The Freedom of the Will


Thilly, Frank. “The Freedom of the Will.” The Philosophical Review 3, no. 4 (1894): 397-398, 408-411. https://doi.org/10.2307/2175903


There are mechanical theories which, basing all their arguments on the existence of matter and motion, examine and try to explain the external aspect of volition only, namely movements. Every movement is the product of physical causes. However purposive an action may appear to be, it is of the same nature as the simplest reflex act. Certain useful movements of the organism survive. In the course of time these movements become more and more complicated. By phylogenetic generation and natural adaptation, a nerve-apparatus arises which is so arranged as to be able, in spite of the infinite variety of external conditions, to liberate upon external stimulation movements that are adapted to the conditions of the outer world. The complexity of this apparatus presents no difficulty to the explanation. It is not an immediate factor, but a gradual development from the lowest stages of movement. As Munsterberg recapitulates: "All muscular contractions ensue in consequence of the excitation of the sensorimotor apparatus by external stimuli, which conditions movement and in a given apparatus necessarily conditions a definite movement. This apparatus had to arise through selection. The external material process of every movement, be it reflex, or impulse, or voluntary action, is explicable according to the principles of physico-chemical science as a necessary occurrence, without the help of an immaterial factor."


According to this physical view, every movement is physically determined. No account is taken of consciousness at all, and where it is recognized it is regarded as a mere spectator. These movements would go right on in the same way, whether consciousness was present or not. At any rate, consciousness can neither occasion nor even direct a single change in the external world. Every change of this kind would signify a violation of the law of the conservation of energy and make the world altogether irrational. In order to save this law, consciousness can be nothing more than an ' epiphenomenon. It is clear that such a scheme presents the most thoroughgoing physical determinism possible. However simple and seductive it may be, it nevertheless disregards certain facts that must be taken account of. The chief fault of the theory lies in its assuming the unwarrantable metaphysical hypothesis that matter is the world-principle and that mind is its function. Or it assumes a dualistic standpoint, but regards matter as active, consciousness as passive. Now let us not forget, in the first place, that consciousness is a fact. Secondly, it is not a mere epiphenomenon. Thirdly, if it is something more than a function of matter, and yet affected by motion, the law of the conservation of energy is as much violated in this case as when mind acts on matter. In the fourth place, if it is but a function of matter, it is miraculous how a function can philosophize about itself and that of which it is the function.


Now we have as little right to say that consciousness is the product of external motion as that it produces motion in the external world. All that we know and all that we can say is, (I) that consciousness is active, and (2) that external movements correspond to psychical impulses. That the one phenomenon should in any way be the cause of the other seems inconceivable to us, simply because we implicitly base our reasoning on the hypothesis that mind and matter are two entirely distinct substances, or at any rate, that they are two distinct phenomena. This, of course, is an altogether gratuitous metaphysical hypothesis, which makes an explanation of the facts an impossibility. I can offer no satisfactory hypothesis, but it seems to me that until such a hypothesis is forthcoming, all we can do is to content ourselves with the facts. We have no right to deny certain facts because they do not fit into an assumed scheme of the world. We cannot say that psychical phenomena cause physical changes, and vice versa, if we have already separated these two realms. Still it remains a fact that what we call a psychical phenomenon precedes what we call a physical phenomenon, and the reverse. A psychical impulse is followed by a movement; how the thing is done, I do not know. If the thing is utterly inconceivable on dualistic principles, so much the worse for these principles.


Together with physical determinism we rule out as insufficient all such indeterministic theories as base themselves on the dualistic hypothesis, and then endeavor to show how a psychical impulse or will can exert an influence on matter. According to some, the will does not cause motion but simply directs it, and hence does not violate the law of the conservation of energy, because directing requires no putting forth of new energy; others say the effort put forth is so small, that really you ought not to count it as new energy at all.


Libertarians claim that men are conscious of being free and see herein a proof of their thesis. But the all-important question is whether men really say and believe themselves to be free in the sense in which these philosophers claim that they are. The libertarian throws into this consciousness his entire doctrine, thereby garbling the facts to suit his theory.


It is necessary, therefore, to analyze this consciousness of freedom. Before the volition takes place there may be present in consciousness a feeling that I can do either this or that. In the moment of willing no such feeling exists, while after the act has been willed and executed, I say to myself, I might have done otherwise. Now all the possibilities of action occur to me, my mind is in a different state, certain painful feelings that formerly exerted an irresistible influence are no longer present, or only dimly remembered. All the conditions being changed, I feel as though I could have acted differently. And so, I could have done, if only I had willed differently, and so I could have willed differently, if only the conditions of willing had been different. I can do what I will to do; I am free to get up or sit down, free to go home or stay here, to give up all my prospects in life, if only I will do so. Never does my consciousness tell me that a volition is uncaused, that there was no reason for my willing as I did will, that the will is the absolute beginning of an occurrence, that at any moment any volition may arise regardless of all antecedent processes. Least of all does it tell me that I am the manifestation of an intelligible self which I feel to be free.


