The concept of free will is usually viewed in a theological light. It’s the classical explanation for evil in the world. God has created the world. God is not evil (no one would want to live under the rule of an evil God). There is evil in the world. Why is it there, when a non-evil God has created the world? Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world, given that he is almighty? Isn’t the logical conclusion of the combination of omnipotence and evil that God must be evil?
Theologians traditionally use the “free will escape”: God has created man (and woman) with the capacity of free will. We have the power to do good and evil. When there is evil in the world, it’s our free choice, not the choice of God. Divine intervention in the affairs of the world and stopping evil things from happening, is undoubtedly what God, being good, would prefer to do, but doing so would mean taking away our free choice between good and evil and taking away our free will. The world would be a deterministic place where God drives everything. Human beings would be pawns in a chess play. It appears to most religious people (in the West at least), that this isn’t what God wants.
There has always been a tradition of determinism, but rather than God determining everything determinists nowadays believe it’s genetics, psychology, physics or whatever. People are said to be determined by their genes, evolutionary forces etc.
A strict determinism – all human actions, as everything else in nature, are determined by outside causes – is by definition religious, even if at first sight it seems incompatible with religious tradition (western religious tradition that is). If everything is determined by a pre-existing cause, then one has to go back to the beginning of the universe, to the first cause. Since determinism cannot go back indefinitely, to the infinity of the past, there must be a first cause. And this first cause, being the first, doesn’t have anything pre-existing causing it. Hence it is the causeless causer, the unmoved mover, the uncreated creator, the demiurge according to Plato. And this has to be some kind of God.
Strict determinism is a terrifyingly improbable idea. Imagine that the past rules the future, that we don’t have any choice in any matter. People would be mere billiard balls. It’s improbable because we all have the experience of making choices, of having had the possibility to do otherwise (there would be no regret without it). However, lack of probability doesn’t make strict determinism impossible. Maybe our experience and our regret are illusions.
A better argument against strict determinism is that accepting it would mean abandoning morality and criminal law. It is incompatible with responsibility – moral, legal and criminal. If you don’t control your actions and you cannot make a choice to do or not to do something – if, in other words, you couldn’t have done otherwise – then obviously you cannot be punished for having done something. It wasn’t you who did it. There was some pre-existing cause making you do it.
The fact that there is morality and criminal law indicates that people generally believe that we have at least some measure of free will. And the concept of extenuating circumstances or diminished responsibility in criminal law, points to the fact that there is also a consensus that some level of determinism is present in our lives and that individuals do not in all circumstances have a free choice (they may be forced into to doing something by reasons grounded in genetics, sociology, psychology etc.). We probably shouldn’t be absolutists on either side. In the words of Sartre, we are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse.
However, it’s not because something is abused that it doesn’t exist.
Strict freedom is as unlikely as strict determinism, so freedom and determinism seem to coexist. This is the theory called “compatibilism“, of which Thomas Hobbes is a known representative.
now, you may ask – if you remember the title of this post: what is the link with equality? Strict determinism is an extremely egalitarian theory. It makes it impossible to distinguish between people. Everyone is equally praiseworthy or blameworthy. In fact, we all have a praise and blame counter stuck at 0. There can be no praise or blame, no reward, desert, punishment or retribution, since nothing we do can be attributed to us. We are indeed all as similar as the next billiard ball. If we accept free will, then we accept inequality and the existence of people with different qualities and different levels of value and merit.
This, however, doesn’t mean that we can discriminate – discriminate in the legal and human rights sense of the word, not in the sense of “to distinguish” and “to make distinctions”. Or that we can treat certain people as without any value (that we can use them, abuse them, torture them, sell them as slaves etc.). There is a baseline, under which we shouldn’t go, and this line is defined by human rights. But above this line, the more distinctions, the better.