Much philosophical enquiry engages with the question of ‘free will’ by explicitly exploring how it can be defined. In the previous post, I provided one ill-considered definition. In this post, I am going to take another approach. Instead of attempting to find a suitable definition of free will, I will reference a situation in which an individual has made a choice concerning a specific thing. This will allow me to tackle certain questions *without* getting bogged down in a definition of ‘free will’. I will outline the situation, the choice, then ask who or what is responsible for that choice.
In this post I am exploring a line of argument. I am testing a thread to see if it can reveal anything. If it leads to something interesting then I will continue to develop it, and provide it with the appropriate context. Any challenging of the argument is welcomed.
The situation I will tackle is fictitious, but plausible. It comes from Shakepeare’s tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The sequence of events that I will reference starts when Romeo has just been informed that Juliet is dead, and ends with a choice: Romeo decides to end his life. Romeo’s ultimate response to his lover’s death is to drink some poison and bring about his death. This is the choice I will examine.
Of course, anyone who is familiar with the plot of Romeo and Juliet will know that Romeo’s suicide is indeed tragic because Juliet has, in fact, not died at all. And so his death can be described as a ‘poor’ choice or, perhaps more appropriately, a mistake.
The question I will try to address is this: Who, or what, caused Romeo’s death?
Is Romeo’s death of his own doing? Is it a result of his own choices made within a difficult context? Is it a result of circumstances? Is it a pre-determined fact? Is it a result of Juliet’s actions?
Lets proceed slowly.
Romeo has decided to take his own life because he cannot bear to live without his love, Juliet. Lets start, then, by postulating that the cause of Romeo’s death is Juliet’s death. If Juliet had not died, Romeo would not have died. However! As we know, Juliet has not died at all. Thus if we suggest that the cause of Romeo’s death is Juliet’s death then we must correctly state that it is actually the idea of Juliet’s death.
Here we can immediately conclude that ideas can be extremely powerful and that ideas need not be veridical, or true, to exercise that power. The fact that Juliet did not die very clearly shows that it is only an idea (that of Juliet’s death) that caused Romeo’s death. The fact that the idea is false does not detract from its power.
But the key and critical insight to be drawn here is far more radical.
If Juliet *had* really died, then it would still have been the idea of her death that caused Romeo’s death. The reasoning behind this insight is very simple; there is no clear distinction between an idea that happens to be true, and one that happens to be false. Shakespeare’s narrative very clearly demonstrates this fact.
In other words, it is the thought, or the idea, that creates the emotional pain, not the real physical fact. Any discrepancy between the mental image of what happened and what actually happened has no importance to what is felt. We can thus solidly conclude that it is not Juliet’s death that caused Romeo’s death, but rather the idea of it. This holds true whether or not Juliet’s death is fact or not.
The idea of Juliet’s death exists in Romeo’s head. So if we say that it is this idea that has caused Romeo’s death, then we might as well say that it is Romeo’s mind that has caused his death.
Now we start to get to the nab of it: did Romeo *create* that idea in his mind? Clearly no. It would be a highly un-desirable idea to create! Why would anyone, who has the ability to control the ideas in their head, create such an idea? It is Balthasar who introduced this idea by bringing the bad news to Romeo:
I saw her laid low in her kindred's vault, And presently took post to tell it you: O, pardon me for bringing these ill news, Since you did leave it for my office, sir.
So Romeo did not create the idea that led him to take his life. It was provided to him, verbally, by another. Similarly, Balthasar also did not create this idea, because he learnt it from seeing Juliet appear dead. If this causal chain is traced backwards, then it must also follow that Juliet did not create this idea in Romeo’s head either, because her own actions would be subject to their own causes (ad infinitum).
The closest correct statement, following this line of reasoning, might be to say that the idea of Juliet’s death, in Romeo’s mind, was created by circumstance (or perhaps ‘the world’). This reasoning is more or less in line with the determinist theorem of free will.
However! Given the idea of Juliet’s death taking root in Romeo’s mind, he could have pursued one of many different possible courses of action other than taking his own life. The theory that Romeo might be able to choose exactly how to act, free of any causes, is called libertarianism. The notion of moral responsibility, and the human accountability for it, depends on the libertarian view of free will. Many other notions central to western society, such as punishment, are also based on libertarianism.
But libertarianism has some major problems. Let’s continue with our line of argument: at some point *after* the idea of Juliet’s death appeared in Romeo’s mind, another idea appeared: the idea to take his own life. The question then becomes: what happened between those two ideas? Whilst Romeo wasn’t responsible for the first idea, did he “step in” and become responsible for the second? This would mean that there are two different kinds of ideas. Some are created by the individual, others are a result of worldly circumstance. This is broadly the compatibilist theorem of free will, which occupies mainstream philosophical thinking. The incompatibilists, for their part, say that determinism cannot coexist with free will, but they do not commit to either side! If there is a line between ideas that are causally determined and those that are freely willed, then where is it? What is it made of? What does it look like?
If Romeo had the capacity to control or create ideas in his mind, then would it not have been easier to simply remove the idea that Juliet had died? It might seem absurd to suggest that one might be able to *remove* painful ideas from one’s mind, yet do we not assume that we have control over what we think? When an idea, a thought, becomes painful in itself, then it becomes apparent that we have much difficulty in controlling those ideas.
In fact, by taking his own life isn’t Romeo actually expressing the following sentiment:
I cannot control this idea (of Juliet’s death) in my mind, so I will instead remove it by taking my own life
Isn’t suicide a last desperate attempt to control the ideas that reside in our heads? Isn’t suicide a very pure and simple expression that we do not have control over the ideas in our heads? Isn’t suicide typically preceded by a sleuth of different attempts to control the ideas in one’s head … whether it be drugs, exercise, consumption, religion or whatever?
Suicide can then be understood as a refusal to accept that we cannot control the ideas in our heads. It is an act which fundamentally expresses the extraordinary depth of belief we have in free will. If we postulate that free will does not exist, then suicide can be a seen as the result of the powerful illusion of free will.
Is the cause of Romeo’s death the illusion of free will?
The illusion of free will cannot be the cause of Romeo’s death any more than any other of the circumstances that contributed to the story. Perhaps the more pertinent question to end on is the negative:
If Juliet had not died, then Romeo would not have taken his own life. Similarly, can it be said that if Romeo did not have the illusion of free will, he would not have died?