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Stoicism vs. Objectivism: Is Free Will Magic?

A common conception of causation leads many scientifically minded people to dismiss free will.

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Both Stoicism and Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, purport to offer guidance on the pursuit of values and the conduct and improvement of our lives. But, unlike Objectivism — which upholds free will — Stoicism embraces a deterministic worldview that’s incompatible with moral guidance, or so I argue in my article “The False Promise of Stoicism.” “For a philosophy to be useful as a guide,” I wrote, “it must at least acknowledge that we have some genuine, volitional control over our actions and choices — actions and choices that make a difference to where we end up in life.”

Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at The City College of New York and a prominent voice in the contemporary Stoicism movement, disagrees. In his essay “Epic Battles in Practical Ethics: Stoicism vs Objectivism,” Pigliucci insists on a perspective held by many philosophers and scientists today — namely, that to reject determinism, as Objectivism does, amounts to believing in magic.

Consider Pigliucci’s argument for this position.

Is free will magic?

“Determinism,” writes Pigliucci, in its “simplest and broadest definition” means that “things happen as a result of cause-effect, or because there are laws of nature.”

If you accept that the cosmos works by cause-effect, then your attitude about human volition (“free will”) can fall into one of two categories: (a) You believe there is no such thing as volition, it’s an illusion (deterministic incompatibilism); or (b) You believe that volition is just another aspect of the lawful behavior of things in the universe, including human beings (compatibilism).

If you don’t like either of the above two stances on volition, then your only remaining choice, (c) is to reject the premise of determinism and claim special status for human free will (contra-causal incompatibilism). The Stoics — like most contemporary philosophers — chose option (b). Smith, apparently, wants something like (c). Which, based on what we know of how the world works, amounts to believing in magic, just like many religious people do: it’s called “contra-causal” free will because the notion is that, somehow (but how??), human volition can transcend the laws of physics and biology.1

Observe that Pigliucci’s argument relies on equating determinism with cause and effect and scientific lawfulness. This equation is of course not unique to Pigliucci. Daniel Dennett, one of the most influential philosophers in the contemporary free will debate, characterizes determinism similarly as “the idea that every event has a cause, which has a cause, which has a cause, in a causal chain that goes back to the Big Bang, if you like, and that there are no events without causes — undetermined events.”2 (My emphasis)

The reason Pigliucci gets Rand wrong is that the Objectivist view of free will (and causality) doesn’t fit the alternatives that he and others consider viable contenders.

This equation — which, as we will see, Objectivism rejects — leads Pigliucci to narrowly frame our theoretical options as either: (i) accept the universality of cause and effect and scientific lawfulness (and therefore determinism) — dismissing free will as either an illusion or a deterministic action or (ii) accept free will and therefore reject the universality of cause and effect and the laws of nature (i.e., determinism). Since Objectivism openly rejects determinism, Pigliucci assumes that Objectivism must endorse a non-causal (or “contra-causal”) theory of free will.

But it doesn’t. Volition, according to Objectivism, is both causal (no need for magic) and free (non-deterministic). Perhaps the reason Pigliucci gets Rand wrong is that the Objectivist view of free will (and causality) doesn’t fit the alternatives that he and others consider viable contenders.

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To be in a position to evaluate Objectivism’s account of free will, one would need to consider what Rand wrote (or endorsed) on the subject and seek to understand it, especially since Rand’s view offers an alternative to those envisioned by Pigliucci.3

Rand on free will and causality

Consider just a few aspects of Rand’s account.

According to Objectivism, causality (or cause and effect) is not a principle relating antecedent events to their necessary consequences (determinism), but one that relates an entity’s identity (what it is) to its actions (what it does). Objectivism holds that since every entity has a specific identity, constituted by its specific set of characteristics, it can perform only those actions it has the capacity to perform; it cannot act apart from or in contradiction to its nature. As such, there can be no uncaused actions and no miracles. (There goes anything “contra-causal.”)

Objectivism accepts the universality of cause and effect. But it stresses that the principle of cause and effect by itself does not legislate that all cause-effect relations are deterministic (such that one and only one outcome is possible from — and indeed necessitated by — a given set of antecedent circumstances). Nor does the principle of causality tell us which specific actions an entity can take in a given context; it tells us only that an entity must act in accordance with its nature; it cannot act in contradiction to it.

Contrary to Pigliucci’s assumptions, the Objectivist view of free will is not that volition magically transcends identity and causality — as God’s volition is traditionally supposed to. Rather, Objectivism holds that volition is a form of causation.

Questions about what specific actions entities are capable of must be settled by reference to observed facts about the behavior of the relevant entities. And when it comes to human volition, the proper place to begin is with the data of introspection — i.e., with what we can directly observe of the operations of our own consciousness. What we observe thereby is that we possess a certain kind of control over our consciousness. This observed control, this causal power to initiate and direct action, is what Rand calls “free will.”

As Rand puts it, what is fundamentally and directly under our control is the process of thinking:

To think is an act of choice. . . . Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort.4

To say that we have “free will,” in Objectivism, is to say that reason operates by choice. You can choose to think — to exercise your cognitive faculties, to seek to know, to classify, to reach a wider and deeper understanding. Or, you can allow your mind to drift — letting it glide on autopilot, guided only by undirected stimuli, emotions, and associations. Or, you can choose to deliberately throw your mind out of focus — to refuse to know, to pretend facts are other than they are, turning your mind away from the goal of awareness, thereby subverting its functioning. You can also realize (clearly or dimly) that you are out of focus and choose to exert the effort that a state of goal-directed awareness requires — an effort nature does not compel you to exert or sustain.

