Possibility and Ability | Netherhall House

The exploration of this topic was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend on how accountable terrorists (specifically ISIS) should be on an individual basis for their acts of terror. We frequently encounter in the news how recruits are ‘brainwashed’ or ‘indoctrinated’ by certain ideologies in order to carry out the most dreadful and inhuman exploits, some unthinkable for a normal person. In the various attempts to explain or justify the degree of violence advocated by the group and the exhibited pleasure in cruelty by its members, I find it natural to ask: can man be moulded to an extent that he is no longer free? This crisis we’ve observed challenges our understanding of freedom and the topic demands deeper investigation.

Before we explore the topic any further, I think it is worth establishing common ground with the reader. Freedom in this regard refers to the notion of ‘the ability to choose between alternatives’. Note that the word ability rather than possibility is used here. Some like Descartes would argue rather that freedom is spontaneous self-determination, a choice pure and simple. When man is provided a situation where all his choices are not restricted, then he is free. This definition can be problematic, firstly because it contradicts with our common experience. If a person is not blessed with the talent to play a musical instrument for example, would he be regarded as less free compared to one who can? Secondly, we observe that our present choice is usually limited by our previous choices. For instance, a person who chooses to embark on a career as a doctor would have a smaller chance of becoming a professional footballer or a pilot. With the range of possibilities narrowed down, we still would not describe the person as any less free.

This leads us back to the definition of freedom as the ability to choose between alternatives. Freedom here is understood as the mastery man has over his actions. A free man is one who determines himself to an action after having taking consciousness of the consideration that such an action carries. Returning to our question, have extremists decided to take their radical line of action consciously, in full control of what they are doing? Some may attribute their actions to the influence of human passions, such as anger. This however poses another question: to what extent can the passions influence the will? To answer this, it would be worthwhile dwelling on the cause of the free act. Battista Mondin, in his book Philosophical Anthropology, presents an interesting discussion on whether the free act has a cause. The free act, he argues, is subordinated to the laws of causality, but it would be erroneous to negate it in the name of causality. The free act is not without cause, but rather, it is an effect of a free cause. Indeed, it is free in the sense that it adds something completely new into nature, which depends exclusively on the will of the one who produces the free act. This is different from nature, since with nature events occur in a “deterministic” way: the leaves of a tree move when there is a breeze.

I think this is important in our discussion as it tells us that the free act, ultimately, is not caused by a combination of factors such as our passion, knowledge, prejudice, culture etc. Important though their role might be in influencing the will, to attribute to them as the cause of our free acts would subject man to the deterministic realm. The will acts according to what the intellect informs, but it also has the power to control the intellect. I think this experience highlights the tremendous power the will has. Thus freedom as a faculty man has of being master over his own actions is a sublime but also dangerous power. The exercise of this power not only determines the act, but the very person. How is this so? The fundamentalist’s decision to detonate his or her suicide vest, in a sense is no longer free, but still has its origin in the free will. It does not surprise us that usually such decisions are preceded by a long history of (freely committed) violent acts and brutal aggression in order to make murder an act that is second nature to them. Man is so free that he can choose to surrender his freedom. Mastery, or dominion, implies that freedom is not a perfect faculty: one that is given and which requires no development. I think the following example illustrates well how freedom works: a person who jumps out of bed when the alarm clock goes off, in time, will form the strength of will to get up on time. He not only has the possibility of waking up on time, but the ability to do so. Yet, this good habit will never force him to get out of bed on the day he actually wants to stay in bed. He is a free man. Contrast with the person who fails to develop such habit. It is clear that for him, the two options remain only as possibilities, since he does not possess the ability to choose them (i.e. it becomes very difficult to get out of bed straightaway). In a sense, he is no longer free, a result which he freely chose. Note however that this does not imply that he cannot change. I think this then draws our attention to the unbreakable bond between freedom and truth, although that would belong to a separate discussion.

To conclude, to say that freedom has a cause does not mean that freedom does not exist. At the same time, freedom is not a spontaneous choice originating from a random urge or desire. Freedom has its limits, and our latter decision can be influenced by our former choices, but is not solely caused by it. The cause of the free act is the person’s will. This does not exclude the fact that man can repent from his doings and change his course.