Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

At the tail end of a lengthy series of writers, from Augustine to Martineau, and from Spinoza to William James, one might well be excused the assumption that nothing new remains to be said on so well-worn a topic as that of Free-Will. Against this, however, lies the feeling that in the case of any subject which continuously absorbs attention some service to the cause of truth is rendered by a re-statement of the problem in contemporary language, with such modifications in terminology as may be necessary, and with such illustrations from current positive knowledge as may serve to make the issue clear to a new generation. In the course of time new words are created, while old ones change their meanings and implications. This results not only in the terminology of a few generations back taking on the character of a dead language to the average contemporary reader, but may occasion the not unusual spectacle of disputants using words with such widely different meanings that even a clear comprehension of the question at issue becomes impossible.

So much may be assumed without directly controverting or endorsing Professor Paulsen’s opinion that the “Free-Will problem is one which arose under certain conditions and has disappeared with the disappearance of those conditions;” or the opposite opinion of Professor William James that there is no other subject on which an inventive genius has a better chance of breaking new ground. If mankind—even educated mankind—were composed of individuals whose brains functioned with the accuracy of the most approved text-books of logic, Professor Paulsen’s opinion would be self-evidently true. Granting that the conditions which gave rise to the belief in Free-Will have disappeared, the belief itself should have disappeared likewise. Professor Paulsen’s own case proves that he is either wrong in thinking that these conditions have disappeared, or in assuming that, this being the case, the belief has also died out.

The truth is that beliefs do not always, or even usually, die with the conditions that gave them birth. Society always has on hand a plentiful stock of beliefs that are, like so many intellectual vagrants, without visible means of support. Human history would not present the clash and conflict of opinion it does were it otherwise. Indeed, if a belief is in possession its ejection is the most difficult of all operations. Possession is here not merely nine points of the law, it is often all the law that is acknowledged. Beliefs once established acquire an independent vitality of their own, and may defy all destructive efforts for generations. One may, therefore, agree with the first half of Professor Paulsen’s statement without endorsing the concluding portion. The problem has not, so far as the generality of civilized mankind is concerned, disappeared. The originating conditions have gone, but the belief remains, and its real nature and value can only be rightly estimated by a mental reconstruction of the conditions that gave it birth. As Spencer has reminded us, the pedigree of a belief is as important as is the pedigree of a horse. We cannot be really certain whether a belief is with us because of its social value, or because of sheer unreasoning conservatism, until we know something of its history. In any case we understand better both it and the human nature that gives it hospitality by knowing its ancestry. And of this truth no subject could better offer an illustration than the one under discussion.

Reserving this point for a moment, let us ask, “What is the essential issue between the believers in Free-Will and the upholders of the doctrine of Determinism?” One may put the Deterministic position in a few words. Essentially it is a thorough-going application of the principle of causation to human nature. What Copernicus and Kepler did for the world of astronomy, Determinism aims at doing for the world of psychological phenomena. Human nature, it asserts, is part and parcel of nature as a whole, and bears to it the same relation that a part does to the whole. When the Determinist refers to the “Order of Nature” he includes all, and asserts that an accurate analysis of human nature will be found to exemplify the same principle of causation that is seen to obtain elsewhere. True, mental phenomena have laws of their own, as chemistry and biology have their own peculiar laws, but these are additional, not contradictory to other natural laws. Any exception to this is apparent, not real. Man’s nature, physical, biological, psychological, and sociological, is to be studied as we study other natural phenomena, and the closer our study the clearer the recognition that its manifestations are dependent upon processes with which no one dreams of associating the conception of “freedom.” Determinism asserts that if we knew the quality and inclination of all the forces bearing upon human nature, in the same way that we know the forces determining the motions of a planet, then the forecasting of conduct would become a mere problem in moral mathematics. That we cannot do this, nor may ever be able to do it, is due to the enormous and ever-changing complexity of the forces that determine conduct. But this ought not to blind us to the general truth of the principle involved. To some extent we do forecast human conduct; that we cannot always do so, or cannot do so completely, only proves weakness or ignorance. The Determinist claims, therefore, that his view of human nature is thoroughly scientific, and that he is only applying here principles that have borne such excellent fruit elsewhere; and, finally, that unless this view of human nature be accepted the scientific cultivation of character becomes an impossibility.

