Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

To David Hume the dispute between the advocates of “Free-Will” and the advocates of “Necessity” was almost entirely a matter of words. The essence of the question, he thought, both sides were agreed on, and consequently expressed the opinion that “a few intelligible definitions would immediately have put an end to the whole controversy.” That Hume was over sanguine is shown by the controversy being still with us. Yet his recommendation as to intelligible definitions, while pertinent to all controversy, is specially so with regard to such a subject as that of “Free-Will.” For much of the anti-Determinist case actually rests upon giving a misleading significance to certain phrases, while applying others in a direction where they have no legitimate application. Consider, for instance, the controversial significance of such a phrase as “Liberty versus Necessity”—the older name for Determinism. We all love liberty, we all resent compulsion, and, as Mill pointed out, he who announces himself as a champion of Liberty has gained the sympathies of his hearers before he has commenced to argue his case. Such words play the same part that “catchy” election cries do in securing votes. Such phrases as “Power of Choice,” “Sense of Responsibility,” “Testimony of Consciousness,” “Consciousness of Freedom,” are all expressions that, while helpful and legitimate when used with due care and understanding, as usually employed serve only to confuse the issue and prevent comprehension.

Not that the dispute between the Volitionist and the Determinist is a merely verbal one. The controversy carries with it a significance of the deepest kind. Fundamentally the issue expresses the antagonism of two culture stages, an antagonism which finds expression in many other directions. We are in fact concerned with what Tylor well calls the deepest of all distinctions in human thought, the distinction that separates Animism from Materialism. Much as philosophic ingenuity may do in the way of inventing defences against the application of the principle of causation to human action, the deeper our analysis of the controversy, the more clearly is it seen that we are dealing with an attenuated form of that primitive animism which once characterised all human thinking. The persistence of types is a phenomenon that occurs as frequently in the world of mind as it does in the world of biology. Or just as when a country is overrun by a superior civilisation, primitive customs are found lingering in remote districts, so unscientific modes of thinking linger in relation to the more obscure mental processes in spite of the conquests of science in other directions.

It is well to bear these considerations in mind, even while admitting that a great deal of the dispute does turn upon the fitness of the language employed, and the accuracy with which it is used. And if intelligible definition may not, as Hume hoped, end the controversy, it will at least have the merit of making the issue plain.

What is it that people have in their minds when they speak of the “Freedom of the Will”? Curiously enough, the advocates of “free-will” seldom condescend to favour us with anything so commonplace as a definition, or if they do it tells us little. We are consequently compelled to dig out the meanings of their cardinal terms from the arguments used. Now the whole of the argument for “free-will” makes the word “free” or “freedom” the equivalent to an absence of determining conditions; either this, or the case for “free-will” is surrendered. For if a man’s decisions are in any way influenced—“influenced” is here only another word for “determined”—Determinism is admitted. I need not argue whether decisions are wholly or partly determined, the real and only question being whether they are determined at all. What is called by some a limited free-will is really only another name for unlimited nonsense.

“Freedom,” as used by the Volitionist, being an equivalent for “absence of determining conditions,” let us ask next what this means. Here I am brought to a dead halt. I do not know what it means. I cannot even conceive it as meaning anything at all. At any rate, I am quite certain that it is outside the region of scientific thought and nomenclature. Scientifically, atoms of matter are not free to move in any direction, the planets are not free to move in any shaped orbit, the blood is not free to circulate, the muscles are not free to contract, the brain is not free to function. In all these cases what takes place is the result of all converging circumstances and conditions. Given these and the result follows. Scientifically, the thing that occurs is the only thing possible. If the word “free” is used in science, it is as a figure of speech, as when one speaks of a free gas, or of the blood not being free to circulate owing to the existence of a constricted artery. But in either case all that is meant is that a change in the nature of the conditions gives rise to a corresponding change of result. The determination of the gas or the blood to behave in a definite way is as great in any case. From the point of view of science, then, to speak of an absence of determining conditions is the most complete nonsense. All science is a search for the conditions that determine phenomena. Save as a metaphor, “freedom” has no place whatever in positive science.

