Determinism or Free-Will?Chaptman Cohen

If human feeling followed logical conviction the discussion of Determinism might, so far as the present writer is concerned, be considered as finished. Ultimately this doubtless occurs; but in the interim one has to reckon with the play of feeling, fashioned by long-standing conviction, upon convictions that are of recent origin. Thus it happens that many who realise the logical force of arguments similar to those hitherto advanced, find themselves in a state of fearfulness concerning the ultimate effect on human life of a convinced Determinism. The conflict between feeling and conviction that exists in their own minds they naturally ascribe to others, and endow it with a permanency which mature consideration might show to be unwarranted. It would indeed be strange and lamentable if the divorce between feeling and conviction—to adopt a popular classification—was not simply incidental to change, but was also an inexpugnable part of fundamental aspects of human life.

Mr. A. J. Balfour has indeed gone so far as to suggest,[9] as a theory to meet this phenomenon, that the immediate consciousness of our actions being determined would be so paralyzing to action, that Nature has by “a process of selective slaughter” made a consciousness of this character a practical impossibility. But it would seem that the fact of a consciousness of determination developing at all affords strong presumptions in favour of the belief that no such selective slaughter is really necessary to the maintenance of vital social relations. Mr. Balfour’s argument might have some weight against Fatalism, which says that what is to be will be in despite of all that may be done to prevent its occurrence; but we are on different ground with a theory which makes what I do part of the sequence that issues in a particular result.

The problem is put very plainly in the following two quotations. The first is from a private source, written by one who fears the consequences of Determinism on conduct. The writer says:—

“In a moral crisis, and with the consciousness of a strong tendency in the direction of what is felt to be wrong, is there no danger of this desire gaining further strength and becoming the predominant feeling by accepting Determinism, causing a weakened sense of responsibility, besides providing a convenient excuse for giving way to the lower instead of the higher? Thus in a question of alternatives is it not conceivable that by dwelling on this thought, the agent is resisting possibilities which might otherwise have a different effect had Determinism no advocacy and with a different competitive factor to oppose? This, it seems to me, is what the Indeterminist fears, and I think it must be admitted not without some reason.”

The second comes from Mr. F. W. Headley’s work, Life and Evolution. Mr. Headley, after discussing the evolution of mind, and after admitting the impregnable nature of the determinist position, says that notwithstanding the evidence to the contrary we cannot help cherishing the belief that we are in some sense “free,” and adds:—

“For practical purposes what is wanted is not free-will but a working belief in it. When the time for decision and for action comes, a man must feel that he is free to choose or he is lost. And this working belief in free-will, even though the thing itself be proved to be a phantom and an illusion, is the inalienable property of every healthy man.”

Both these criticisms might be met by the method of analysing the use made of certain leading words. For example, the Determinist would quite agree that for conduct to be fruitful a man must feel that he is free to choose. But unless his freedom consists in liberty to obey the dictates of his real nature, the term is without significance. The fact of choice, as has been pointed out, is common ground for both Determinist and Indeterminist. The real question is whether the choice itself is determined or not. What a man needs to feel is that his choice is decisive, and that it is based upon an impartial review of the alternatives as they appear to him. Determinism makes full allowance for this; it is Indeterminism which in denying the application of causality to the will substantially asserts that the whole training of a lifetime may be counteracted by the decision of an uncaused will, and so renders the whole process unintelligible. And as to Determinism causing a weakened sense of responsibility, surely one may fairly argue that the consciousness of the cumulative force of practice may well serve to warn us against yielding to a vicious propensity, and so strengthen the feeling of resistance to it. There could hardly be conceived a stronger incentive to right action, or to struggle against unwholesome desires, than this conviction. Moreover, the practical testimony of those who are convinced Determinists is all in this direction. The fears are expressed by those whose advocacy of Determinism is at best of but a lukewarm description.

But in order that the full weight of the difficulty may be realized let us put the matter in a still more forcible form. Determinism, it is to be remembered, is an attempt to apply to mind and morals that principle of causation which is of universal application in the physical world, and where it has proved itself so fruitful and suggestive. On this principle all that is flows from all that has been in such a way that, given a complete knowledge of the capacities of all the forces in operation at any one time, the world a century hence could be predicted with mathematical accuracy. So likewise with human nature. Human conduct being due to the interaction of organism with environment, our inability to say what a person will do under given circumstances is no more than an expression of our ignorance of the quantitative and qualitative value of the forces operating. The possibilities of action are co-extensive with the actualities of ignorance. There is no break in the working of causation, no matter what the sphere of existence with which we happen to be dealing.

