The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Book Reviews

Free at Last?

A New Round in an Old Debate

George Scialabba

The Threads of Destiny/(Los Hilos del Destino) (detail), 1957, by Remedios Varo (1908–1963); private collection, photograph © Christie’s Images, Bridgeman Images; © 2024 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VEGAP, Madrid.

In 1884, William James began his celebrated essay “The Dilemma of Determinism” by begging his readers’ indulgence: “A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the free-will controversy, and that no new champion can do more than warm up stale arguments which everyone has heard.” James persisted and rendered the subject very juicy, as he always did. But if the topic appeared exhausted to most people then, surely a hundred and forty years later there can’t be anything new to say. Whole new fields of physics, biology, mathematics, and medicine have been invented—surely this ancient philosophical question doesn’t still interest anyone?

Indeed, it does; it retains for many what James called “the most momentous importance.” Like other hardy perennials—the objectivity of “good”; the universality of truth; the existence of human nature and its telos—it continues to fascinate philosophers and laypersons, who agree only that the stakes are enormous: “our very humanity,” many of them insist.

Why so momentous? Skepticism about free will is said to produce two disastrous but opposed states of mind. The first is apathy: We are bound to be so demoralized by the conviction that nothing is up to us, that we are not the captains of our fate, that we need no longer get out of bed. The other is frenzy: We will be so exhilarated by our liberation from responsibility and guilt that we will run amok, like Dostoevsky’s imagined atheist, who concludes that if God does not exist, everything is permitted.

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