Friday, September 11, 2009

Dostoevsky and Problems of Free Will

Feodor Dostoevsky writes, “will is a manifestation of all life, that is, of all human life including reason as well as all impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless…it is life nevertheless” (45). While free will certainly seems an ideal aspect of life, and one I think most believe themselves partakers in, I wonder if it really does constitute life, if free will is, moreover, necessary to life? Even if we are all subject to some greater order, directing all our courses in life, are we still not alive, and perhaps, not alive to a further degree? It seems that a greater kind of purpose, a greater sort of life is engendered when life is directed by fate, or “arithmetic,” as Dostoevsky calls it (47). In this life, every action has significance; life is not “worthless,” because it is part of a greater schematic, and therefore, seems a better kind of life than the one that Dostoevsky, sullenly, describes as “worthless” (45).

In any case, what is the difference between a fate-driven world in which people believe they have free choice but do not, and a world in which they veritably do have free choice? It seems to me that in either instance, man’s attitude towards the world is the same. Whether or not he is free, as defined by having free will or not, seems ultimately superfluous in that it does not determine his actions. Therefore, free will does not seem the essential element of life; it is not necessary, because the same sort of life, it seems, can exist with or without it. Some might say that this sort of life, one with a false sense of free will, is not real life, because our senses and attitudes are false. But by what do we have to judge life other than our senses, perceptions, and attitudes? If we perceive and reason the world a certain way, that seems enough justification to define it accordingly; these are the only parameters by which we can define the world and our lives in it.

Dostoevsky’s ideas, then, seem to conflict with others of the purpose of life, and what, specifically, constitutes life. It seems there is more to life than free will, because, it seems, the same kind of life can exist with or without free will. In my opinion, a life governed by an overarching purpose or schematic, seems far more appealing, far more assuring than a life “worthless,” but a “life nevertheless” (45). But in the end, regardless of appeal or assurance, Dostoevsky’s argument seems problematic for other, more substantive reasons.


  1. I like the ideas posed in this post! It makes me think about what the term "free" really and truly refers to when people use it. As with everything that people do and think we are free in doing so, we it's broken down we are all still guided by something that doesn't allow us to be totally free at any point in time. Although we have the ability to not be bound to those restraints if we did, it would put us in a difficult position within the society that we live. If we wanted to walk in a park that closes at 8 pm at 8:15 then, by free will, we would have the ability to do so. But at the same time it goes against the universal that restrains us. I agree with you when you say that it does not seem to be essential to human life. Humans, in my mind, only want essential things that are compatible with them such as water, air, etc (things that we have no problem with). But, free will, is something that we have but it comes with a plethora of restrictions (laws, morals, beliefs). In a way, I see the human as having been conditioned to overlook these restrictions and be okay with the idea of free's like the old Ford saying...."Buy any color automobile you want, as long as it's black."

  2. I do believe that people need an idea of freewill in order to persevere. If I think the end result is determined in everything I do, I probably would not try as hard to succeed. While it is true that an schematic would be reassuring and helpful in guiding peoples lives, I think the reassurance would force people to not take tings seriously. They wouldn't try very hard if they knew there attempt will be in vain.

  3. Hugh presents a great point in his post about questioning a very familiar aspect of life to most of us, freewill. However, I think freewill is important to human existence and thought. Laws and guidelines are set out as a suggestion on how to lead life. Things such as laws give people ideas about the possibilities that could be. People might be limited by some constraint so freewill may not be completely "free" but the thoughts about possibilities are unlimited and the way in which people get involved in such a possibilities is not an aspect that can limit freewill . Freewill gives people the choice to think on impulse; the situations or possibilities may be limited by guidelines but the way people think about and react to situations is completely driven by their freewill.

  4. I tend to agree with you, Hugh. The feeling of freedom seems to be just as, if not more, important than actual freedom. Additionally, the feeling of freedom seems to operate on a high level of awareness. More often than not, I feel the more free when I am in the process of deliberation or right after having decided something.

    However, I wonder what is to be said about the low-level of awareness that some with everyday actions and behaviors. I am simply just not thinking about my actions most of the time, and am therefore not considering my freedom. Additionally, a lot of the time it seems like things happen to me and I have no say in the matter at all. So if freedom rests solely on my feeling of freedom, am I still free when I do not feel free?

  5. This is an interesting blog. It sort of reminds me of when I play Super Mario. I wonder if Mario thinks he has free will, that he himself is deciding to jump on turtles and eat mushrooms? But in the end it really doesn't matter if he thinks he has free will or not. Even if he thinks he does, he still doesn't. In this respect, I think actual free will is completely irrelevent.

  6. Charlotte raises an interesting question about whether, if you don't feel free--because things are happening outside of your control--you are still really free? I think that regardless of what happens to you, you can still control your actions in said situation. However, if you start to believe that you cannot control your life, that you have no freedom, then perhaps that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. As I was saying in my blog, all you have to judge situations and truth in life are your perceptions.


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