It is at this point that Determinism lands one in what is apparently an ethical cul-de-sac. If all that is, is the necessary result of all that has been, if nothing different from what does occur could occur, what is the meaning of the sense of power over circumstances that we possess? And why urge people to make an effort in this or that direction if everything, including the effort or its absence, is determined? I may flatter myself with the notion that things are better because of some action of mine. But beyond the mere fact that my action is part of the stream of causation, all else is a trick of the imagination. My conduct is, all the time, the result of the co-operation of past conditions with present circumstances. To say that praise or blame of other people’s conduct, or approval or disapproval of my own conduct, is itself a determinative force, hardly meets the point. For these, too, are part of the determined order.

It might be urged that the knowledge that by exciting certain feelings others are proportionately weakened operates in the direction of improvement. Quite so; and as a mere description of what occurs the statement is correct. But to the Determinist there is no “I” that determines which feeling or cluster of feelings shall predominate. “I” am the expression of the succession and co-ordination of mental states; we are still within a closed circle of causation. Whether I am good or bad, wise or unwise, I shall be what I must be, and nothing else; do as I must do, and no more.

This is, I think, putting the Indeterminists’ case as strongly as it can be put. How is the Determinist to meet the attack? A common retort is that all this being granted things remain as they were. If the criminal action is determined so is that of the judge, and so no harm is done. We shall go on praising or blaming, punishing or rewarding, doing or not doing, exactly as before, simply because we cannot do otherwise. This, however, while effective as a mere retort, is not very satisfactory as an answer. For it neither explains the sense of power people feel they possess, nor does it meet the criticism raised. On the one hand there is the fact that character does undergo modification, and the conviction that my effort does play a part in securing that modification. And with this there goes the feeling—with some—that if everything, mental states and dispositions included, is part of an unbroken and unbreakable order, why delude ourselves with the notion of personal power? Why not let things drift? And on the other hand there is the conviction that scientific Determinism holds the field. The state of mind is there, and it is fairly expressed in the two quotations already given; particularly in Mr. Headley’s statement that we ought to act as though Free-Will were a fact, even though we know it to be otherwise. The difficulty is there, and one must admit that it is not always fairly faced by writers on Determinism. An appeal is made to man’s moral sense, and this, while legitimate enough in some connections, is quite irrelevant in this. Or it is said that a knowledge of the causational nature of morals should place people on their guard against encouraging harmful states of mind. This is also good counsel, but it clearly does not touch the point that, whether I encourage harmful or beneficial states of mind, it is all part of the determined order of things.

As an example of what has been said we may take a passage from John Stuart Mill. In his criticism of Sir William Hamilton, Mill remarks:—

“The true doctrine of the causation of human actions maintains … that not only our conduct, but our character, is, in part, amenable to our will; that we can by employing the proper means, improve our character; and that if our character is such that while it remains what it is, it necessitates us to do wrong, it will be just to apply motives which will necessitate us to strive for its improvement, and so emancipate ourselves from the other necessity; in other words, we are under a moral obligation to seek the improvement of our moral character.”

Admirable as is this passage it is clearly no reply to the criticism that whether we seek moral improvement or not, either course is as much necessitated as is the character that needs improving. To give a real relevance to this passage we should have to assume the existence of an ego outside the stream of causation deciding at what precise point it should exert a determining influence. That so clear a thinker as Mill should have overlooked this gives point to what has been said as to writers on Determinism having failed to squarely face the issue.

A more valid reply to Mr. Headley’s position would be that so long as we believe a theory to be sound there is no real gain in acting as though we were convinced otherwise. Granting that an illusion may have its uses, it can only be of service so long as we do not know it to be an illusion. A mirage of cool trees and sparkling pools may inspire tired travellers in a desert to renewed efforts of locomotion. But if they know it to be a mirage it only serves to discourage effort. And once we believe in Determinism, our right course, and our only profitable course, is to face all the issues as courageously as may be. Not that a correct reading of Determinism leads to our sitting with folded hands lacking the spirit to strive for better things.

