Determinism or Free-Will? Chapter IIIChaptman Cohen

The one argument used by the Indeterminist against the Deterministic position with some degree of universality is that of the testimony of consciousness. It is the one to which practically all have appealed, and which all have flattered themselves was simple in nature and convincing in character. Professor Sidgwick, although he admitted that this testimony might be illusory, yet asserted “There is but one opposing argument of real force, namely, the immediate affirmation of consciousness in the moment of deliberate action.” And by the testimony of consciousness must be meant, not, of course, a consciousness of acting, but that at the moment of acting we could, under identical conditions, have selected and acted upon an alternative that has been rejected. I emphasize the phrase “under identical conditions,” because otherwise nothing is in dispute, and because, as we shall see, this important consideration has not been always or even frequently borne in mind.

The question is, What does consciousness really tell us, and how far is its testimony valid? In some directions it must be admitted that the testimony of consciousness is absolute. In others it cannot, without verification, claim any authority whatever. When I say that I have a feeling of heat or coldness, of pleasure or pain, there is here a direct deliverance of consciousness against which there is no appeal. But consciousness does not and cannot tell me why I feel hot or cold, or what is the cause of a pain I am experiencing. In this last case the testimony of consciousness may be distinctly misleading. As it tells us nothing of the existence of a brain, a nervous system, viscera, etc., its testimony as to the cause of pain is obviously of no value. We are conscious of states of mind, and that is all. A man seized with sudden paralysis may be conscious of his power to move a limb, only to discover by experience his impotence. In short, consciousness cannot, indeed does not, tell us the causes of our states of mind. For this information we are thrown back upon observation, experiment, and experience. We must, then, make quite sure when we interrogate consciousness, exactly what it is that consciousness says, and whether what it says is on a subject that comes within its province.

What is, then, the testimony of consciousness? When it is said that we are conscious of our ability to have selected one alternative at the time that another is chosen, I think this may be fairly met with the retort that consciousness is unable to inform us as to our actual ability to do anything at all. I may be quite conscious of a desire to jump a six foot fence, or lift a weight of half a ton, but whether I am actually able to do so or not, only experience can decide. What I am really conscious of is a desire to vault a given height or lift a given weight, and it is surely an inexcusable confusion to speak of a desire to do a particular thing as the equivalent of an ability to do it. If a consciousness of desire equalled the ability to perform failure would be but little known among men.

All that consciousness really tells us is of the existence of passing states of mind. It can tell us nothing of their origin, their value, or their consequences. In the particular instance under consideration consciousness informs us of the fact of choice, and this no Determinist has ever dreamed of denying. He does assert that choice, as the Indeterminist persists in using the term, is a delusion, but otherwise, as will be shown later, he claims that it is only on deterministic lines that choice can have any meaning or ethical significance. In any voluntary action I am conscious of the possibility of choice and of having chosen, and that is really all. What is the nature of that possibility, and why I choose one thing rather than another—on these points consciousness can give us no information whatever. One might as reasonably argue that a consciousness of hunger gives us a knowledge of the process of digestion, as argue that a consciousness of choice supplies us with a knowledge of the mechanism of the process. We are conscious of the presence of several desires, we are also conscious that out of these several desires one is strong enough to rank as a motive, but it tells us absolutely nothing of the causes or conditions that have resulted in the emergence of that motive. Instead of telling us that we could have acted in opposition to the strongest motive—which is really the indeterminist position—consciousness simply reveals which desire is the most powerful. We are conscious that other desires were present, we are also aware of the possibility that another desire than the one that actually prevailed might have been the most powerful; but when we admit this and say that we could have acted differently, we have really displaced the actual conditions by imaginary ones. We might have preferred to act differently. This is not denied. It is not questioned that we do choose, or that the same person chooses, differently or different occasions. The question really is, Why have we chosen thus or thus? And so far as consciousness is concerned we are quite in the dark as to why one choice is made rather than another, what are the conditions that give rise to our conscious desires, or why one desire is more powerful than another.

