Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

We have seen in what has gone before how much of the case for Free-Will is based upon the wrong use of language, and upon a display of petulance arising from the degree to which it is assumed that the universe ought to fulfil certain a priori expectations. In this last respect the Volitionist behaves as if he were on a kind of shopping excursion, with full liberty to purchase or reject the goods brought out for inspection. Both of these points are well illustrated in an apology for Indeterminism offered by Professor William James, and although in examining his argument it may be necessary to repeat in substance some of the arguments already used, this will not be without its value in enabling the reader to realize the shifts to which the defender of Free-Will is compelled to resort. In justice to Professor James, however, it is only fair to point out that it is not quite clear that he is thoroughly convinced of the position he sees fit to state. Much of his argument reads as though he were merely stating a speculation that might prove valuable, but which might also turn out valueless. Still, whatever conviction he has, or had, appears to lean to the side of Indeterminism, and I shall accordingly deal with his argument as though he were quite convinced of its soundness.

In his chief work, The Principles of Psychology, Professor James took up the perfectly sane position that a man would be foolish not to espouse “the great scientific postulate” that the prediction of all things without exception must be possible, and drew a proper distinction between what is ideally possible—that is to complete knowledge—and what is actually possible to incomplete knowledge. In a later deliverance he, for the time at least, forsakes this position and champions a case which rests for its coherence very largely upon the neglect of those precautions previously insisted on.[6] To suit the necessities of the argument the Determinist is made to say things that I think few, if any, determinists ever dreamed of saying, while certain leading words are used with a meaning obviously framed to meet the requirements of the case.

At the outset of his essay Professor James remarks that if a certain formula—in this case the Determinist formula—“for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demands, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand for uniformity of sequence.” And he proceeds to argue that all our scientific “laws” are ideal constructions, built up in order to satisfy certain demands of our nature. Uniformity in nature is thus as much a formula framed to this end as is Free-Will. “If this be admitted,” he says, “we can debate on even terms.”

Unfortunately for the Professor’s argument the two instances are not analogous—not, at least, in the direction required. The sense of causality is not something that is innate in human nature. Children at an early age hardly possess it, and primitive man has it in only a very vague manner. The conviction that all things are bound together in terms of causation is one that belongs, even to-day, to the educated, thoughtful mind. At any rate it is a conviction that has been forced upon the human mind by the sheer pressure of experience. It is a growth consequent upon the mind’s intercourse with the objective universe. And its validity is not called into question. On the other hand, this assumed “moral demand” for “Free-Will” is the very point in dispute. Whether there is such a demand, and if so is it a legitimate one, are the questions upon which the discussion turns. And it will not do for Professor James to claim Free-Will in the name of certain “moral demands” and reserve the right to throw overboard any theory that does not grant them. Man’s moral nature, equally with his intellectual nature, must in the last resort yield to facts. It will not do to exalt into a moral instinct what may be no more than a personal idiosyncrasy. There is certainly no more than this in such expressions as “something must be fatally unreasonable, absurd, and wrong in the world,” or “I deliberately refuse to keep on terms of loyalty with the universe,” if certain things turn out to be true. Such phrases are completely out of place in a scientific enquiry. The universe will remain what it is whether we call it absurd or rational, and may even survive the raising of the standard of revolt by so eminent a psychologist as Professor James, to whom we would commend, were he still alive, Schopenhauer’s profound remark that there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena.

What, now, is the insuperable dilemma which Professor James places before upholders of Determinism? The whole of it turns out to be little more than a play upon the words “possible” and “actual.” Determinism, he says, professes that “those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree (Why ‘appoint’ and ‘decree’? Why not the impersonal word ‘determine?’) what the other parts shall be.” The future is determined by the past; and given the past, only one future is possible. Indeterminism says that “the parts have a certain amount of loose play on one another, so that the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be.” Thus, still following Professor James’s exposition, given a special instance, both sides admit the occurrence of a volition. The Determinist asserts that no other volition could have occurred. The Indeterminist asserts that another volition might have occurred, other things remaining the same. And, asks the Professor, can science tell us which is correct? His reply is, No. “How can any amount of assurance that something actually happened give us the least grain of information as to whether another thing might or might not have happened in its place? Only facts can be proved by other facts. With things that are possibilities and not facts, facts have no concern.”

