Responsibility, Free Will and the Craft
Author: Rhys Chisnall
Responsibility is a byword of Initiatory Craft and as Craft initiates we are expected to be coping adults and be able to take responsibility for our own actions. We don’t believe in the Devil and so can’t pin our own shortcomings at his ‘supernatural’ door; nor indeed do we seek as Vivianne Crowley says in ‘Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Age’, an unrealistic sainthood. Rather we seek to take responsibility for our own world. I was told during my training that ‘Witches happen to life, life does not happen to Witches’. Sure, ‘sh*t happens’, says another much quoted real world centred Craft saying, but we have a responsibility in how we deal with life’s inevitabilities. This article examines whether we can have responsibility.
Responsibility seems to imply free will, after all most people would agree that we need to be free to make choices and decisions about our actions in order to be held responsible for them. It seems intuitively unfair to lay blame and responsibility for a crime if the perpetrator had no choice in committing it. An individual could hardly be blamed for holding up a bank if they had a bomb strapped to them by a criminal who told them that the device would be exploded killing them (and others) if they deviated from the plan. We would not hold them responsible, as they had no choice; they were coerced in to doing what they did. Likewise if a person was brainwashed or hypnotised into committing a crime we would be loath to blame them as we would we feel that they were not responsible. They were forced to do things against how they would have normally acted. The opposite is also true, when someone chooses to do something particularly brave or good, or copes with a debilitating disease with dignity and grace we praise and admire them. We view them as responsible for their actions. When someone chooses to put others needs before their own, again we either praise them or consider them mugs for the responsibility for their choices.
Responsibility need not have a moral aspect as it can also be seen as self-empowering. If we take responsibility for something then it comes into our sphere of control; we can do something about it. If we blame other people or events for our misfortunes we are effectively saying that we are powerless. We are putting ourselves in the role of the victim and that is not something that sits easily with Witchcraft. Looking at responsibility in this sense also seems to imply free will. Responsibility seems to suggest that we need free will to make the choice to take control of our own lives, to influence where life is taking us thus making us powerful individuals. It is in this meaning of responsibility where we find one of the empowerment sources of the Witch and a fundamental cornerstone of Initiatory Craft thinking.
Free will is an important concept in many different religions. For example in Christianity free will is a doctrine and is required for someone to either accept the teachings of Jesus Christ and be saved, or reject them and be damned. It is viewed as a gift from God and without it God would not be able to pass judgment, as sinners would not be responsible for their actions. It is a foundation of Christian belief and causes those Christians interested in philosophy huge headaches. Likewise to believers in the New Age movement and popular Wicca, who adhere to the simplistic morality of Western Karma, free will is an important but self-contradictory concept. Free will is required to make choices on actions which will later go on to influence what happens to that person in terms of fortune or misfortune caused by the accumulation of negative karma from bad acts and positive karma from good ones. I am sure you can see the potential for contradiction.
But does free will exist? This is a subject that metaphysicians have explored over the ages and although there is not a complete consensus (such a thing does not exists on anything in philosophy) , free will seems extremely unlikely. What is more it is extremely unlikely in any possible view of the world. It seems that free will could not exist in a deterministic universe as revealed by scientific method nor even in a ‘possible’ universe were random non caused events could occur.
First let us take the scientific, deterministic paradigm of how the Universe operates. British Post Feminist Philosopher Dr. Janet Radcliffe Richards explored this in her book ‘Human Nature after Darwin’. If we ignore the Quantum world for a moment (where random events do occur and where probability rather than determinism rules) science works on principals of determinism, effects have causes and those causes have other causes all the way back to the Big Bang or Quantum world. This means anything that you choose to do has to have a cause, which itself must have also been caused. As such any action you perform has causes that extend back way before you were even born. There does not seem to be any room for free will as everything was set in motion by the big bang. Your choices are subject to a chain of causes extending back beyond your existence, so how could you be held responsible, how could you choose freely to do anything?
Science makes no assumptions of free will. A recent example is an article on teenage responsibility in the ‘New Scientist’ (25th Sept 2010) . Jessica Hamzelou discusses recent research into the growth and development of the brain in young people with its implications on responsibility. In particular the research looked at development of White Matter in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the area that deals with being able to understand the long term effects of one’s actions. The argument being that as this part of the brain does not fully form until a person reaches the age of about 20 this explains why teenagers often make very poor decisions. Although they know the difference between right and wrong they cannot be held fully accountable for their actions, as they do not yet have a full understanding of their behaviours consequences. Isn’t it funny how biological psychology has reconfirmed the old idea that a person isn’t an adult until they are 21?