Consciousness, then, can testify only to the reality of its own states; no more. It can tell us nothing of their causes. It cannot tell us that man has a brain and nervous system, and can tell us nothing of the connection between mental states and the condition of the bodily organs. The chief factor in conduct (habit) lies outside the region of consciousness altogether. In most cases we act as we have been in the habit of acting, and our present conduct expresses the sum of our previous actions and inclinations. Every action we perform assists the formation of a habit, and with every repetition of a particular action we find its performance easier. Indeed, a very powerful criticism of the trustworthiness of consciousness is found in the fact that the determining causes of conduct lie largely in the region of the unconscious or subconscious, and of this territory consciousness can tell us no more than a ripple on the surface of a river can tell us of its depths.

Next to the emphasis upon the testimony of consciousness the Indeterminist lays special stress upon the facts of choice and deliberation. Can we really say, it is asked, that man chooses and deliberates, or even that in any genuine sense he does anything at all, if all his actions are pre-determined by his constitution and environment? If every act of man is determined and man himself a mere stage in the process unending and unbroken, is it not idle to speak of man deliberating on alternatives and choosing that which seems to him best? We continue using words that on deterministic lines have lost all meaning. And if Determinists do not realise this, it is because the logical implications of their doctrines have never been fully explored.

Well, it entirely depends upon the sense in which one uses the cardinal terms in the discussion. If deliberation and choice when applied to mental processes are used in the same sense as when these terms are used as descriptive of the proceedings of a committee, then we can all agree that deliberation would be as great a sham as it would be if the members of a committee before meeting had determined upon their decision. But, we may note in passing, that even here, when the deliberations are genuine, the votes of each member are supposed to be decided by the reasons advanced during the discussion—that is the decision of each individual member is determined by the forces evoked during the deliberations.

The scientific method, and it may be added, the sane and profitable method, is not to come to the study of a problem with ready-made meanings and compel the facts, under penalty of disqualification, to agree with them, but to let the facts determine what meaning is to be attached to the words used. It is mere childish petulance for the Indeterminist to say that unless certain words are used with his meaning they shall not be used at all, but shall be expelled from our vocabulary. When gravity was conceived as a force moving downward through infinite space, the existence of people on the other side of the earth was denied as being contrary to the law of gravitation. A more correct knowledge of the phenomena did not lead people to discard gravity; the meaning of the word was revised. And really neither language nor morality is the private property of the Indeterminist, and he is, therefore, not at liberty to annihilate either for not coming up to his expectations. He must submit to such revision of his ideas, or his language, or of both, as more accurate knowledge may demand.

The question is not, then, whether Determinism destroys deliberation and choice and responsibility, but what meaning Determinism can legitimately place upon these words, and is this meaning in harmony with what we know to be true. With responsibility we will deal at length later. For the present let us see what is really involved in the fact of choice. Determinism, we are advised, must deny the reality of choice, because choice assumes alternatives, and there can be no genuine alternatives if events are determined. Let us see. If I am watching a stone rolling down a hillside, and am in doubt as to whether it will pass to the right or to the left of a given point, I shall not recognize any resident capacity in the stone for choosing one path rather than the other. The absence of consciousness in the stone precludes such an assumption. But suppose we substitute for the stone a barefooted human being, and assume that one path is smooth while the other is liberally sprinkled with sharp pointed stones. There would then be an obvious reason for the selection of one path, and no one would hesitate to say that here was an illustration of the exercise of choice. Choice, then, is a phenomenon of consciousness, and it implies a recognition of alternatives. But a recognition of alternatives does not by any means imply that either of two are equally eligible. It is merely a consciousness of the fact that they exist, and that either might be selected were circumstances favourable to its selection. Without labouring the point we may safely say that all that is given in the fact of choice is the consciousness of a choice. There is nothing in it that tells us of the conditions of the selection, or whether it was possible for the agent to have chosen differently or not.

