Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

In the course of the foregoing pages we have made frequent reference to “environment,” without the word being precisely described or defined. The subject was of too great importance to be dismissed with a bald definition, and to have dealt with it earlier at suitable length might have diverted attention from the main argument. But so much turns on a correct understanding of the word “environment” that a discussion of Determinism would be incomplete that failed to fix its meaning with a fair degree of accuracy.

A very casual study of anti-deterministic literature is enough to show that a great deal of the opposition to a scientific interpretation of human conduct has its origin in a quite wrong conception of what the determinist has in mind when he speaks of the part played by the environment in the determination of conduct. Even writings ostensibly deterministic in aim have not been free from blame in their use of the word. Thus on the one hand we find it said that man is a creature of his environment, and by “environment” we are to understand, by implication, only the material forces, which are assumed to somehow drive man hither and thither in much the same way as a tennis ball is driven this way or that by the player. Against this there has been a natural and, let it be said, a justifiable reaction. Expressed in this way it was felt that man was not at the mercy of his surroundings. It was felt that, whatever be its nature the organism does exert some influence over environmental forces, and that it is not a merely passive register of their operations. Neither of these views expresses the whole truth. It may be that each expresses a truth, and it is still more probable, as is the case with some terms already examined, that the confusion arises from a mis-use of the language employed.

To-day we are all familiar with the dictum that the maintenance of life is a question of adaptation to environment—a truth that is equally applicable to ideas and institutions. But the general truth admitted, there is next required a consideration of its application to the particular subject in hand, and in connection with our present topic some attention must be paid both to the nature of the organism and of the environment with which we are dealing. We then discover that not alone are we dealing with an organism which is extremely plastic in its nature, but that the environment may also vary within very wide limits. On the one side, and in relation to man, we may be dealing with an environment that is mainly physical in character, or it may be a combination of physical conditions and biological forces, or, yet again, it may be predominantly psychological in its nature. And, on the other hand, the reaction of the organism on the environment may vary from extreme feebleness to an almost overpowering determination. We may, indeed, anticipate our argument by saying that one of the chief features of human progress is the gradual subordination of the material environment to the psychologic powers of man.

If, now, we contrast the environment of an uncivilized with that of a civilized people the difference is striking. The environment of an uncivilized race will consist of the immediate physical surroundings, the animals that are hunted for sport or killed for food, and a comparatively meagre stock of customs and traditions. The environment of a modern European will add to the physical surroundings an enormously enlarged mass of social traditions and customs, an extensive literature, contact with numerous other societies in various stages of culture, and relations, more or less obscure, to a vast literary and social past. The environment thus includes not merely the living, but also the dead. Roman law, Greek philosophy, Eastern religious ideas, etc., all affect the twentieth century European. It would require a lengthy essay to enumerate all the influences that dominate the life of a particular people of to-day, but enough has been said to illustrate the truth that we must use the term “environment” so as to include all that affects the organism. And when this is done it soon becomes clear that by the very growth of humanity the influence of the physical portion of the environment becomes of relatively less importance with the progress of the race—it is the subordination of the physical environment that is the principal condition of the advance of civilization.

But even when our conception of the meaning of environment has been thus enlarged, we need to be on our guard against misconception from another side. For the environment is only one factor in the problem; the organism is another, and the relative importance of the two is a matter of vital significance. We may still make the mistake of treating the environment as active and the organism as passive. This would be a similar mistake to that which is made when morality and religion are treated as being no more than a reflection of economic conditions. The action of the environment is given a place of first importance, while the reaction of the organism on its environment is treated as a negligible quantity. Historically this may be taken as a reaction against the extreme spiritualistic view which, in upholding, a theory of Free-Will made no allowance for the influence of the surroundings. An extreme view in one direction usually sets up an extreme view by way of opposition, and it must be confessed that in social philosophy the power of the environment has often been made omnipotent. The medium has been presented as active and the organism as passive. Different results occur because the susceptibilities of organisms vary. Good or bad influences affect individuals differently for much the same reason that soils differ in their capacity for absorbing water.

From the scientific and the philosophic side this conception derived a certain adventitious strength. In the first place there was the now generally discarded psychology which taught that the individual mind was as a sheet of blank paper on which experience inscribed its lessons. And in the second place the growth of biological science brought out with great distinctness the influence of the environment on organic life. It was very plain that the quality and quantity of the food supply, the action of air and light, and other purely environmental forces exercised an important influence. In the plant world it was seen how much could be effected by a mere change of habitat. In the animal world markings and structure seemed to have an obvious reference to the nature of the environment. It, therefore, seemed nothing but a logical inference to extend the same reasoning to man, and treat not only his structure but his mental capacities as being the outcome of the same kind of correspondence.

But a too rigid application of biological principles lands one in error. Society is more than a mere biological group, and no reasoning that proceeds on the assumption that it is no more than that can avoid confusion. And we certainly cannot square the facts with a theory which treats the human organism as passive under the operation of environmental forces. The conviction that man plays a positive part in life is general, powerful, and, I think, justifiable. But if what I do is at any time the product of the environmental forces, physical and other, there does not seem any room for me as an active participant. And the facts seem to demand that the individual should appear in some capacity other than that of representing the total in an environmental calculation. This would leave man with no other function than that of a billiard ball pushed over a table by rival players. Given the force exerted by the player, added to the size, weight, and position of the ball, and the product of the combination gives us the correct answer. But this kind of calculation will not do in the case of man. Here we must allow, in addition to external influences, the positive action of man on his surroundings. The conception of the organism as a plexus of forces capable of this reaction is, indeed, vital to our conception of a living being. Granted that in either case, that of the billiard ball and that of the man, the result expresses the exact sum of all the forces aiding at the time, there still remains an important distinction in the two cases. Whether the billiard ball is struck by a professional player or by an amateur, provided it be struck in a particular way the result is in both cases identical. An identity of result is produced by an identity of external conditions.

