficacy, my consciousness must first develop a relationship with the world; this is what I call A circumstance.
The conclusion of Sartre works on false premises. He assumes that we live in a world where only A circumstances happens and ignores all B circumstances. Although the essence or properties we find in things are extrinsic and up to our own interpretation, we don’t have to be aware of them to be affected by it. We do not need to recognize X rules to be constrained by X.
Consciousness, freedom, and free will, these are terms terribly hard to define, and Sartre, being notorious as a man of abstract semantics doesn’t ease the problem. Sartre believes that only through freedom there can be consciousness. Consciousness has no properties at all and only through freedom, we can relate to the world around us, which makes us conscious. In short, freedom is the a priori for consciousness(Eg. It it not because of consciousness that I am conscious of the shoes I am wearing. But the freedom of being able to look at my shoes to realize my consciousness of wearing shoes).
It is understandable why Sartre claims that freedom is a prerequisite for consciousness to function, but I am not sure if he’s expressing his idea most lucidly; it sounds suspicious. It’s true that I am typing what I am on my laptop because I have the freedom of doing so and thus my awareness on my typing but does that say anything about my free will on choosing to type instead of knitting?
The problem lies in the word freedom and how we would directly associate it with free will. But these two words aren’t siblings, not even distant relatives or that eccentric classmate you never once spoke to; they are very different ideas. I may have the freedom of swatting the mosquito that has been buzzing around my ears for the past hour and I will do it but that alone doesn’t give me the free will that most philosophers refer to; an action devoid of constraints. In fact, by swatting the mosquito, I become a victim of social determinism since it is through society that I know mosquitos are carriers of malaria and dengue fever, and therefore, although it’s my freedom to swat it, the act of swatting it does not necessarily make me free.
To avoid the confusion, the word that Sartre could have better used to substitute freedom was volition, the faculty or power or willing to do something. Having the volition to know we are conscious and relate to objects around us, still doesn’t give us free will.
Humans do not have free will and Sartre Argument for Freedom is invalid because of the bolded texts.