The position may be made clearer by taking the Professor’s own illustration. When, he says, I leave this lecture hall I may go home via Divinity Avenue, or traverse Oxford Street. It is a matter of chance which route is selected. But assume that by some miracle, after having walked down Divinity Avenue, ten minutes of time are annihilated, and reaching the Hall door again Oxford Street is the route selected. Spectators thus have two alternative universes. One universe with the Professor walking through Divinity Avenue, the other with him walking through Oxford Street. If the spectators are Determinists they will believe only one universe to have been from eternity possible. But, asks Professor James, looking outwardly at these two universes, can anyone say which is the accidental and which is the necessary one? “In other words, either universe after the fact and once there would, to our means of observation and understanding, appear just as rational as the other.” There is no means by which we can distinguish chance from a rational necessity. A universe which allows a certain loose play of the parts is as rational as one which submits to the most rigid determinism.

Before dealing with the above, it is necessary to take another phrase on which much of the above argument depends. Professor James says that the stronghold of the Determinist sentiment is antipathy to the idea of “Chance,” and chance is a notion not to be entertained by any sane mind. And the sting, he says, seems to rest on the assumption that chance is something positive, and if a thing happens by chance it must needs be irrational and preposterous. But I am not aware that any scientific Determinist ever used “chance” as being a positive term at all. Certainly the last thing the present writer would dream of doing would be to predicate chance of any portion of the objective universe whatsoever. The only legitimate use of the word is in reference to the state of our knowledge concerning phenomena. To say that a thing chanced, or happened by chance, is only saying that we are not aware of the causes that produced it. We say nothing of the thing itself, we only express the state of our mind in relation to it.

Professor James says all you mean by “chance” is that a thing is not guaranteed, it may fall out otherwise. Not guaranteed by our knowledge about the thing, certainly; in any other sense, his definition seems invented for the express purpose of bolstering up his hypothesis. For, he says, a chance thing means that the general system of things has no hold on it. It appears in relation to other things, but it escapes their determining influence, and appears as “a free gift.” Thus whether he walked down Divinity Avenue or Oxford Street was a matter of chance; and the future of the world is full of similar chances—events that may take one of several forms, either of which is consistent with the whole.

We now have the essence of Professor James’s case, and can consider it in detail. First of all we may note the curiously double sense in which Professor James uses the word “fact” and the agility with which he skips from one meaning to another, as it suits his argument. In a broad and general sense a mental fact is as much a fact as any other fact. A man riding on horseback is a fact. My vision or conception of a horse with the head of a man is equally a fact, though nothing like it exists in nature. We should discriminate between the two by saying that one is a mental fact strictly relative to a particular mind, the other is an objective fact relative to all minds normally constituted. Now science does not deny possibilities as mental facts. But it would be a very queer science indeed that allowed all sorts of possibilities of a given group of phenomena under identical conditions. Like “chance,” the possibilities of the Universe are strictly relative to our knowledge concerning it. If opposite things appear equally possible, it is only because we are not sufficiently conversant with the processes to say which thing is certain. A universe with Professor James walking down Divinity Avenue appears as orderly and as natural as one with him parading Oxford Street. But this is because we cannot unravel the complex conditions that may determine the selection of one route or the other. Or if it be said in reply, that the walker is unaware of any choice in the matter, the answer is that there is present the desire to get away from the lecture hall and arrive at home, and this is strong enough to make the choice of means to that end unimportant. If the choice lay between walking down a sunlit street or wading through a mile of water, five feet deep, while the latter would still remain a possibility, since it could be done were the inducement to do it strong enough, there is not much doubt as to what the choice would actually be.

The complete reply therefore to Professor James’s illustration is that from the standpoint of mere possibility, bearing in mind the proper significance of possibility, opposite alternatives may be equally real. We can, that is, conceive conditions under which a certain thing may occur, and we can conceive another set of conditions under which exactly the opposite may occur. And either alternative presents us with a universe that is equally “rational,” because in either case we vary the co-operating conditions in order to produce the imagined consequence. But given a complete knowledge of all the co-operating conditions, and not only do two views of the universe cease to be equally rational, but one of them ceases to be even conceivable. For let us note that the resultant of any calculation is no more and no less than a synthesis of the factors that are included in the calculation. If we do not understand the factors included in a given synthesis it will be a matter of “chance” what the resultant may be. But if we do understand the nature of the factors, and the consequence of their synthesis, possibility and actuality become convertible terms. Finally, whether a man on leaving a lecture hall turns to the right or the left appears, under ordinary conditions, equally rational and natural only because we are aware that it may be a matter of indifference which direction he takes, and in that case his action will be governed by the simple desire to get away, or to get to a particular spot. It is a simple deduction from experience presented by Professor James in a needlessly confusing manner.