So far the Determinist. The believer in Free-Will—for the future it will be briefer and more convenient to use the term “Volitionist” or “Indeterminist”—does not on his part deny the influence on the human organism of those forces on which the Determinist lays stress. What he denies is that any of them singly, or all of them collectively, can ever furnish an adequate and exhaustive account of human action. He affirms that after analysis has done its utmost there remains an unexplained residuum beyond the reach of the instruments or the methods of positive science. He denies that conduct—even theoretically—admits of explanation and prediction in the same way that explanation and prediction apply to natural phenomena as a whole. It is admitted that circumstances may influence conduct, but only in the way that a cheque for five pounds enables one to become possessed of a certain quantity of bullion—provided the cheque is honoured by the bank. So the “Will” may honour or respond to certain circumstances or it may not. In other words, the deterministic influence of circumstances is contingent, not necessary. Circumstances determine conduct only when a “free” volition assents to their operation. So against the proposition that conduct is ultimately the conditioned expression of one aspect of the cosmic order, there is the counter-proposition that intentional action is the unconditioned expression of absolutely free beings, and is what it is because of the selective action of an undetermined will.

Further, against all deterministic analysis the Volitionist stubbornly opposes the testimony of consciousness, and the necessity for the belief in Free-Will as a moral postulate. Thus, even when the deterministic analysis of an action—from its source in some external stimuli, to the final neural discharge that secures its performance is complete, it is still urged that no possible analysis can override man’s conviction of “freedom.” The existence of this conviction is, of course, indisputable, and it forms the bed-rock of all forms of anti-determinism. But the scientific or logical value of a conviction, as such, is surely open to question. Equally strong convictions were once held concerning the flatness of the earth’s surface, the existence of witches, and a hundred and one other matters. Besides, a belief or a conviction is not a basal fact in human nature, it is the last stage of a process, and can therefore prove nothing save the fact of its own existence. Human nature at any stage of its existence is an evolution from past human nature, and many prevalent beliefs are as reminiscent in their character as our rudimentary tails are reminiscent of a simian ancestry. I hope later to make it clear that the much talked of testimony of consciousness is quite irrelevant to the question at issue; and also that the assumed necessity for the conception of “freedom” as a moral postulate is really due to a misconception of both the nature of morality and of voluntary action.

Ultimately the question, as already indicated, resolves itself into one of how far we are justified in applying the principle of causation. The Determinist denies any limit to its theoretical application. The Volitionist insists on placing man in a distinct and unique category. But this conception of causation is in itself of the nature of a growth, and a study of its development may well throw light on the present question.

A conception of causation in some form or other could hardly have been altogether absent from the most primitive races of mankind. Some experiences are so uniform, so persistent, and so universal that they would inevitably be connected in terms of cause and effect. Nevertheless, the primitive mind was so dominated by volitional conception of nature that a sense of necessary connection between events could only have been of a weak character. Experience may have shown that certain physical phenomena succeeded each other in a certain order, but the belief that these phenomena embodied the action of supernormal conscious forces would break in upon that sense of inevitability which is the very essence of scientific causation. Modern thought fixes its attention upon a given series of events and declines to go further. With us the order is inevitable. With primitive man the order, even when perceived, is conditional upon the non-interference of assumed supernormal intelligences. Each phenomenon, or each group of phenomena, thus possesses to the primitive mind precisely that quality of “freedom” which is now claimed for the human will.

How difficult is the task of establishing causal connections between physical phenomena the whole history of science bears witness. To establish causal connections between external conditions and subjective states, where the forces are more numerous and immensely more complex in their combinations, is a task of infinitely greater difficulty. Amongst savages it would never be attempted. Feelings arise without any traceable connection with surrounding conditions, nor does a recurrence of the same external circumstances produce exactly the same result. A circumstance that produces anger one day may give rise to laughter on another occasion. Something that produces a striking effect on one person leaves another quite unaffected. Numerous feelings arise in consciousness that have all the superficial signs of being self-generated. The phenomena are too diverse in character, and the connections too complex and obscure, for uninstructed man to reach a deterministic conclusion. The conclusion is inevitable; man himself is the absolute cause of his own actions; he is veritably master of his own fate, subject only to the malign and magical influence of other extra-human personalities.