This report implies that there is no free will and the causes of behaviour in young people are determined by their biological development. It is not hard to make similar arguments based upon hormones, education, social influences, poor parenting, genetics, influence of peers, environmental factors etc. These in turn are caused by evolutionary pressures, which operated on the person’s gene pool millions of years before they were born. There seems to be no room at all for free will in the massively complex interplay of the huge amount of various layers of causes on an individual’s behaviour. Young people and by extension ourselves have no real choice or free will in what they or they and we do.
But if you think that it is looking bad for the existence of free will in a deterministic universe so far, like they say here in Suffolk, ‘you ain’t seen nothin’; it gets even worse.
Consider the fascinating research done by the American Physiologist Benjamin Libet and others. Libet discovered that when we believe we are making a decision our conscious awareness of our decision-making is a relative latecomer to the game. It turns out that we have already unconsciously/pre-consciously made the decision. We don’t become aware of our decision until a fraction of a moment after we have made it.
Think of it this way: You know the opening titles of the ‘Simpsons’ where baby Maggie thinks that she is steering the car, but the camera pans back and we see that it is Marge who is actually driving? It turns out that our conscious awareness of making decisions is actually like little Maggie, and is reacting to decisions made pre-consciously rather than making them itself. However, we should also remember that the pre-conscious makes our decisions based upon our beliefs, which goes to show just how important beliefs actually are. However, it is important to point out that this research is not without its critics. The American Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist Daniel Dennett is not convinced by the methodology of this research and another philosopher (also a supporter of determinism) Alfred Mele is not convinced by its form. However none of these concerns doubt the difficulties of free will in respect to determinism.
Come to think of it you don’t need to be a physiologist or a cognitive scientist to view other people’s behaviours as having causes. We often interpret people’s actions in everyday life and circumstances as the result of causes. For example, we might say that John was late to work because he was lazy, or that Bill shoplifted because he fell in with bad company after having a deprived childhood. Looking for causes in our own and other people’s behaviour was called Attribution Theory by the social psychologist Harold Kelly. Two parts of which are known as Fundamental Attribution Error and the Actor/Observer effect. In the west, we are culturally determined to explain other people’s behaviour in terms of internal causes, e.g. they are lazy, they are hard working, they are selfish, etc. When it comes to our own behaviour, we tend to explain it in terms of external causes, for example: I was cross because he annoyed me, I lied because she put me in an impossible position or I was late because the traffic was bad. In either case, we intuitively seek to explain behaviour in terms of deterministic causes.
Those who believe strictly that all our actions are determined in a continuous chain of cause and effect and believe there is no such thing as responsibility are called ‘hard determinists’. This is a view similar to those who believe in fate. That everything in life is already determined and we are living a kind of script. The American philosopher Professor Theodore Sider has devised a simple test to find out if hard determinists really do have the courage of their convictions. The test is simple: punch such a person on the nose and see how convinced they are that it wasn’t your responsibility. Tell them that the act had been pre-determined since the big bang. My guess is that they will not be too keen to practise what they preach and accept your reasoning. Mind you there is a way around this as they could claim that your actions caused them to deterministically retaliate in kind.
There does not seem to be much room for free will in a deterministic universe as described by science. Is this a reason for rejecting scientific determinism? Does free will and responsibility do any better in a spiritual world, or a world were random events occur that are not caused?
Both Sider and Radcliffe Richards along with many other philosophers have dealt with this problem and have come up with the same answer. If a random event occurred then surely it can still no longer be free will. To demonstrate this point Professor Ted Sider uses this colourful example in the book ‘Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics’. Imagine the following scene: In a Universe where random uncaused events occur, Mother Teresa is working with the poor of Calcutta. While working away she randomly picks up a hand grenade, pulls out the pin and throws it into an orphanage killing hundreds. The event was completely uncaused and random. The question is was she responsible? Remember that the event was completely uncaused as there was nothing in Mother Teresa’s past, personality or mind that caused it.
Surely as Mother Teresa did not intend or have anything within her that caused the mass murder she can’t be responsible and therefore she was not exercising fee will. Randomness and uncaused events cannot be the product of free will, because and for free will to exist it needs to be caused and causal. Without cause, there can be no free will as in a non-causal universe free will could not cause anything. Random events that happen in the Quantum world also do not save free will, as randomness is uncaused and nothing can take responsibility for randomness. If nothing causes free will, then it does not come from the person so the person cannot be responsible and free will can’t exist.