It may be that certain people so read Determinism, but one cannot reasonably hold a theory responsible for every misreading of it that exists. Theologians in particular would be in a very uncomfortable position if this rule were adopted. A theory is responsible for such conclusions or consequences as are logically deducible therefrom, but no more. And what we are now concerned with is, first, will Determinism, properly understood, really have the effect feared; and, second, is it possible for Determinism to account adequately for the belief that it is possible to modify other people’s character, and in so doing modify our own? In Mill’s words, can we exchange the necessity to do wrong for the necessity to do right? I believe that a satisfactory reply can be given to both questions.

In the first place we have to get rid of the overpowering influence of an atomistic psychology. A very little study of works on psychology—particularly of the more orthodox schools—is enough to show that the social medium as a factor determining man’s mental nature has been either ignored, or given a quite subordinate position. Because in studying the mental qualities of man we are necessarily dealing with an individual brain, it has been assumed that mental phenomena may be explained with no more than a casual reference to anything beyond the individual organism. This assumption may be sound so long as we are dealing with mind as the function of definitely localized organs, or if we are merely describing mental phenomena. It is when we pass to the contents of the mind, and study the significance of mental states, or enquire how they came into existence, that we find the atomistic psychology breaking down, and we find ourselves compelled to deal with mind as a psycho-sociologic phenomenon, with its relation to the social medium. Then we discover that it is man’s social relationships, the innumerable generations of reaction between individual organisms and the social medium, which supply the key to problems that are otherwise insoluble.

It has already been pointed out that the whole significance of morality is social. If we restrict ourselves to the individual no adequate explanation can be given of such qualities as sympathy, honesty, truthfulness, chastity, kindness, etc. Separate it in thought from the social medium and morality becomes meaningless. Properly studied, psychology yields much the same result. When we get beyond the apprehension of such fundamental qualities as time and space, heat and cold, colour and sound, the contour of man’s mind, so to speak, is a social product. His feelings and impulses imply a social medium as surely as does morality. From this point of view the phrase “Social sense” is no mere figure of speech; it is the expression of a pregnant truth, the statement of something as real as any scientific law with which we are acquainted.

For the essence of a scientific law is the expression of a relation. The law of gravitation, for instance, formulates the relations existing between particles of matter. If there existed but one particle of matter in the universe gravitation would be a meaningless term. Introduce a second particle, and a relation is established between the two, and the material for a scientific “law” created. In the same way a description of individual human qualities is fundamentally a statement of the relations existing between individuals living in groups; and any attempt to understand human nature without considering these relations is as certainly foredoomed to failure as would be the attempt to study a particle of matter apart from the operation of all known forces. The individual as he exists to-day is not something that exists apart from the social forces; he is an expression, an epitome, of all their past and present operations. The really essential thing in the study of human nature is not so much the discrete individual A or B, but the relations existing between A and B. It is these which make each end of the term what it is—determines the individual’s language, feelings, thoughts, and character.

It is along these lines that we have to look for an explanation of the feeling that we can initiate a reform in character, and of a sense of power in determining events. We start with a sense of power over the course of events—which is interpreted as the equivalent of our ability to initiate absolutely a change in our own character or in that of others. But a little reflection convinces us—particularly if we call ourselves Determinists—that this interpretation is quite erroneous. An absolute beginning is no more conceivable in the mental or moral sphere than it is in the physical world. The sum of all that is is the product of all that has been, and in this, desires, feelings, dispositions are included no less than physical properties. Now, curiously enough, the conviction that an absolute change in character can be initiated exists with much greater strength in regard to oneself than it does with regard to others. It is easier to observe others than to analyze one’s own mental states, with the result that most people can more readily realize that what others do is the product of their heredity and their environment than they can realize it in their own case. Of course, reflection shows that the same principle applies in both directions, but we are here dealing with moods rather than with carefully reasoned out convictions. And, generally speaking, while we feel ourselves masters of our own fate, we only suspect a similar strength in others. But each one realizes, and with increasing vividness, the power he possesses in modifying other people’s character by a change of circumstances. We see this illustrated by the increased emphasis placed upon the importance of better sanitation, better housing, better conditions of labour, and of an improved education. More from observing others than by studying ourselves we see how modifiable a thing human nature is. We see how character is modified by an alteration of the material environment, and we also note our own individual function as a determinative influence in effecting this modification.