So far there is nothing in Determinism that is discordant with the fact of choice, indeed, it has a perfectly reasonable theory of the process. Why is there a choice or selection of things or actions? Clearly the reason must be looked for in the nature of the thing selected, or in the nature of the agent that selects, or in a combination of both factors. Either there is an organic prompting in favour of the thing selected, as when a baby takes a bottle of milk and rejects a bottle of vinegar, or there is a recognition that the selection will enable the agent to better realize whatever end he has in view. The alternatives are there, and they are real in the only sense in which they can be real. But they are not real in the sense of their being equally eligible—which is the sense in which the Indeterminist uses the word. For that would destroy choice altogether. Unless a selection is made because certain things offer greater attractions than other things to the agent, no intelligible meaning can be attached to such a word as “Choice.” We should have a mere blind explosion of energy, the direction taken no more involving choice than the stone’s path down a hillside. And if the “Will” chooses between alternatives because one is more desirable than the other, its “freedom” (in the Indeterminist sense) is sacrificed, and the selection is correspondingly determined. There can be no real choice in the absence of a determinative influence exercised by one of the things chosen.

But it is urged that this line of reasoning does not explain the feeling of possibility that we have at the moment of action. I think it explains possibility as it explains choice, provided we allow facts to determine the meaning of words instead of torturing facts to suit certain forms of language. If by possibility we mean that under identical conditions, other things than those which actually occur are possible, then this may be confidently met with a flat denial. If, on the other hand, it is meant that by varying the conditions other possibilities become actualities, this is a statement that to a Determinist is self-evident. As a matter of fact, there are only two senses in which the word “possibility” may be rightly used, and neither sense yields any evidence against Determinism.

One of these meanings is simply an expression of our own ignorance on the matter that happens to be before us. If I am asked what kind of weather we are likely to have a month hence, I should reply that it is equally possible the day may be dry or wet, bright or dull. I do not mean to imply that had I adequate knowledge it would not be as easy to predict the kind of weather on that date as it is to predict the position of Neptune. It is simply an expression of my own ignorance. But, as Spinoza pointed out, possibility narrows as knowledge grows. To complete ignorance anything is possible because the course of events is unknown. As a comprehension of natural causation develops, people speak less of what may possibly occur, and more of what will occur. Possibility here has no reference to the course of events, only to our knowledge, or want of knowledge, concerning their order. To say that it is possible for a man to do either this or that is, so far as a spectator is concerned, only to say that our knowledge concerning the man’s whole nature is not extensive enough, or exact enough for us to predict what he will do. Nor is the case altered if instead of an outsider, it is the agent himself who is incapable of prediction. For all that amounts to is the assertion that the agent is ignorant of the relative strength of desires that may be aroused under a particular conjuncture of circumstances.

The second sense of “possibility” depends upon our ability to imagine conditions not actually present at the moment of action. By a trick of imagination I can picture myself acting differently, or, on looking back, I can see that I might have acted differently. But in either case I have altered in thought the conditions that actually existed at the moment of action. Generally, all it means is that with a number of conflicting desires present, I am conscious that a very slight variation in the relative strength of these desires would result in a different course of conduct. And the conditions affecting conduct are so complex and so easily varied that it is small wonder there is lacking in this instance that sense of inevitability present when one is dealing with physical processes. But the essential question is not whether a slight change of conditions would produce a different result, but whether under identical conditions two opposite courses of action are equally possible? And this is not only untrue in fact, it is unthinkable, as a formal proposition. Even the old adage, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” while recognizing a different possibility, also recognized that a variation in the factors—the elimination of the grace of God—is essential if the possibility was to become an actuality. That the sense of possibility implies more than this may be safely denied, let who will make the opposite affirmation.

This discussion of the nature and function of choice will help us to realize more clearly than would otherwise be the case the nature of deliberation. This question has always played an important part in the Free-Will controversy, because it has stood as the very antithesis of a reflex or obviously mechanical action. Deliberation, it has been argued, does very clearly point to a determinative power exercised by the human will, and a power that cannot be explained in the same terms with which we explain other events. One anti-determinist writer remarks that “if a volition is the effect of a ‘motive,’ it should follow immediately upon the occurrence of the motive. But if there is deliberation between motives, they do not seem to have casual power to initiate a volition until a prior causal power directs them, and this would be the deliberating subject.”