With the human organism—with, in fact, any organism—this rule does not apply. In any two cases the external factors may be identical, but the results may be entirely different. A temptation that leaves one unaffected may prove overpowering with another. Exactly the same conditions of food, occupation, residence, and social position may co-exist with entirely different effects on the organism. These differences will be manifested from the earliest years and are a direct consequence of the positive reaction of the organism on its environment, a reaction that is more profound in the case of man than in that of any other animal.

To put the matter briefly. In the case of the billiard player the ball remains a constant factor in a problem in which external conditions represent a variant. In the case of man and his environment we are dealing with two sets of factors, neither of which is constant and one of which—the human one—varies enormously. And the reaction of man on his environment becomes so great as to result in its practical transformation.

It may, of course, be urged that all this is covered and allowed for by heredity. This may be so, but I am arguing against those who while recognizing heredity fail to make adequate allowance for its operations. Or it may be said that “environment” covers all forces, including heredity. But in that case the distinction between organism and environment is useless—in fact, it disappears. If, however, the distinction between the two is retained, our theorizing must give full appreciation to both. And in that case we must not fail to allow for the transforming power of man over his surroundings. Nor must we overlook another and a very vital fact, that in a large measure the environment to which civilised mankind must adapt itself is largely a thing of human creation.

Viewed as merely external circumstances, the physical environment of man remains constant. At any rate, such changes as do take place occur with such slowness that for generations we may safely deal with them as unchanged. The dissipation of the heat of the earth may be a fact, but no one takes this into account in dealing with the probabilities of human life during the next few generations. On the other hand, the organism represents the cumulative, and consequently, ever-changing power of human nature, and it is this that gives us the central fact of human civilization. Whether acquired characters be inherited or not may be still an open question, but in any case there is no denying that capacity is heritable, and natural selection will move along the line of favouring the survival of that capacity which is most serviceable. And how does increasing capacity express itself? It can do so only in the direction of giving man a greater ability to control and mould to his own uses the material environment in which he is placed. Looking at the course of social evolution, we see this increased and increasing capacity expressed in art, industries, inventions, etc., all of which mean in effect a transformation of the material surroundings and their subjugation to the needs of man. These inventions, etc., not only involve a transformation of the existing environment; they also mean the creating of a new environment for succeeding generations. Each mechanical invention, for example, is dependent upon the inventions and discoveries that have preceded it, and to that extent it is dependent upon the environment. But each invention places a new power in the hands of man, and so enables him to still further modify and control his surroundings. Human heredity is thus expressed in capacity as represented by a definite organic structure. This is one factor in the phenomenon of social evolution. The other factor is the environment in which the organism is placed and to which it responds. The two factors, organism and environment, remain constant throughout the animal world. It is when we come to deal with human society specifically, that we find a radical change in the nature of the environment to be considered. Granted that some influence must always be exerted by the purely material conditions, the fact remains that they become relatively less powerful with the advance of civilization. The development of agriculture, the invention of weapons and tools, the discovery of the nature of natural forces, all help to give the developing human a greater measure of control over both the physical and organic portion of his environment, and to manifest a measure of independence concerning them.

But the supreme and peculiar feature of human society is the creation of a new medium to which the individual must adapt himself. By means of language and writing the knowledge and experience gained by one generation are transmitted to its successors. The human intellect elaborates definite theories concerning the universe of which it forms a part. These theories and beliefs form and fashion institutions that are transmitted from generation to generation. Language stereotypes tradition and slowly creates a literature. In this way a new medium is created which is psychological in character, and ultimately dominates life.

When a dog is about to rest it often tramps round and round the spot on which it is to recline. Naturalists explain this as the survival of an instinct which in the wild dog served the useful function of guarding it against the presence of harmful creatures hidden in the grass. The domesticated dog is here exhibiting an instinct that belongs to a past condition of life. But man has few instincts—fewer perhaps than any other animal. In their stead he has a greater plasticity of nature, and a more educable intelligence. And it is in the exercise of this educable organization that the psychological medium as expressed in art, literature, and inventions, plays its part for good and ill. So soon as he is able to understand, the individual finds himself surrounded by ideas concerning home, the State, the monarchy, the Church, and a thousand and one other things. He is brought into relation with a vast literature, and also with the play of myriads of minds similar to his own. Henceforth, it is this environment with which he has chiefly to reckon in terms of either harmony or conflict. He can no more escape it than he can dispense with the atmosphere. It is part and parcel of himself. Without it he ceases to be himself; for if we cut away from man all that this psychological heredity gives him he ceases to be man as we understand the term. He becomes a mere animated object.

Finally, we have to note that this psychological environment is cumulative in character as being is all powerful in its influence. By its own unceasing activity humanity is continually triumphing over the difficulties of its material environment and adding to the complexity and power of its mental one. Inevitably the environment thus becomes more psychic in character and more powerful in its operations. We may overcome the difficulties of climate, poor soil, geographical position, etc., but it is impossible to ignore the great and growing pressure of this past mental life of the race. It defies all attempts at material coercion, and gradually transforms a material medium into what is substantially a psychological one. Man cannot escape the domination of his own mental life. Its unfettered exercise supplies the only freedom he is capable of realising, as it constitutes the source of his influence as a link in the causative process of determining his own destiny and moulding that of his successors.

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