Are we then to discard the use of such a word as “freedom” altogether? By no means. Properly applied, the word is intelligible and useful enough. When, for instance, we speak of a free man, a free state, a free country, or free trade, we are using the word “free” in a legitimate manner, and can give to it a precise significance. A free state is one in which the people composing it pursue their way uncoerced by other states. A free man is one who is at liberty to exert bodily action or express his opinions. We do not mean that in the first instance the people are not governed by laws, or that physical conditions are without influence on them; nor do we mean, in the second instance, that the actions and opinions of the free man are not the result of heredity, bodily structure, education, social position, etc. The obvious meaning of “freedom” in each of these cases is an absence of external and non-essential coercion. It does not touch the question of why we act as we do, or of why we please to act in this or that manner. As Jonathan Edwards puts it: “The plain, obvious meaning of the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ is power and opportunity, or advantage that any one has to do as he pleases.” Or as Hume put it more elaborately:—

“What is meant by liberty when applied to voluntary actions? We cannot surely mean that actions have so little connection with motives, inclinations, and circumstances that one does not follow with a certain degree of uniformity from the other. For these are plain and acknowledged matters of fact. By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determination of the will—that is, if we choose to remain at rest we may; and if we choose to move, we also may.”

The ultimate significance of “liberty” or “freedom” is thus sociological. Here it expresses a fact; in positive science it is a mere metaphor, and, as experience shows, a misleading one. Its use in philosophy dates from the time of the Greeks, and when they spoke of a free man they were borrowing an illustration from their social life. There were slaves and there were free men, and in speaking of a free man people were not so likely as they were at a later date to be misled by a metaphor. Unfortunately, its use in philosophy has continued, while its limitations have been ignored. To ask if a man is free is an intelligible question. To ask whether actions are free from the determining associations of organization and environment admits of but one intelligible reply. Personally, I agree with Professor Bain that the term “is brought in by main force, into a phenomenon to which it is altogether incommensurable,” and it would be well if it could be excluded altogether from serious discussion[2].

Now let us take that equally confusing word “will.” Unfortunately, few of those who champion the freedom of the will think it worth while to trouble their readers with a clear definition of what they mean by it. The orthodox definition of the will as “a faculty of the soul” tells us nothing. It is explaining something the existence of which is questioned by reference to something else the existence of which is unknown. Or the definition is volunteered, “Will is the power to decide,” a description which only tells us that to will is to will. Professor James tells us that “Desire, wish, will, are states of mind which every one knows, and which no definition can make plainer.” This may be true of desire and wish; it certainly is not true of “will.” There is no question as to “will” being a state of mind, but as to every one knowing its character, and above all possessing the knowledge enabling him to discriminate between “will” and “desire” and “wish,” this is highly questionable. One may also be permitted the opinion that if advocates of “free-will” were to seriously set themselves the task of discovering what they do mean by “will,” and also in what way it may be differentiated from other mental states, the number of the champions of that curious doctrine would rapidly diminish.

What is it that constitutes an act of volition, or supplies us with the fact of will? The larger part of our bodily movements do not come under the heading of volition at all. The primary bodily movements are reflex, instinctive, emotional, the action following without any interposition of consciousness. Of course, an action that is performed quite automatically at one time may be voluntarily performed at another time. I may close my eyelid deliberately, or it may be because of the approach of some foreign object. Or an action, if it be performed frequently, tends to become automatic. To come within the category of a voluntary action, it must be performed consciously, and there is also present some consciousness of an end to be realized. Every voluntary action is thus really dependent upon memory. A newly-born child has no volitions, only reflexes. It is only when experience has supplied us with an idea of what may be done that we will it shall be done. This consideration alone is enough to shatter the case for the supposed freedom of the will.[3]

If we analyze any simple act of volition what has just been said will be made quite clear. I am sitting in a room and will to open a window; it may be to get fresh air, to look out, or for some other reason. Assume that the first is the correct reason, the room being close and “stuffy.” First of all, then, I become aware of a more or less unpleasant feeling; my experience tells me this is because the air in the room needs purifying. Experience also tells me that by opening a window the desired result will be obtained. Finally, I open the window and experience a feeling of relief and satisfaction. Now had the room been without a window, and the door bolted from the outside, or had the window been too heavy for me to raise, no “volition” would have arisen. I should still have had the desire for fresh air, but not seeing any means by which this could be obtained, I should have had no motive for action, and should have remained perfectly passive. In order that my desire may operate as a motive there must be not only a consciousness of a need, but also a mental representation of the means by which that need is to be gratified. I will to do a thing, when allied to the desire for that thing there is a conception of how it is to be done, of the means to be employed. Without this I have no motive, only a desire; without a consciousness of the nature of the desire, there is nothing but pure feeling. “Willing terminates with the prevalence of the idea…” “Attention with effort is all that any case of volition implies.” (Prof. W. James, Princip. of Psychology, II. 560-1.)

