Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/457

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

has seldom passed beyond the halls in which they were carried on. It has been different with the question whether man is free in his acts, or is driven by an unavoidable compulsion. This question—touching every one, apparently accessible to every one, intimately connected with the fundamental conditions of society, reaching to the depth of religious convictions—has played a part of immeasurable importance in the history of thought and civilization, and the stages of the development of the human mind are plainly reflected in the discussion of it.

Classical antiquity did not rack its brains very much over this problem. Neither the idea of an inviolably binding law of nature nor that of an absolute control of the universe existing in the general ancient view of the world, no ground was offered for a conflict between free-will and the governing principle of the world. The Stoics believed in a fate, and therefore denied free-will. The Roman moralists, from ethical considerations, set up the doctrine of freedom again on a natural subjective basis. "Sentit animus se moveri," Cicero remarks in the "Tusculans"; "quod quum sentit, illud una sentit se vi sua, non aliena moveri."

It was Christian dogmatism that fell into the darkest self-dug pits over this question. The hopeless, entangling controversy about freewill and predestination has dragged along from the fathers of the Church through all the schools of doctrine and thought to the Reformers, and from them on. God is almighty and all-knowing; nothing comes to pass that he has not willed and foreseen from eternity. Therefore, man is unfree; for, if he had done otherwise than as God had foreordained, then would not God have been almighty and all knowing. Thus it does not lie within man's will whether he do right or sin. How, then, can he be responsible for his acts? How can it agree with God's justice and goodness that he punish or reward men for acts which are fundamentally God's own acts? Such is the form in which the problem presented itself to those minds. The doctrine of original sin, the questions of redemption through merit or through the blood of the Saviour, by faith or by works, and of the different kinds of grace, were complicated in a thousand ways with that dilemma itself, already fruitful in subtilties, and the cloisters of Christendom resounded from the fourth to the seventeenth century with disputations about determinism and indeterminism. Perhaps there is no subject of human thought concerning which more has been written. The contest was not always confined to books, but often culminated in bitter accusations of heresy with all their horrors.

How differently is the problem of free-will regarded in our time! The persistence of energy proves that force ever arises or is extinguished as little as matter. The condition of the whole world, even of a human brain, at each instant, is the absolute mechanical result of the condition in the previous instant and the absolute mechanical cause of the condition in the following instant. That in a given instant one