Now I quite fail to see that there is in this sense of power over circumstances anything more than a recognition of our own efforts as part of the determinative sequence. The added factor to the general causative series is the consciousness of man himself. We are conscious, more or less clearly, of our place in the sequence; we are able to recognize and study our relations to past and present events, and our probable relation to future ones. We see ourselves as so many efficient causes of those social reactions that go to make up a science of sociology, and it is this which gives us a sense of power of determining events. I say “power” because “freedom” is an altogether different thing. The question of whether we are free to determine events is, as I have shown, meaningless when applied to scientific matters. But the question of whether or not we have the power of determining events may be answered in the affirmative—an answer not in the least affected by the belief that this power is strictly conditioned by past and present circumstances. The sense of power is real, and it expresses a fact, even though the fact be an inevitable one. We are all shapers of each other’s character, moulders of each other’s destiny. The recognition of our power to act in this relation is not contrary to Determinism, Determinism implies it. It is this which gives a real meaning to the expression “social sense.” For the social sense can have no other meaning or value than as a recognition of the action of one individual upon another, which, as in the case of a chemical compound, results in the production of something that is not given by the mere sum of individual qualities.

So, too, do we get by this method a higher meaning to the word “freedom.” In an earlier part of this essay it was pointed out that “freedom” was of social origin and application. Its essential meaning is liberty to carry out the impulses of one’s nature unrestricted by the coercive action of one’s fellows. But there is a higher and a more positive meaning than this. Man is a social animal; his character is a social product. The purely human qualities not only lose their value when divorced from social relationships, it is these relationships that provide the only medium for their activity. To say that a person is free to express moral qualities in the absence of his fellows is meaningless, since it is only in their presence that the manifestation of them is possible. It is the intercourse of man with man that gives to each whatever freedom he possesses. The restraints imposed upon each member of a society in the interests of all are not a curtailing of human freedom but the condition of its realization. To chafe against them is, to use Kant’s famous illustration, as unreasonable as a bird’s revolt against the opposing medium or atmosphere, in ignorance of the fact that it is this opposition which makes flight possible. The only genuine freedom that man can know and enjoy is that provided by social life. Human freedom has its origin in social relationships, and to these we are ultimately driven to discover its meaning and significance.

So far, then, the sense of power in controlling events which each possesses presents no insuperable difficulty to a theory of Determinism. Only one other point remains on which to say a word, and that is whether a conviction of the causative character of human action would lead to a weakening of effort or to moral depression. Why should it have this effect? It is curious that those who fear this result seem to have only in mind the tendencies to wrongdoing. But if it operates at all it must operate in all directions, and this would certainly strengthen good resolutions as well as bad ones. And even though no more were to be said, this would justify the assertion that merit and demerit would remain unaffected, and that any harm done in one direction would be compensated by good done in another. But another important consideration is to be added. This is that while a consciousness of the power of habit acts as a retarding influence on wrongdoing, it has an accelerating influence in the reverse direction—that is, unless we assume a character acting with the deliberate intention of cultivating an evil disposition. Besides, the really vicious characters are not usually given to reflecting upon the origin and nature of their desires, and are therefore quite unaffected by any theory of volition; while those who are given to such reflection are not usually of a vicious disposition. We are really crediting the vicious with a degree of intelligence and reflective power quite unwarranted by the facts of the case.

Finally, the criticism with which I have been dealing takes a too purely intellectual view of conduct. It does not allow for the operation of sympathy, or for the power of social reaction. And these are not only real, they are of vital importance when we are dealing with human nature. For man cannot, even if he would, remain purely passive. The power of sympathy, the desire for social intercourse, the invincible feeling that in some way he is vitally concerned with the well-being of the society to which he belongs, these are always in operation, even though their degree of intensity varies with different individuals. We cannot possibly isolate man in considering conduct, because his whole nature has been moulded by social intercourse, and craves continuously for social approval. And it is such feelings that are powerful agents in the immediate determination of conduct. The mental perception of the causes and conditions of conduct are feeble by comparison and can only operate with relative slowness. And in their operation they are all the time checked and modified by the fundamental requirements of the social structure.

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