It seems that free will simply can’t exist either in a random universe or a deterministic one. Besides a random universe is problematic as it just does not accord with our observations of nature beyond the quantum level. As Crafters, we ought to be suspicious of the concept of a world of random non-caused events as this does not fit with the idea that magic can be effective. After all magic, while not clearly understood, seems to works by a variety of mechanisms all of which are deterministic. The Magician or Witch performs the spell that causes, via complicated processes, the desired outcome.
What about free will existing in a universe in which souls and spirits exist? After all, religious people often see the source of their free will as residing in their souls, these being a gift from God to see whom he can trust to let into Heaven. Radcliffe Richards points out that if such was the case then the spirits and souls would still be either existing in a deterministic world where they would be subject to cause and effect (why should spirits be free of determinism?) , or in a random world where there could be no responsibility as nothing is caused. Both are equally problematic for free will and responsibility.
Radcliffe Richards goes on to claim that free will is a necessary nonexistent. By this philosophers mean that there are some things that don’t exist in an ordinary way (weird as that sounds) , for examples fairies, spirits, hobgoblins, nice tasting American beer, etc. These things are not real but they could exist in metaphorical ‘other world’. Some other things just cannot exist in any world, they are just too contradictory, and these are necessary non-existent. For example, things like four-sided triangles, round squares, two plus two equal five and so it seems, free will. In other words, there is just no such thing as free will as it is assumed to exist in normal discourse; it is completely impossible for it to exist in any possible world.
So is Craft philosophy with its emphasis on personal responsibility completely scuppered? Perhaps there is a third option that we could explore.
There is a branch of the freewill/determinism metaphysical debate that could come to our rescue. It has a revised concept of free will, which is still part of the deterministic world in which we live; in fact it is compatible with it. This is a view that is held by most modern philosophers and is called, funny enough, compatiblism or ‘soft determinism’. The Stoics championed it in ancient times and more recently several major philosophers of the Enlightenment, including the famous 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume, supported it.
Although a hugely complex web of events that extends back beyond our existence causes everything we believe or know or do, soft determinists believe that we have ‘free will’ when we act without external coercion from another agent according to how these causes have made us. By ‘coercion by another agent’ we mean being forced into doing something such as being brainwashed or hypnotised, etc. Essentially this is what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer meant when he famously said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. So although who we are is determined through cause and effect, soft determinists see us as acting freely when our actions are consistent with that tapestry. In Initiatory Craft we call this massively complex pattern Wyrd.
To be fair it isn’t the traditional free will of common discourse, but it is the situated agency of humanistic psychology. It is when we act in accord with how we have been determined to be, in accordance with our personalities, beliefs and character within the constraints of our situations and context.
Soft determinists claim that we are the product of hugely complex causal forces. These include evolutionary forces, physiology and biology, our culture, education, experiences and the beliefs that they form. It can be successfully argued that part of this rich tapestry of causal personhood is responsibility. In other words, the concept of responsibility, a belief in taking responsibility and being responsible for our actions is a causal part of our makeup. The idea of responsibility, all things being equal with other causal factors, makes us take responsibility. However this only holds true if we have been exposed to the concept and have the kind of character and experiences that causes us to take these beliefs on board which in turn enables us towards self-empowerment. In other words we have been caused to take responsibility, which makes good education in my view extremely important.
Taking responsibility will influence our decision-making processes as much as anything else, making it part of the soft deterministic world view. It makes us act as we are determined to be, having situated agency or what the soft determinists refer to as liberty. It is taking responsibility for the unfolding process of Wyrd through self-knowledge that is relevant to the Craft view of what a Witch is. It empowers us in shaping our lives in accord with the deterministic forces that have in turn have shaped us. If we have been determined to accept this responsibility then we can do nothing else, it is our Wyrd. Responsibility gives us a degree of agency.
In the end, despite there being no such thing as free will in any possible universe, there is still an important role for responsibility as it is viewed in the Craft. Taking responsibility, which is so important to the Initiatory Craft and to self-empowerment in general, is part of the vastly complex tapestry of causal forces that include concepts and beliefs that goes into making a person. Therefore the Initiatory Craft view of taking personal responsibility stands up to the philosophical scrutiny and refutation of free will.