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Free Will and Self-Causation – Article by Leonid Fainberg

Free Will and Self-Causation – Article by Leonid Fainberg

The New Renaissance Hat
Leonid Fainberg
August 26, 2013

Homo liber nulla de re minus quam de morte cogitat; et ejus sapientia non mortis sed vitae meditatio est.

~ SPINOZA’S Ethics, Pt. IV, Prop. 67

(There is nothing over which a free man ponders less than death; his wisdom is, to meditate not on death but on life.)

Reductionism and its corollary, Determinism, are deeply enrooted in the fabric of the modern mainstream philosophy. These are leftovers of the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy. Instead of rejecting this notion altogether, Reductionists simply choose the other, bodily side of this loaded coin. Now they have reached a blind alley in their attempts to explain life in terms of lifelessness. As Hans Jonas observed:

“Vitalistic monism is replaced by mechanistic monism, in whose rules of evidence the standard of life is exchanged for that of death.” (The Phenomenon of Life, pg. 11).

Since Mind and Free Will are biological phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of non-life, Reductionists are necessarily Determinists. Hard Determinists reject the notion of Free Will (and therefore Mind) completely; soft Determinists and Compatibilists are still trying to find explanation of Free Will in the indeterminate realm of Quantum mechanics, in stochastic rules of Chaos theory, or in the mystical realm of Tao. I maintain that Free Will is a manifestation on the conceptual level of the very essential property of life itself, which is biological self-causation.

“Freedom must denote an objectively discernible mode of being, i.e., a manner of executing existence, distinctive of the organic per se.” (Ibid, pg. 3).

The Law of Causality is the Law of Identity applied to action (Ayn Rand). Since biological action is a self-generated, goal-orientated response (SIGOR) to environmental challenges, such an action cannot be predetermined by any antecedent cause. On the contrary, any antecedent or proximate action could be only detrimental to the healthy living process.

As Rosen put it:

“[I]t is perfectly respectable to talk about a category of final causation and to a component as the effect of its final cause… In this sense, then, a component is entailed by its function… a material system is an organism if and only if it is closed to efficient causation.” (Life Itself, pg. 135).

In other words the process of biological causation is a process in which a final cause (a goal), becomes its efficient cause.  Traditionally, the notion of the final cause associated with Aristotle’s primary mover, some divine, supernatural source.  However, this is not a case of mysticism, far from it.

Life emerged as a result of self-organization of abiotic elements. How that happened we don’t know yet. However, some researchers think that this is a thermodynamically inevitable event.

“Life is universally understood to require a source of free energy and mechanisms with which to harness it. Remarkably, the converse may also be true: the continuous generation of sources of free energy by abiotic processes may have forced life into existence as a means to alleviate the buildup of free energy stresses….” (Energy Flow and the Organization of Life. Harold Morowitz and Eric Smith, 2006).

But does this mean that life is a determined process? I don’t think so. Life is an emergent phenomenon, and as such it possesses new properties which its precursors don’t have. In their book Biological Self-organization Camazine et al. (2001: 8) define self-organization “as a process in which pattern at the global level of a system emerges solely from numerous interactions among the lower-level components of the system. The system has properties that are emergent, if they are not intrinsically found within any of the parts, and exist only at a higher level of description….’’

From this definition it follows that (1) a process of self-organization doesn’t have an antecedent cause; and (2) emergent properties of such a system are different from the properties of its components and therefore cannot be explained by means of reductionism. In other words, properties of such a system are not defined by antecedent cause. Life is a self-organizing, self-regulated material structure which is able to produce self-generated, goal-orientated action when the goal is preservation and betterment of itself. This new emergent identity which applied to biotic action defines new type of causation: self-causation.

Harry Binswanger observed that “All levels of living action, from a cell’s protein-synthesis to a scientist’s investigations, are goal-directed. In vegetative action, past instances of the ‘final cause’ act as ‘efficient cause.’” (1992).

This is the mechanism of self-causation. Now it is clear why any action imposed on the organism and driven by antecedent cause could be only detrimental: it inevitably would interfere with the self-generated action of the organism. Each and every organism is its own primary mover. In the low organisms the degree of freedom of action is limited by their genetic setup. However, even low organisms, like fungi for example, able to overcome this genetic determinism.

“During a critical period, variability is generated by the fact that a system becomes conditioned by all the factors influencing the spontaneous emergence of a symmetry-breaking event. In such a context variability does not reflect an environmental perturbation in expression of a pre-existing (genetic) program of development…It is expression of a process of individuation.” (Trewavas, 1999)

SIGOR is limited by an organism’s perceptual ability and capacity to process the sensory input. The process of evolution is a process of development of these qualities, since the organism’s survival depends on them. More freedom of action means better chances of survival. The end product of such a process is Free Will and self-awareness – that is, human mind. Free Will therefore is an expression of self-causation on conceptual level.

As Rodrigues observed: “Cerebral representations result from self-emergence of networks of interactions between modules of neurons stimulated by sensorial perception.” (Rodriguez at al., 1999)

The human abilities to choose goals consciously and to act rationally in order to achieve them lead us from biology to ethics. But the origin of these abilities lies in the very fundamental property of any living being. This property is self-generated, goal-orientated action driven by self-causation. Any attempt to reduce this property to the set of biochemical reactions or to undetermined behavior of subatomic particles is doomed to fail. Ayn Rand profoundly summarized the meaning of life in We, The Living: “I know what I want, and to know HOW TO WANT – isn’t it life itself?”

Leonid Fainberg is an Objectivist philosopher and contributor to The Rational Argumentator.