If, then, this feeling has any value as evidence, it proves no more than the logical possibility of acting otherwise. Besides, I cannot grant that this so-called sense of freedom is an immediate consciousness. The subject simply reasons concerning his acts, weighs the different possibilities against each other. If any feeling accompanies this process, it is due to a misconception.


But do I feel that I could have willed otherwise? I think not. I may reason about my willing, and finally conclude that I could have willed otherwise. I may feel that there was a possibility of willing otherwise than as I did will. But I am reasoning when I say that under the same conditions I could have willed otherwise. And this conclusion, for it is a conclusion, is due to the agent's ignorance of causes. To this ignorance Spinoza attributes the entire subjective illusion of freedom. At any rate our immediate consciousness gives us no account whatever of the real question, viz., whether we will without cause. As we have seen, the action is the expression of the person's character. With this character the agent identifies himself, and, being unconscious of the influences that have molded this personality of his, he regards his will as an originative faculty.


Against those who so strongly emphasize the sense of freedom, we may urge the deterministic standpoint generally accepted in all the affairs of life. We regard the actions of men as necessary functions of their character. In all historical sciences, we invariably seek for the causes of events, we analyze the characters of the actors, and show the influences of the times and surroundings. Our entire social life is based on the conviction that under certain conditions men will act in a certain way. That this is so, let the methods of education and government attest.


The feeling of responsibility is also urged against determinism and accepted as a proof of liberty. This, however, may be explained. The person regards every voluntary action of his as the expression of his personality, with which he identifies himself, even though it is the product of manifold causes. It is held that if a man could be taught to recognize his conduct as a necessary outcome of certain conditions, he would cease to blame himself for it. This might be the case if he regarded his personality as something over and against certain moving, forces, pushing the will now hither now thither. He feels himself as an agent, the acts as his acts, and sees no reason why this self from which the acts emanated, should not be held responsible.


But if action is the necessary expression of character, and character the necessary product of conditions, why hold any one responsible, even though he feels himself responsible? If man's acts are the effects of causes, why punish him for what he cannot help? Because punishment is a powerful determining cause. Why should I be held responsible for my deeds? "The reply is," in Tyndall's words, "the right of society to protect itself against aggressive injurious forces, whether they be bound or free, forces of nature or forces of man." l Punishment can have a meaning only in a deterministic scheme of things. We can by education make a moral being out of man, that is, determine him to act for the social good. As Riehl expresses it epigrammatically: "Man is not held responsible because he is by birth a moral being, he becomes a moral being because he is held responsible."


There are many men who, while acknowledging the arguments of the deterministic theory to be unanswerable yet reject it on practical grounds. However, even if it were so that man cannot live by it, this would by no means impair its truth. The fact that the knowledge of certain things might produce injurious consequences can have no weight with the philosopher. Truth is one thing, expediency another. The history of the world has shown us thus far that we need have no fear of the truth. The proclamation of new truths has invariably been met with denunciations. Morality was believed to be in danger, but gradually the hated theory became an axiom, and the world is living right on.


The deterministic theory is not, as has been claimed, a discouraging and paralyzing doctrine. On the contrary, the knowledge that we are determined must determine us to avoid certain conditions and seek others more favorable. Determinism does not destroy the energy of action. Fatalistic nations like the Mohammedans were far more energetic than Christian ascetics, who believed in the will's absolute freedom. Determinism is the strongest motive to action. If I am exceedingly desirous of fame how can the knowledge that this desire has been caused by conditions affect me? Why should it make me less ambitious? If I have been morally educated, I shall continue to strive after certain things in spite of my belief in determinism. I shall go right on deliberating and choosing as heretofore, and make an effort to live an honorable, useful life. "Now when it is said by a fatalist," Butler writes, "that the whole constitution of nature, and the actions of men, that everything and every mode and circumstance of everything, is necessary, and could not possibly have been otherwise, it is to be observed, that this necessity does not exclude deliberation, choice, preference, and acting from certain principles and to certain ends; because all this is a matter of undoubted experience, acknowledged by all, and what every man may, every moment, be conscious of." The author of nature then being certainly of some character or other, notwithstanding necessity, it is evident this necessity is as reconcilable with the particular character of benevolence, veracity, and justice, in him, which attributes are the foundation of religion, as with any other character; since we find their necessity no more hinders men from being benevolent than cruel; true than faithless; just than unjust, or, if the fatalist pleases, what we call unjust."


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