The next, and practically the only example cited by Professor James to prove that this world is a world of “chances,” is concerned with a question of morals. We constantly, he says, have occasion to make “judgments of regret.” In illustration of this, he cites the case of a particularly brutal murder, and adds, “We feel that, although a perfect mechanical fit to the rest of the universe, it is a bad moral fit, and that something else would really have been better in its place.” But “calling a thing bad means, if it means anything at all, that the thing ought not to be, that something else ought to be in its stead.” If Determinism denies this it is defining the universe as a place “in which what ought to be is impossible,” and this lands us in pessimism, or if we are to escape pessimism we can only do so by abandoning the judgment of regret. But if our regrets are necessitated nothing else can be in their place, and the universe is what it was before—a place in which what ought to be appears impossible. Murder and treachery cannot be good without regret being bad, regret cannot be good without murder and treachery being bad. As both, however, are foredoomed, something must be fatally wrong and absurd in the world.

Now, I must confess all this seems a deal of bother concerning a fairly simple matter. Indeed, Professor James seems to be engaged in raising a dust and then complaining of the murkiness of the atmosphere. Coming from a writer of less standing I might, in view of what has been said elsewhere in this essay, have left the reply to the careful reader’s understanding of the subject. But from so eminent a psychologist as William James, silence might well be construed as deterministic inability to reply to the position laid down.

In the first place, I may be pardoned for again reminding the reader that, in this connection, “ought” stands upon precisely the same level as “possible.” Whether we say that a man ought to do a certain thing, or that it is possible for him to do a certain thing, we are making identical statements, for no one would dream of saying that a man ought to do that which it is impossible for him to perform. When we say that murder and treachery ought not to be, we do not imply—if we use language properly—that these are not as much part of the cosmic order, and as much the expression of co-operating conditions, as are kindness and loyalty. It is saying no more than that in our judgment human nature may be so trained and conditioned as to practise neither murder nor treachery. We are expressing a judgment as to what our ideal of human nature is, and our ideal of what human nature should be is based upon what experience has taught us concerning its possibilities. Man’s “judgment of regret” is justifiable and admirable, not because he recognizes that the past could have been different from what it was, but because it furnishes him with the requisite experience for a better direction of action in the future, and because the feeling of regret is itself one of the determining conditions that will decide conduct in the future.

“The question,” says Professor James, “is of things, not of eulogistic names for them.” With this I cordially agree; but in that case what are we to make of the following:—

“The only consistent way of representing … a world whose parts may affect one another through their conduct being either good or bad is the indeterminate way. What interest, zest, or excitement can there be in achieving the right way, unless we are enabled to feel that the wrong way is also a possible and a natural way—nay, more, a menacing and an imminent way? And what sense can there be in condemning ourselves for taking the wrong way, unless we need have done nothing of the sort, unless the right way was open to us as well? I cannot understand the willingness to act, no matter how we feel, without the belief that acts are really good or bad. I cannot understand the belief that an act is bad, without regret at its happening. I cannot understand regret without the admission of real genuine possibilities in the world.”

Eliminate from this all that is matter of common agreement between Determinists and Indeterminists, and what have we left but sheer verbal confusion? The pleasurable feeling that results from a sense of achievement is real no matter what are the lines on which the universe is constructed. One might as reasonably ask, Why feel a greater interest in a first-class orchestral performance, than in the harmonic outrages of a hurdy-gurdy, since both are, from the physical side, vibratory phenomena? And is it not clear, to repeat a truth already emphasized, that a most important factor in our condemning ourselves for doing a wrong action is the fact that we have done so. It is one of the determining conditions of doing better actions in future. Of course, Professor James cannot understand the belief that an act is bad, without regret at its happening. Neither can anyone else, for the simple reason that one involves the other. The statement is as much a truism as is the one that we can have no willingness to act unless we believe that acts are either good or bad. Equally true is it that regret implies real possibilities in the world—not always, though, for we may regret death or the radiation into extra terrestrial space of solar energy without believing that the prevention of either is possible. But our possibilities in relation to conduct do not, as the argument implies, relate to the past, but to the future. Indeed, the sense of possibility would be morally worthless were it otherwise.

Finally, and this brings me to what is one of the cardinal weaknesses of so much of the writing on psychology, Professor James’s argument is vitiated by non-recognition of the fact that regret and satisfaction, praise and blame, with most of the cardinal moral qualities, are social in their origin and application. They represent the reaction of our social feelings against anti-social conduct, or their expression of satisfaction at conduct of an opposite character. They are consequently the creations, not of an indwelling “will,” but of an outdwelling social relationship. They are not impressed by the “ego” upon the world, they are impressed by the world upon the ego. Character is not something that each individual brings ready fashioned to the service of society; it is something that society itself creates. It has been fashioned by countless generations of social evolution, and, in the main, that evolution has of necessity placed due emphasis upon those intellectual and moral qualities on which social welfare depends.

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