Primitive thinking about man is thus quite in line with primitive thinking about other things. In a way man’s earliest philosophy of things is more coherent and more rigorously logical than that of modern times. The same principle is applied all round. All force is conceived as vital force; “souls” or “wills” govern all. The division between animate and inanimate things is of the vaguest possible character; that between man and animals can hardly be said to exist. Only very gradually do the distinctions between animate and inanimate, voluntary and involuntary actions, which are taken for granted by the modern mind, arise. And it is easy to conceive that in the growth of these distinctions, modes of thinking characteristic of primitive man, would linger longest in the always obscure field of psychology. Broadly, however, the growth of knowledge has consisted, as Huxley pointed out, in the substitution of a mechanical for a volitional interpretation of things. In one department after another purposeful action yields to inevitable causation. In physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and kindred sciences this process is now complete. The volitional interpretation still betrays a feeble vitality in biology; but even here the signs of an early demise are unmistakable. Its last stronghold is in psychology, and this because it is at once the newest of the sciences to be placed upon a positive basis, and also the most obscure in its ramifications. Yet there can be no reasonable doubt that the same principle which has been found to hold good in other directions will sooner or later be shown to obtain here also. Science is by its very nature progressive; and its progress is manifested by the degree to which phenomena hitherto unrelated are brought under constantly enlarging and more comprehensive generalisations. Men were once satisfied to explain the “wetness” of water as due to a spirit of “aquosity,” the movement of the blood as due to a “certain spirit” dwelling in the veins and arteries. These were not statements of knowledge, but verbose confessions of ignorance. To this same class of belief belongs the “Free-Will” of the anti-determinist. It is the living representative of that immense family of souls and spirits with which early animistic thought peopled the universe. The surviving member of a once numerous family, it carries with it the promise of the same fate that has already overtaken its predecessors.

The origin of the belief in free-will once understood, the reasons for its perpetuation are not difficult to discover. First comes the obscurity of the processes underlying human action. This alone would secure a certain vitality for a belief that has always made the impossibility of explaining the origin, sequence, and relation of mental states its principal defence. Beyond offering as evidence the questionable affirmation of consciousness volitionists have been unanimous in resting their case upon their adversary’s want of knowledge. And it is further characteristic that while holding to a theory on behalf of which not a single shred of positive evidence has ever been produced, they yet demand the most rigorous and the most complete demonstration of determinism before they will accept it as true; this despite the presumptive evidence in its favour arising from the fact of its harmony with our knowledge in other directions.

Secondly, the human mind does not at any time commence its philosophic speculations de novo. It necessarily builds upon the materials accumulated by previous generations; and usually retains the form in which previous thinking has been cast, even when the contents undergo marked modifications. Thus the ghost-soul of the savage, a veritable material copy of the body, by centuries of philosophizing gets refined into the distinct “spiritual” substance of the metaphysician. And this, not because the notion of a “soul” was derived from current knowledge or thinking, but because it was one of the inherited forms of thought to which philosophy had to accommodate itself. The result of this pressure of the past upon contemporary thinking is that a large proportion of mental activity is in each generation devoted to reconciling past theories of things with current knowledge. In our own time the number of volumes written to reconcile the theory of evolution with already existing religious views is a striking example of this phenomenon. And beyond the philosophic few there lies the mass of the people with whom an established opinion of any kind takes on something of a sacred character. Unfortunately, too, many writers work with an eye to the prejudices of this class, which prejudices are in turn strengthened by the tacit support of men of ability, or at least by their not openly controverting them. It is, however, of the greatest significance that since the opening of the modern scientific period, wherever qualified thinkers have deliberately based their conclusions upon contemporary knowledge the theory of determinism has been generally upheld.

