Many people make resolutions on New Year’s Day. It is a day of beginnings and endings and is often accompanied by faith and hope in the new.
But can there ever really be a new beginning?
Well, the making and maintaining of resolutions is often understood as an act of will. Now, if our will is not free – if all our so-called choices are just illusions – then we never begin anew. Every so-called resolution would be determined by innumerable events in the past and would flow in continuity with them. Likewise, the maintaining or breaking of a resolution would also be determined and would have nothing to do with choice or personal responsibility. If you stop smoking you were determined to do so; if you keep smoking you were determined to do so as well. Everything is linked back through an unfathomable system of cause and effect to the Big Bang which was, perhaps, a beginning.
But what if we have free will? If we do, then there must be real beginnings taking place whenever we choose. We must be able act influenced by, but not determined by, the past. Such beginnings would, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, be free actions and not just determined movements:
“To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, “to begin,” “to lead,” and eventually “to rule,” indicates), to set something in motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere)….This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world; it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before….The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is only possible because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.” (The Human Condition, chapter 5).
Action would be, to borrow a phrase Plato employed in his dialogues Phaedrus and Laws, self-moving; and it would introduce a mysterious gap into any physical cause and effect analysis. These gaps would be the mysteries of freedom and its beginnings and could be considered sacred insofar as, on the one hand, the ultimate goods of human action and moral responsibility flow from them and, on the other hand, they can never be fully mastered, manipulated, or possessed by anyone.
I believe in free will and have given some reasons why I do here and here. If you, too, think free will exists, then you might agree that New Year’s Day is as good a day as any to celebrate the mystery of freedom and the sacred beginnings it inaugurates.
Happy New Year!