This post may seem a little strange, but it was prompted by a few conversations I had with some other free will skeptics. I bring this up almost as a way to say that just because two people agree on fundamental topics such as free will, doesn’t mean they make the same conclusions about other topics.
Once we understand that free will is an illusion and that things are not “ultimately up to us”, I know of a few free will skeptics who quite often ask this question:
“If things are not ultimately up to us, who or what then are they up to?”
This article is going to go over why such a question is a loaded question, and also how it suggest quite an incoherent idea – that being there can be something that things are up to in some ultimate way.
The first thing to note is what we mean by “ultimately” because that word is important here. We have conscious thought. We think about and decide on things, so in that way you can point to the biological creature doing that. We often deliberate on options, weigh and assess those options, and pick an option.
The configuration in which all of this happens, however, stems to events that are “ultimately” not our consciousness or biology – to events that happened even before we were ever born, or if postulating indeterminism, to some events that were “random” or had no cause at all (that we had no control over). Ultimately, the way we think about and deliberate on options, and yes, the very selection we make, was not “up to us”.
So if it’s not “ultimately up to us”, who or what is it “ultimately up to”? This may seem like a profound or sensible question to some.
One problem with such a question is that within it there is a question begging presupposition being made, which is a form of circular reasoning that assumes a point not granted. This makes the question a type of “loaded question”. It’s similar to asking a person “When did you stop beating your wife?”, in which the question itself automatically assumes wife beating took place no matter who you ask that question to.
To ask “who is it up to?” presumes automatically that it “is ultimately up to somebody”. Even when we ask “who or what is it up to?”, that also presumes that there must be “something” (a “what”) that it is “up to” in the ultimate sense. There, however, need not be anything that it is “ultimately up to”, and as you will see the very idea that there is something or someone that it’s ultimately up to is incoherent.
Some might say “well it’s up to the universe”, but is it really “up to the universe” in the ultimate sense we are referring that differs from it not being ultimately up to us? It’s not like the universe really has any actual say over anything at all. It is equally forced. The fact that the laws of physics are the way they are, for example, was not “up to the universe” any more than the fact that our brains and thoughts are the way they are – are “up to us” in some ultimate sense.
Some might say that it was “up to the big bang”, but again, did the “big bang” really have a say over it’s own event (start of expansion)? There is no reason at all to think it did. In fact, we can assume that either the big bang was an event that just popped into existence without a cause (acausal), or there was something that caused it. Either way, such events would not have been “up to” the big bang event itself.
This is where some people inject in a “someone” or “something” that it was up to that “caused the big bang”, but we don’t know that any such entity or thing existed, and even if there was something that “caused the big bang” there is no reason to give that something an “ultimately up to it” status anymore than anything else.
In fact, the very notion of everything being “ultimately up to” something else is an incoherent idea. Even if we say that there was something that always existed, that eternal thing wouldn’t have any say on it’s eternal configuration. Think about that for a moment. If it always existed (or if time doesn’t exist for it), how can its own existence or configuration be in any way “up to it”. It can’t.
And if it isn’t eternal but started existing at some point, that start point would be a non-caused event that would not be “up to” anything at all.
To put this another way, either something:
- Happens due to a cause, in which case it wasn’t ultimately “up to it”.
- Happens without a cause (acausally) in which case that happening was not ultimately “up to it”.
- Always existed in which case the exact way it always existed cannot be ultimately “up to it”.
- Isn’t temporal (there is no time for it) in which case it cannot be ultimately “up to it”.
No matter what scenario we place something into, whether that be a naturalistic account or some magical supernaturalistic account, or something on the quantum scale, or even if we postulate some obscure theory of time (or a lack there-of), the very notion of something being the ultimate thing that everything else is “up to” is an idea that is incoherent. It doesn’t make any sense. It presumes that its own existence and way it is could have been ultimately “up to it”. That very idea fails on account of all of the ways things can possibly happen, no matter what magical thing or special place we postulate.
Even if we asserted a god or some sort of deity here, such would have the very same problem. Things could not be ultimately up to such a being, as it would have no say over its own starting existence or configuration, and if it never “began” it would have no say over its eternal configuration (the way that god or deity eternally is or was).
It’s also important to point out that the very same reasons why free will is logically incoherent applies to such a being as well. Not only would such a being not have the free will to be other than what its own causal configuration dictates – it would have no say in it’s starting or eternal configuration. It makes no sense to say that its eternal configuration or, if not eternal, a non-caused (acausal) starting point … could have been ultimately “up to it”.
Keep in mind that these logical understandings are all prior to the asserting of any (past, present, and future) omniscient god – meaning one that is all-knowing. Such a god would know everything that it would do at any moment (or non-moment) and could never do anything outside of what it knows it will do for certain. This means it couldn’t be omnipotent, meaning all-powerful, as it wouldn’t have the power to do anything but what it already knows it will do. But I digress.
When we get back on to the target of this idea that there can be anything at all that things are “ultimately up to”, that idea falls flat for so many reasons, regardless of whether we assert something that caused the universe such as a magical peanut-butter sandwich or a god, or not (which we shouldn’t be asserting anything without evidence, but that’s another topic).
If we assert a universe without any deities or anything supernatural, it could be that we have any number of circumstances. Perhaps the singularity prior to the big bang always existed and only at a certain point started expanding, in which case we can’t say such was ultimately “up to” the singularity. It’s eternal state wasn’t anything that it had control over. We could postulate a multiple universe scenario where each universe pops out from a black hole in another universe, each with their own physical laws, but again, either this began at one point in which it wasn’t up to any universe, or there is some eternal universes that none has any ultimate say over. We could address a universe that expands and contracts in an infinite line. We could think that perhaps there is some kind of circular happening, with one universe giving birth to our own and our own giving birth back to that other universe. No matter how we slice it or what we imagine, the configurations of this universe or any other are not “ultimately up to something”.
The question shouldn’t be “Who or what is it ultimately up to?” but rather “What would it mean if it isn’t ultimately up to anyone or anything?” That question makes more sense given that the idea of it being “ultimately up to anyone or anything” isn’t really a coherent idea to begin with – not to mention it’s unnecessarily loaded.
The fact that I can have such a disagreement with another fellow free will skeptic shows that a lack of belief in free will doesn’t necessarily make thinking, processes, or even standards of knowledge, the same across the board. But that is due to having different causal histories that were not ultimately up to us, or anyone, or anything in particular. We can hope as humanity causally progresses, becomes more rational, and information becomes more accessible that standards of knowledge will start to causally align minimizing disagreements. Though I’m pessimistic on certain things, this I’m optimistic on, as the information age has only just begun.
- Disclaimer: The understanding that things are not “ultimately up to us” does not imply that choices are not made, that our conscious thoughts and actions aren’t important, or that fatalism applies.
Not sure why free will (as defined here) doesn’t exist, or why it’s so important? Check out Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind as a Kindle ebook or paperback. It makes the strong case against free will. And don’t forget to subscribe to my blog for updates, thoughts, and information about the lack of free will!
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