The stages of the process are, feeling rising into consciousness as desire, the perception of the means to realize an end which raises the desire from the statical to the dynamic stage of motive, and finally a voluntary or intentional action. Now at no stage of this process is there room for the intervention of any power or faculty not expressed in a strictly sequential process. Of course, the action I have taken as an example is an exceedingly simple one, but the more complex actions only offer greater difficulties of analysis without leading to any different result. This will be seen more clearly when we come to deal with “choice” and “deliberation.” From the moment that a certain stimulus creates a desire in an organism, to the time that desire expresses itself in action, there is no gap in the chain through which a “Free-Will” may manifest its being. The physiologist points out that at the basis of all our feelings and ideas there lie certain neural processes. The psychologist takes up the story and from the dawn of desire to action finds no break—or at least none that future knowledge may not reasonably hope to make good. Want of knowledge may at present prevent our tracing all the details of the process, but this is surely a very inadequate ground on which to affirm the existence of a power at variance with our knowledge of nature in other directions.[4]

Now in thus tracing the course of a voluntary action are we doing any more than observing the action of desire in consciousness? If, yes, the writer is quite unaware of the fact. If I remove all feeling, all desire, all motive, “the will” disappears. Excite feeling, generate desire, and there is the occasion for a voluntary action. Multiply the number of desires and the operation of “will” becomes evident. Thus when a writer like Professor Hyslop says, “If two motives offer different attractions to the will,” the reply is that the “will” is not one thing, and motives other things, but two aspects of one fact. The “will” is not something that decides or chooses between motives; the “will” is nothing more than the name given to that motive or cluster of motives which is sufficiently strong to overcome resistance and to express itself in action. I emphasize the expression “overcome resistance” because without competing motives and a sense of resistance we have no clear consciousness of volition. Where only one desire is present in consciousness, or where it is of overwhelming strength, feeling is succeeded by action without any recognizable hiatus. It is the sense of conflict, the break, that is essential to creating a lively sense of volition, and also, as shall see later, to the sense of choice and deliberation. But in speaking of an action as the expression of motives, or as an expression of “will,” both statements are identical so far as the fact is concerned. We have not desires, motives, and “will,” there is simply a desire or desires that assume the quality of a motive by being strong enough to result in action. As Spencer has put it, “Will is no more an existence apart from the predominant feeling than a king is an existence apart from the man occupying the throne.”

All that is to be found in any act of “will” is a desire accompanied by the consciousness of an end. To put the same thing in another way, we have a desire, the consciousness of an end and the means of realizing it, and, finally, action. To the physiological and psychological processes that culminate in action we give the name of motive. Properly speaking a motive that does not issue in action—or inhibition—is not a motive at all, it is a mere desire. And apart from the presence of desire, or of desires, “will” does not exist. It is a pure abstraction, valuable enough as an abstraction, but having no more real existence apart from particular motives, than “tree” is a real existence apart from particular trees. Physiologically, says Dr. Maudsley:—

“We cannot choose but reject the will… As physiologists we have to deal with volition as a function of the supreme centres, following reflection, varying in quantity and quality as its cause varies, strengthened by education and exercise, enfeebled by disuse, decaying with decay of structure… We have to deal with will not as a single undecomposable faculty unaffected by bodily conditions, but as a result of organic changes in the supreme centres, affected as certainly and as seriously by disorders of them as our motor faculties are by disorders of their centres.”

And, says Professor Sully, referring to the will:—

“Modern scientific psychology knows nothing of such an entity. As a science of phenomena and their laws, it confines itself to a consideration of the processes of volition, and wholly discards the hypothesis of a substantial will as unnecessary and unscientific.”

Neither physiology nor psychology, neither a sane science nor a sound philosophy, knows anything of, or can find use for, an autonomous “will.” “Will” as the final term of a discoverable series may be admitted; “will” as a self-directing force, deciding whether particular desires shall or shall not prevail, answers to nothing conformable to our knowledge of man, and is plainly but the ghost of the wills and souls of our savage ancestors. If instead of speaking of the freedom of the will, we spoke of uncaused volitions, the position of the volitionist would be clear, and its indefensible character plain to all. But by giving the abstraction “will” a concrete existence, and by taking from sociology a word such as “freedom” and using it in a sphere in which it has no legitimate application, the issue is confused, and a scientifically absurd theory given an air of plausibility. The dispute between the Determinist and the Indeterminist is certainly not one of words only, but it is one in which the cardinal terms employed need the most careful examination if we are to clear away from the subject the verbal fog created by theologians and metaphysicians.

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