A third cause of the persistence of the belief in “Free-Will” is its association with theology. For at least four centuries, whenever the discussion of the subject has assumed an acute form, it has been due to theological requirements rather than to ethical or psychological considerations. True, many other reasons have been advanced, but these have been little more than cloaks for the theological interest. Apart from theology there does not seem any valid reason why the principle of determinism should rouse more opposition in connection with human character than it does in connection with the course of physical nature. Or if it be pointed out that the establishment of the principle of universal causation, as applied to nature at large, was not established without opposition, then the reply is that here again it was the religious interest that dictated the opposition. It was felt that the reduction of all physical phenomena to a mechanical sequence was derogatory to the majesty of God, excluded the deity from his own universe, and generally weakened the force of religious beliefs. And, as a mere matter of historic fact, the establishment of the scientific conception of nature did have, with the bulk of mankind, precisely the consequences predicted. And when in the course of events theological considerations were banished from one department of science after another, it was only natural that theologians should fight with the greater tenacity to maintain a footing in the region of human nature.

Although the subject is in origin pre-Christian, it was in connection with Christian theology that it assumed an important place in European thinking. The development of monotheism gave the problem a sharper point and a deeper meaning. The issue here was a simple one. Given the belief in God as sole creator and governor of the world, and he may conceivably be related to mankind in one of two ways. Either he induces man to carry out his will by an appeal to human reason and emotion, or he has so arranged matters that certain events will inevitably come to pass at a certain time, human effort being one of the contributory agencies to that end. The first supposition leaves man “free”—at least in his relation to deity. The second leads straight to the Christian doctrine of predestination. Either supposition has, from the theological point of view, its disadvantages. The first leaves man free as against God, but it limits the power of deity by creating an autonomous force that may act contrary to the divine will. The second opens up the question of the divine wisdom and goodness, and by making God responsible for evil conflicts with the demands of the moral sense. Evil and goodness are made parts of the divine plan, and as man must fit in with the general pre-arranged scheme, personal merit and demerit disappear. These considerations explain why in the course of the Free-Will controversy official Christianity has ranged itself now on one side and now on the other. It has championed Determinism or Indeterminism as the occasion served its interest. To-day, owing to easily discoverable reasons, Christian writers are, in the main, markedly anti-deterministic.

The first clear statement of the Christian position, if we omit the Pauline teaching that we are all as clay in the hands of the potter, appears in the writings of Augustine. In opposition to the Pelagians, Augustine maintained a doctrine of absolute predestination. No room was allowed for human self-determination to anyone but the first man. Adam was created and endowed with free-will, and chose evil—a curious verification of Voltaire’s definition of Free-Will as a capacity by means of which man gets himself damned. And as in Adam there were contained, potentially, all future generations, all are pre-destined to eternal damnation except such as are saved through the free gift of divine grace. This theory of Augustine’s, carried to the point of asserting the damnation of infants, was modified in several respects by that great medieval Christian teacher, Thomas Aquinas, who held that while the will might be “free” from external restraint, it was determined by our reason, but was reinstated in full force by John Calvin. He denied that the goodness or badness of man had anything whatever to do with the bestowal or withholding of grace. God dooms men either to heaven or hell, for no other reason than that he chooses to do so. Most of the leading Protestants of the early Reformation period were strongly opposed to “free-will.” For instance, Zwingli asserted that God was the “author, mover, and impeller to sin.” Still more emphatic was Luther. The will of man he compared to a horse, “If mounted by God it wills and wends whithersoever God may will; if mounted by Satan it wills and wends whithersoever Satan may will; neither hath it any liberty of choice to which of the riders it shall run, or which it shall choose; but the riders themselves contend for its acquisition and possession.” Among the most powerful essays ever written in defence of Determinism was Jonathan Edwards’s, the famous Protestant divine, “Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions respecting that Freedom of Will which is supposed to be essential to moral agency, virtue and vice, reward and punishment, praise and blame,” and to which I shall have occasion to refer later. Finally, the explicit declarations of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Articles of the Church of England, that man’s will,—in the absence of grace,—cannot accomplish good works, throw a curious light on the theological opponents of Determinism who denounce it as anti-Christian and immoral.

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