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Contrary to Pigliucci’s assumptions, the Objectivist view of free will is not that volition magically transcends identity and causality — as God’s volition is traditionally supposed to. Rather, Objectivism holds that volition is a form of causation. Free actions, according to Rand’s theory, are caused not by antecedent events (as determinism would have it), but by the actor choosing to initiate action, fundamentally cognitive action.

To say that a process of thought is caused by the actor, does not mean only that it is caused by factors that are internal to the actor rather than external, as many determinists would say. It means that the actor possesses the capacity to initiate action and chose to exercise that capacity.

It is only because we have free will that we need, and can make use of, a philosophic perspective to guide our choices toward a vision of what our lives and character could and ought to be.

If the deterministic framework that so many philosophers and scientifically minded people today accept doesn’t allow for this directly observable form of causation, then that framework should be revised. The alternatives — dismissing the observed fact of choice as an illusion (deterministic incompatibilism) or rewriting it to fit the prevailing theory as compatibilist accounts of volition like Pigliucci’s attempt to do — are unscientific.5

Pigliucci’s compatibilist account of volition

Pigliucci — as someone offering advice on how to live and what to value — seems to want to maintain some genuine notion of free will, presumably because he realizes that moral agency is impossible without it.

Our decisions are the result of external causes (other people’s opinions, events, etc.), combined with internal causes (our character, considered judgments, etc.) Human beings aren’t passive receivers of external influences . . . we are part and parcel of how the universe works. And the intriguing thing . . . is that volition, as an internal cause, can act on itself in a recursive fashion. A fancy way to say that we can reflect on our own judgments and change them. And the more we engage in cognitive and behavioral steps, the more we change our internal causality. If our changes are in the right direction we become better persons, the goal of Stoic practice.

This is as close as one gets to “free will” in a universe governed by laws and by relations of cause-effect.

Summarizing this perspective later in the essay, he writes:

Nothing is really ours, except the considered judgments we arrive at. Those are the ones on the basis of which we should be thought of as worthy or unworthy human beings. And lucky for us, those are under our control. Which means that the objective of living a life worth living is also under our control.6

But when Pigliucci says that our considered judgments are “under our control” and that “we can reflect on our own judgments and change them,” the essential question is: are both alternatives — to consider or not consider, to reflect or not reflect, to think or not to think — within our power to choose under the circumstances? Or is our act of reflecting or not reflecting itself necessitated by antecedent events? If we take determinism seriously, then whether we become a better or worse person today or tomorrow is not within our power to choose. It was determined for us long before we were born.

In his book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, fellow modern Stoic Donald Robertson presents the Stoic position on determinism more accurately as “the idea that absolutely everything in life necessarily happens as it does.”

Your own thoughts and actions are necessitated as part of the whole “string of causes” that forms the universe . . . so that even if there are things in life that seem to require great effort on our part to achieve, whether or not we make the effort is fated along with the outcome . . .

What happens next will depend, in part, on what you choose to do next because you are a tiny but essential cog in the vast machinery of the universe. However, your choices themselves are the consequences of a massive string of causation set in motion countless billions of years before you were even born, at the beginning of the universe.7

The essential point here is that, for a cog — whose every thought and action is necessitated by factors outside his control — a philosophy of life is useless. It is only because we have free will that we need, and can make use of, a philosophic perspective to guide our choices toward a vision of what our lives and character could and ought to be.

If you’re seeking a philosophic perspective on life according to which there genuinely are things that are up to you — that you face genuine alternatives, such that if you make the right choices, you can become a better person and live a better life — you need a philosophy that embraces free will, not one that gives you the illusion of freedom while insisting on a worldview that denies it.


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  1. Massimo Pigliucci, “Epic Battles in Practical Ethics: Stoicism vs Objectivism.”
  2. Daniel Dennett, “My Brain Made Me Do It (When Neuroscientists Think They Can Do Philosophy),” (European University Institute, Max Weber Lecture Series, December 15, 2010), 2.
  3. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pt. 3, chap. 7; Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition); Nathaniel Branden’s “The Contradiction of Determinism,” Objectivist Newsletter 2 (May 1963), “What Is the Difference Between the Objectivist Concept of Free Will and Traditional Concepts?,” Objectivist Newsletter 3 (January 1964), “The Objectivist Theory of Volition,” Objectivist 5 (January–February 1966), and “Volition and the Law of Causality,” Objectivist 5 (March 1966). See also Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), chap. 2, and Harry Binswanger, “Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 50 (December 1991). For a discussion of the Objectivist concept of volition by academic philosophers, see Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, eds., A Companion to Ayn Rand (Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), esp. chaps. 5 and 11.
  4. Ayn Rand, “This Is John Galt Speaking,” For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition).
  5. As one scholar puts the point: “According to compatibilist theories [of volition], determinism and freedom are compatible, because ‘freedom’ is understood as a certain way in which one’s actions are predetermined.” (Gotthelf and Salmieri, Companion to Ayn Rand, 260)
  6. Massimo Pigliucci, “Epic Battles in Practical Ethics: Stoicism vs Objectivism.”
  7. Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York, McGraw-Hill, 2013),  84.
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Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs.

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