Now there are numerous cases, the majority probably, where action does follow immediately upon the presence of desire. And in such cases we are not aware of any process of deliberation, although there may be a truly intentional action. And from this single case we have a whole series of examples that will take us to the other extreme where the desires are so numerous and so conflicting that an excess of deliberation may prevent action altogether. Let us take an illustration. Sitting in my room on a fine day I am conscious of a desire for a walk. Provided no opposing feeling or desire is present I should at once rise and go out. But I may be conscious of a number of other feelings based upon various considerations. There is the fact of leaving the task on which I am engaged, and the desire to get it finished. There is the trouble of dressing, the consideration that once out I may wish I had stayed in, or that it may rain, or that I may be needed at home: all these result in a state of indecision, and induce deliberation. Imagination is excited, ideal feelings are aroused, and eventually a choice is made. I decide on the walk. What is it, now, that has occurred? My first desire for a walk has been enforced by a representation of all the advantages that may be gained by going out, and these have proved themselves strong enough to bear down all opposition. Had any other desire gained strength, or had the conviction that it would rain been strong enough, a different motive would have emerged from this conflict of desires and ideas. No matter how we vary the circumstances, this is substantially what occurs in every case where deliberation and choice are involved. Not only is this what does occur, but it is impossible to picture clearly any other process. The only evidence we can have of the relative strength of ideas is that one triumphs over others. To say that the weaker desire triumphs is to make a statement the absurdity of which is self-evident.

This conclusion cannot be invalidated by the argument that a particular desire becomes the stronger because the “will” declares in its favour. One need only ask, by way of reply, Why does the “will” declare in favour of one desire rather than another? There is no dispute that a choice is made. Those who say that a man can choose what he likes are not making a statement that conflicts in the slightest degree with Determinism. The Determinist says as clearly as anyone that I do what I choose to do. The real question is why do I choose this rather than that? Why does the “will” pronounce in favour of one desire rather than another? No one can believe that all desires are of equal strength or value to the agent. Such an assumption would be too absurd for serious argument. But if all desires are not of equal strength and value, the only conclusion left is that certain ones operate because they are, in relation to the particular organism, of greater value than others. And in that case we are simply restating Determinism. The action of the environment is conditioned by the nature of the organism. The reaction of the organism is conditioned by the character of the environment. The resultant is a compound of the two.

It is, moreover, an absurdity to speak of the “will” or the self as though this were something apart from the various phases of consciousness. In the contest of feelings and desires that calls forth deliberation I am equally involved in every aspect of the process. As Professor James points out, “both effort and resistance are ours, and the identification of our self with one of these factors is an illusion and a trick of speech.” My self and my mental states are not two distinct things; they constitute myself, and if these are eliminated there is no self left to talk about.

Further, in the growth of each individual, conscious and deliberative action can be seen developing out of automatic action—the simplest and earliest type of action. Not only does deliberative action develop from reflex action, but it sinks into reflex action again. One of the commonest of experiences is that actions performed at one time slowly and after deliberation are at another time performed rapidly and automatically. Every action contributes to the formation of a habit, and frequently repetition results in the habit becoming a personal characteristic. Deliberation and choice are not even always the mark of a highly developed character; they may denote a poorly-developed one—one that is ill adapted to social requirements. One man, on going into a room where there is a purse of money, may only after long deliberation and from conscious choice refrain from stealing it. Another person, under the same conditions, may be conscious of no choice, no effort, the desire to steal the purse being one that is foreign to his nature. In two such by no means uncommon instances, we should have no doubt as to which represented the higher type of character. Morally, it is not the feeling, “I could have acted dishonestly instead of honestly had I so chosen,” that marks the ethically developed character, but the performance of the right action at the right moment, without a consciousness of tendency in the opposite direction. But the aim of education is, in the one direction, to weaken the sense of choice by the formation of right habits, moral and intellectual; and on the other hand by bringing man into a more direct contact with a wider and more complex environment, deliberation becomes one of the conditions of a co-ordination of ideas and actions that will result in a more perfect adaptation.

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