Determinism 14 – Prometheus, Determinism and the Unfree Will

Over the last 13 posts on determinism and free will (starting here), I’ve changed my mind a few times about a number of things concerning the determined nature of our existence and the free will we can exercise. Recently, a Greek myth popped into my mind as having relevance and the idea of deducing a few things by examining physical freedom as a close parallel to freedom of the will.

Looking to a Greek myth for inspiration should be uncontroversial: The Greek myths, and Greek tragedy in which they are often presented, have a good grasp on what it means to be a human being in this universe. They present pointed case studies for various aspects of the human condition. While they form part of the ancestry of our culture, they stem from a time before other important aspects of our culture emerged. And so, for example, they are untouched by things like Judaeo-Christian monotheism and the ethical framework that comes with it, the consumer society, not to mention the internet of things. And so they contain raw material without the overlay of some of the things that shape our daily experience.

Treating physical freedom as informative for freedom of the will shouldn’t be equally uncontroversial. Just because the word “freedom” is involved in both contexts doesn’t necessarily mean that we can take for granted common meanings and characteristics of the concepts. The parallel is something that needs to be investigated and argued for, rather than taken for granted.

The story of Prometheus takes place after Zeus and his family of Olympian gods overthrew the previous generation of gods, led by Zeus’ father Kronos. Prometheus was a titan who helped Zeus in this palace coup. But when Zeus wanted to wipe out mankind and populate earth with a new generation of better creatures, Prometheus helped human beings by giving them fire – a symbol for technology -, arts and sciences, as well as all sorts of practical skills.  He also, according to the tragedian Aeschylus, “caused men no longer to foresee their death” and cured their misery by planting “firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness.” (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about that cure for misery, but let’s not get sidetracked.) For this service to humanity, Zeus punished Prometheus. He was punished by being tied to a cliff at the end of the world, underneath him the Ocean, which in Greek geographical thought surrounded the earth. Aeschylus describes in detail how the divine blacksmith Hephaestus is forced to tie Prometheus’ arms to the cliff, as well as his legs, and for good measure to put a bolt through his chest into the rock. To ensure that Prometheus could never quite enjoy any kind of peace of mind, Zeus’ eagle visits him daily to chew his liver. This, we are assured by reliable sources, is a painful process.

So Prometheus stands (or hangs) pretty much for the least free person in the world. 13 generations later, the hero Hercules, frees him. Let’s assume that this was a piecemeal process. Perhaps, first of all, Hercules shooed away the eagle and told him in no uncertain terms never to come back to pester Prometheus. Prometheus already feels a bit freer. Without the daily pain and the constant threat of pain, he can focus at least for a while each day on planning for greater freedom. Let’s say Hercules then takes out the bolt from Prometheus’ chest. This is another increase in freedom. It may not sound like much if you’re not hanging from a cliff above the ocean, but for Prometheus at the time, we must imagine, it was nice just to be able to stretch his upper body a bit. Then let’s assume Hercules creates a little ledge in the cliff and unties Prometheus’ arms and legs. While Prometheus is now a man with the freedom to lie, sit, stand and walk at most a few steps in either direction on a ledge in a cliff, he still feels immeasurably freer than he felt before. But then let’s imagine Hercules lifts him up out of the cliff and puts him on firm ground, maybe gives him some clothes and a little villa – because Hercules is nice like that and wants Prometheus to be able to enjoy life after a few hundred years on that cliff. Obviously, with each step Prometheus’ freedom is increased.

Now, Prometheus has a brother, Epimetheus. While Prometheus is generally regarded as the clever one (his name means “forethought”), Epimetheus is more often seen as the dumb one of the family (his name means “afterthought”). While Prometheus was imprisoned on the rock, Epimetheus was roaming free. At one unfortunate point he caused Pandora’s box to be opened, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s imagine that the two brothers meet up shortly after Prometheus was set free. Epimetheus complains about their lack of freedom: “We’re tied to this Earth and can’t even fly up into the air like birds, let alone jump over the moon or travel to the planets. We’re limited to having this human body and can’t grow wings, or reach the size of an elephant. We can’t just decide to run on all fours at the speed of a cheetah. We really are wretchedly unfree creatures, determined to live with the limitations of our bodies and the physical constraints of this Earth.” To which we must imagine Prometheus calmly responded: “Listen, why don’t you just enjoy the freedom you do have, to move around freely, go about your business, change your environment, create things of beauty, help your fellow creatures, rather than whinge about things that are impossible. At least you’re not tied to a rock.”

What does this have to do with freedom of the will and determinism? I will take out a number of points to expand upon in future blog posts:

  1. Prometheus and Epimetheus have a different understanding of the same condition. Prometheus feels free following a long time tied to the rock, Epimetheus feels unfree because he is physically restricted by his nature and that of the world, including the laws of physics. For Prometheus, the opposite of being free is being tied to the rock. For Epimetheus, it is being restricted in what he can do. I think it is possible that there is an opposite to free will that is unfree will, as well as an opposite that is determinism.
  2. Prometheus’ fate suggests that you can be more or less free. Epimetheus’ perception suggests that you can be completely free, but that doesn’t mean are not subject to certain constraints which make up the human condition. In the same way, I think it is possible for free will to be a matter of degree, rather than a binary “either you have it or you don’t” issue. However, arguing that we have free will, does not commit one to the view that there are no constraints. (Sometimes, the fact that one cannot just will any old thing, is taken as an argument that we don’t have free will.)
  3. The things that make Prometheus unfree are the shackles on his arms and legs, the bolt through his chest, the eagle tormenting him and the lack of space in which to move. The things that make the will unfree are things like addictions, phobias, bad habits, reactivity in action, acting on unconscious motives, psychological compulsions and so on. The things that make Epimetheus unfree are his nature as a certain kind of creature, a titan, but we can pretend he’s a human being, and the nature of the universe. The things that make the will determined could similarly be about the nature of life as a conscious, rational being and the universe we’re in. It is possible though that the factors that cause unfreedom of the will can be present to different degrees in different people, or can be added or removed over time, whereas the factors that cause determinism universal constraints.
  4. This “unfreedom” is not the same as determinism though. The things that make the will unfree can be removed, even in a deterministic universe. With Prometheus and Epimetheus, where the lack of freedom of being tied to a rock shares some broad features with the lack of freedom that is a general feature of the human condition – a lack of being able to do just anything, a restriction of room for manoeuvre – the “unfreedom” stemming from the shackles is much more restrictive than the lack of absolute freedom that Epimetheus bemoans. In the same way, the “unfree” will may be much less free than is required by general determinism. How restrictive determinism really is may only become clear when the factors that make the will unfree are removed as far as possible.
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