It’s difficult to watch the opening scene without feeling embarrassed and sad for Al Denton. Serling’s description of Denton’s character captures the key issue: Denton would give an arm or a leg for a “second chance.” We’re placed in a network of causes and effects, a man without honor, without dignity, a pitiful, washed out man, subject to the ridicule of others. “Why, Al?” asks Miss Smith. Why does he drink when drinking is clearly killing him. He can’t answer, but it seems clear that there are causes. The determinist can very well cite this in support of her view. And the more we learn about Al Denton, the more causes are uncovered, and ultimately we know why Al Denton is a broken man and the town drunk.
Determinism is the view that every event has a cause. We might very well think that there are causal explanations of Denton’s past. The defender of free will respond with the claim that Denton could have done otherwise. He could have left town, or at least chosen other paths then wallowing in despair and booze. However, the more we learn about Al’s past, the more we can make sense of the idea that his alcoholic haze was caused by prior events as a gun-slinger, that he couldn’t have done otherwise. We can then can speculate about what caused him to be a gun-slinger, and the causes of those causes. The defender of free will can respond that these are clearly causal influences but not causal determinants of Al’s current actions. But what precisely is the content of the claim that Al has free will? One alternative is that Al was free at an earlier time, but that now he’s trapped. The free willist need not hold that all human actions are free, or even that all humans are free, which suggests that addiction could be a case of the loss of free will. However, if it is something that we can lose, then free will is something we must be able to have.
What should we say about the night Fate steps in – Henry J. Fate? Is Fate a cause, or does Fate simply neutralize the causes, thereby creating conditions for a different outcome then the one that would be actualized were the “standard” causes in place? Perhaps Fate is a stand-in for chance, where chance is really just the causes we don’t understand. (See Hume’s “On the probability of chances” in A Treatise of Human Nature).
Causes and effects take place in time: Causes precede their effects. And time is again an important player in this episode. When Denton ingests the potion that gives him the ability to hit any mark, he has just 10 (?) seconds before it wears off. When he is in the final gun-battle – where time always looms large – who shoots first? – simultaneity turns out to be the key factor.
Hume’s “On the probability of chances” in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding