Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/December 1900/Freedom and Free-Will

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




LET us suppose two men before a jury on the accusation of homicide. Each admits that he has occasioned the death of a man, but each has his own account of how the thing came about. In the first instance, the accused was holding the gun that sped the fatal bullet; his finger was on the trigger and pressed it; the discharge followed; the victim fell. But it seems that the gun had been forced into his unwilling hands by one stronger than he; an iron finger lay above his own, and it was under its pressure that his finger became the proximate cause of a series of events which he cannot even now contemplate without horror. He was the unwilling instrument of a bloody deed, and does not account himself the responsible cause; he slew because he 'couldn't help it.'

The second man lays before his jurors a story in many respects different, but ending with the same words. He was alone when the shooting occurred. He was under no compulsion at the hands of another, but was shooting at a mark, and taking delight in dotting the target near the bull's-eye, when lo! across the field, above the hedge that bounds the horizon on that side, appears a tempting mark, the rubicund face of a rustic whose open mouth strikes his joyous mood at just that instant as an irresistible target, and one altogether too delightful to be passed by. "I had not the faintest intention, a moment before, of shooting any man," he explains; "but, really, it was too good a shot to miss, and I simply couldn't help it."

Let us suppose it possible for the same jury to hear these two explanations, one after the other. The action of a petit jury is said to be most uncertain, but there can be little doubt that even a jury would detect an important distinction between these two 'couldn't help's.' The world seems to be full of 'couldn't help's' of the two sorts; the man who stumbled on the stairs couldn't help rolling to the bottom; the man who was thrown from a window couldn't help descending to the street; the man who was seized by the police couldn't help failing to meet his engagement; the greedy boy couldn't help taking the larger muffin; the devoted mother couldn't help spoiling her only child; the emotional philanthropist couldn't help feeling in his pocket on hearing the plausible tale of the wily tramp.

Probably most jurymen would refuse to recognize 'couldn't help's' of the second class as worthy of the name at all. Certainly, as jurymen, they have little concern with them. It is only with those of the first class that the law has to do, except in cases in which the sanity of the accused is in question. But suppose one of the jurymen happens to be a philosopher, and is accustomed to reflect upon matters which most men are in the habit of passing by without much thought. He may say to himself: "As a juryman I cannot think of listening to the absurd excuse for homicide offered by this second fellow. If I did I should have to admit that no man is a moral agent and that no crime should be punished. The smuggler, the burglar, the murderer, may be assumed to be influenced by motives of some sort. There is no case in which something may not be pointed to as that which occasioned the deed. Human life must be protected; society must be preserved; evildoers must be punished. If some men find the attractions of crime irresistible, so much the worse for them. And yet, as a philosopher, I find that I must accept the fact that, in a certain sense of the words, the guilty man couldn't help doing what he did. He was what he was; the target was attractive; the result followed. He was free from external compulsion, but he was not and could not be free from himself and his own impulses."

The man who reasons thus is called a determinist. Whether our determinist is wise to express things exactly as he does will appear in what follows. But the thought which he is at least trying to express is sufficiently clear. A determinist is a man who accepts in its widest sense the assumption of science that all the phenomena of nature are subject to law, and that nothing can happen without some adequate cause why it should happen thus and not otherwise. The fall of a raindrop, the unfolding of a flower, the twitching of an eyelid, the penning of a sentence—all these, he maintains, have their adequate causes, though the causes of such occurrences lie, in great part, beyond the line which divides our knowledge from our ignorance. Determinism is, of course, a faith; for it is as yet wholly impossible for science to demonstrate even that the fluttering of an aspen leaf in the summer breeze is wholly subject to law; and that every turn or twist upon its stem must be just what it is, and nothing else, in view of the whole system of forces in play at the moment. Much less is it possible to prove in detail that that complicated creature called a man draws out his chair, sits down to dinner, gives his neighbor the best cut of the beef, discusses the political situation, and resists the attractions of the decanter before him, strictly in accordance with law—that every motion of every muscle is the effect of antecedent causes which are incalculable only because of the limitations of our intelligence and our ignorance of existing facts. And yet the faith of science seems to those trained in the sciences a reasonable thing, for, as is pointed out, it is progressively justified by the gradual advance of human knowledge, and even in fields in which anything like exact knowledge is at present unattainable the little we do know hints unmistakably at the reign of law. There are few intelligent men who would care to maintain that the fall of a rain-drop or the flutter of an aspen leaf could not be completely accounted for by the enumeration of antecedent causes, were our knowledge sufficiently increased; but there are a considerable number who take issue with the determinist in his view of the subjection to law of all human actions. They maintain that there is a necessarily incalculable element present in such cases, and that all the antecedents taken together can only in part account for the result. As opposed to determinism they hold to the doctrine of indeterminism, or, as it has too often unhappily been called, the doctrine of 'free-will.'

I say as it has unhappily been called, because it is a thousand pities that an interesting scientific question, and a most difficult one, should be taken out of the clear atmosphere of passionless intellectual investigation, and, through a mere confusion, brought down among the fogs of popular passion and partisan strife. We have all heard much about fate and free-will, and no man with the spirit of a man in him thinks, without inward revolt, of the possibility that his destiny is shaped for him by some irresistible external power in the face of which he is impotent. No normal man welcomes the thought that he is not free, and the denial of free-will can scarcely fail to meet with his reprobation. We recognize freedom as the dearest of our possessions, the guarantee, indeed, of all our possessions. The denial of freedom we associate with wrong and oppression, the scourge and the dungeon, the tyranny of brute force, the despair of the captive, the sodden degradation of the slave. The very word freedom is enough to set us quivering with emotion; it is the open door to the thousand-fold activities which well up within us, and to which we give expression with joy.

But it must not be forgotten that the antithesis of freedom is compulsion, that hateful thing that does violence to our nature and crushes with iron hand these same activities. The freedom which poets have sung, and for which men have died, has no more to do with indeterminism than has the Dog, a celestial constellation, with the terrestrial animal that barks. St. Thomas and Spinoza, who differ in many things, have both pointed out that one must distinguish between the two latter, and the distinction is not broader than that which exists between the former. Determinism is not fatalism, and indeterminism is not the affirmation of freedom in any proper sense of that word, the sense in which men take it when it sets their pulses bounding and fills their breasts with high resolve. We have seen that even a determinist can distinguish between the two 'couldn't helps,' and recognize that they must be differently treated. We may now go so far as to insist that, since they do differ so widely, they should be given different names, and we may call upon the determinist to avoid altogether, as other men do, the use of the term 'couldn't help' in the second sense. He may then say, without serious danger of being misunderstood, that the first prisoner at the bar couldn't help doing what he did, but that the second could have helped doing it if he had so elected. Without doing violence to the common use of speech, nay, strictly in accordance with common usage, he may declare that the one man was not free, but was under compulsion, while, on the other hand, the second man was free. He may very well do this without ceasing to be an out-and-out determinist.

Before going on with the topic which is the main interest of this paper, it is right that I should say just a word as to what determinism does not imply, it does not imply that all the causes which may be assumed to be the antecedents of human actions are material causes. A determinist may be a materialist, or he may be an idealist, or he may be a composite creature. As a matter of fact, there have been determinists of many different kinds, for the dispute touching the human will is thousands of years old; and the fact that the doctrine happens at the present time to be more closely associated in our minds with one of the 'isms' I have mentioned than with another, says little as to their natural relationship. Nor need the determinist necessarily be either an atheist, a theist, or an agnostic. He may, of course, be any one of these; but if he is, it will not be because of his determinism. As a determinist he affirms only the universal applicability of the principle of sufficient reason—the doctrine that for every occurrence, of whatever sort, there must be a cause or causes which can furnish an adequate explanation of the occurrence. I say so much to clear the ground. It is well to remember that materialists have been determinists, idealists have been determinists, atheists have been determinists, theologians have been determinists. The doctrine is not bound up with any of the differences that divide these, and it should not be prejudged from a mistaken notion that it necessarily favors the position taken by one of these classes rather than that taken by another. We may approach it with an open mind, and make an effort to judge it strictly on its own merits.

But to judge it on its own merits, the very first requisite is to purge the mind completely of the misconception that the 'freedom' of the will, or indeterminism, has anything whatever to do with freedom in the ordinary sense of the word—freedom from external compulsion. Here I sit at my desk; my hand lies on the paper before me; can I raise it from the paper or not, just as I please? To such a question, both determinist and indeterminist must give the same answer. Of course I can raise it or not, as I please. Both must admit that I am free in this sense. The question that divides them lies a little farther back; the determinist must hold that, if I please to raise my hand, there is some cause within me, or in my environment, or both, that brings about the result; and if I please not to raise it, he must believe that there is some cause or complex of causes that produces just that result. He does not deny that I can do as I please. He merely maintains that my 'pleasing' is never uncaused. On the other hand, the advocate of the 'liberty of indifference' maintains that under precisely the same circumstances, internal and external, I may raise my hand or keep it at rest. He holds, in other words, that, if I move, that action is not to be wholly accounted for by anything whatever that has preceded, for under precisely the same circumstances it might not have occurred. It is, hence, causeless.

Now it would be a horrid thing to feel that one were not free to move or not to move. Freedom is a pearl of great price. But there is nothing especially attractive in the thought of causeless actions, in themselves considered. They strike one, at first glance, as at least something of an anomaly. It seems reasonable to suspect that the great attraction which the doctrine of indeterminism exercises upon many minds must be due to a confusion between it and something else. That this is indeed the case I can best illustrate by citing a passage from Professor James' delightful 'Talks to Teachers.'[1] It reads as follows:

"It is plain that such a question can be decided only by general analogies, and not by accurate observations. The free-willist believes the appearance to be a reality; the determinist believes that it is an illusion. I myself hold with the free-willists—not because I cannot conceive the fatalist theory clearly, or because I fail to understand its plausibility, but simply because, if free-will were true, it would be absurd to have the belief in it fatally forced on our acceptance. Considering the inner fitness of things, one would rather think that the very first act of a will endowed with freedom should be to sustain the belief in the freedom itself. I accordingly believe freely in my freedom; I do so with the best of scientific consciences, knowing that the predetermination of the amount of my effort of attention can never receive objective proof, and hoping that, whether you follow my example in this respect or not, it will at least make you see that such psychological and pyschophysical theories as I hold do not necessarily force a man to become a fatalist or a materialist."

I have taken this extract because it may stand as the very type of a 'free-will' argument, and as an ideal illustration of the persuasive influence of the ways of expressing things natural to a gifted writer. The school-teacher who has no prejudice against fatalism and materialism, to whom the idea of being endowed with freedom is not attractive, who is willing to have even good things fatally forced upon his acceptance, and who is not inspired by the thought of believing freely in his freedom, must be a poor creature indeed. But suppose Professor James had expressed his thought baldly; suppose he had said: "I myself hold to indeterminism, not because I fail to see the plausibility of the opposite doctrine, but because, if human actions were causeless, what more natural than that man should causelessly believe in their causeless origination? Accordingly, I causelessly believe in the causelessness of my actions, confident that no one knows enough about the matter to prove me in the wrong." Would the doctrine thus stated—and this only means the doctrine stripped of misleading associations—have proved particularly attractive?

It is not attractive even when superficially considered; it only seems arbitrary and unreasonable; a something to be taken rather as a play of fancy than as a serious argument. But looked into more narrowly, the doctrine is seen in its implications to be something very serious and terrible. So little has been said upon this topic in the vast literature of the dispute regarding the will, that I make no excuse for discussing it at some length. The issue has too often been clouded by the associations which hover about the words 'liberty,' 'freedom' and 'freewill,' and the true significance of indeterminism has not been clearly seen. I have said above that it is a pity to stir the emotions when one is trying to settle a question of fact; but as very much has been said upon the topic of the terrors of determinism that it is allowable, as an antidote to this poison, to point out the much more real terrors of 'free-will.'

Let us suppose that the 'libertarian' or 'free-willist'—the indeterminist—is right, and that human actions may be causeless. I am, then, endowed with 'freedom.' This is not freedom in the usual sense of the word, remember; and I have put it into quotation marks to indicate that fact. It means only that my actions cannot wholly be accounted for by anything that has preceded them, even by my own character and impulses, inherent or acquired. But, I ask myself, if I am endowed with 'freedom,' in what sense may this 'freedom' be called mine. Suppose that I have given a dollar to a blind beggar. Can I, if it is really an act of 'free-will,' be properly said to have given the money? Was it given because / was a man of tender heart, one prone to benevolent impulses, and naturally incited by the sight of suffering to make an effort to relieve it? Not at all; in just so far as the gift was the result of 'free-will,' these things could have had nothing to do with the matter. Another man, the veriest miser and skinflint, the most unfeeling brute upon the streets, might equally well have been the instrument of the benevolent deed. His impulses might all be selfish, and his past life a consistent history of sordid greed; I am a lover of my kind; but what has all this to do with acts of 'free-will'? If they are 'free/ they must not be conditioned by antecedent circumstances of any sort, by the misery of the beggar, by the pity in the heart of the passer-by. They must be causeless, not determined. They must drop from a clear sky out of the void, for just in so far as they can be accounted for they are not 'free.'

Is it then I that am 'free'? Am I the cause of the good or evil deeds which—shall I say?—result from my 'freedom'? I do not cause them, for they are uncaused. And, since they are uncaused, and have no necessary congruity with my character or impulses, what guarantee have I that the course of my life will not exhibit the melancholy spectacle of the reign of mere caprice? For forty years I have lived quietly and in obedience to law. I am regarded as a decent citizen, and one who can be counted upon not to rob his neighbor, or wave the red flag of the anarchist. I have grown gradually to be a character of such and such a kind; I am fairly familiar with my impulses and aspirations; I hope to carry out plans extending over a good many years in the future. Is it this I with whom I have lived in the past, and whom I think I know, that will elect for me whether I shall carry out plans or break them, be consistent or inconsistent, love or hate, be virtuous or betake myself to crime? Alas! I am 'free,' and this I with whom I am familiar cannot condition the future. But I will make the most serious of resolves, bind myself with the holiest of promises! To what end? How can any resolve be a cause of causeless actions, or any promise clip the erratic wing of 'free-will'? In so far as I am 'free' the future is a wall of darkness. One cannot even say with the Moslem: 'What shall be, will be;' for there is no shall about it. It is wholly impossible for me to guess what I will 'freely' do, and it is impossible for me to make any provision against the consequences of 'free' acts of the most deplorable sort. A knowledge of my own character in the past brings with it neither hope nor consolation. My 'freedom' is just as 'free' as that of the man who was hanged last week. It is not conditioned by my character. If he could 'freely' commit murder, so can I. But I never dreamt of killing a man, and would not do it for the world! No; that is true; the I that I know rebels against the thought. Yet to admit that this I can prevent it is to become a determinist. If I am 'free' I cannot seek this city of refuge. Is 'freedom' a thing that can be inherited as a bodily or mental constitution? Can it be repressed by a course of education, or laid in chains by life-long habit? In so far as any action is 'free,' what I have been, what I am, what I have always done or striven to do, what I most earnestly wish or resolve to do at the present moment—these things can have no more to do with its future realization than if they had no existence. If, then, I really am 'free,' I must face the possibility that I may at any moment do anything that any man can 'freely' do. The possibility is a hideous one; and surely even the most ardent 'free-willist' will, when he contemplates it frankly, excuse me for hoping that, if I am 'free' I am at least not very 'free,' and that I may reasonably expect to find some degree of consistency in my life and actions. An excess of such 'freedom' is indistinguishable from the most abject slavery to lawless caprice.

And when I consider my relations to my fellow-men the outlook is no better. It is often said that the determinist may grant rewards or inflict punishments as a means of attaining certain desired ends, but that for him there can in all this be no question of justice or injustice. One man is by nature prone to evil as the sparks fly upward; another is born an embryo saint. One is ushered into this world, if not 'trailing clouds of glory,' yet with such clouds, in the shape of civilizing influences, hovering about the very cradle in which he is to lie; another opens his eyes upon a light which breaks feebly through the foul and darkened window-pane, and which is lurid with the reflections of degradation and vice. One becomes the favorite of fortune, and the other the unhappy subject of painful correction. Unless there be 'free-will,' where can we find even the shadow of justice in our treatment of these? We have all heard the argument at length, and I shall not enter into it further; nor shall I delay over the question of the true meaning of the terms justice and injustice, though this meaning is often taken for granted in a very heedless way. I shall merely inquire whether the assumption of 'freedom' contributes anything toward the solution of the problem of punishment.

Let us suppose that Tommy's mother is applying a slipper to some portion of his frame for having 'freely' raided the pantry. Does she punish him for having done the deed, or does she punish him to prevent its recurrence? In either case, she seems, if the deed was a 'free' one, to be acting in a wholly unreasonable way. Was the deed really done by Tommy—i. e., was it the natural result of his knowledge of the contents of the pantry, his appetite for jam, and the presence of the key in the door? Not at all. The act was a 'free' one, and not conditioned by either Tommy's character or his environment. The child's grandfather might have 'freely' stolen jam under just the same circumstances. Thus, in a true sense of the words, the child did not do it. Who can cause what is causeless? Moreover, by no possibility could he have prevented it. Who can guard against the spontaneity of 'freedom'? No resolve, as we have seen, can condition the unconditioned. Then why beat the poor child for what he did not do and what he could not possibly have prevented? Surely this is wanton cruelty, and worthy of all reprobation!

Is the punishment intended to prevent a recurrence of the deed? How futile a measure! Does the silly woman actually believe that she can with a slipper make such changes in Tommy's mind or body as to determine the occurrence or non-occurrence of acts which are, by hypothesis, independent of what is contained in Tommy and his environment? Does she forget that she is raining her blows upon a 'free' agent? As well beat the lad to prevent the lightning from striking the steeple in the next block.

The utter absurdity of punishing a 'free' agent, in so far as he is a 'free' agent, must be apparent to every unprejudiced mind. It is unjust and it is useless. And it seems clear that it is equally useless to make an effort to persuade him. To what end shall I marshal all sorts of good reasons for not doing this or that reprehensible action? To what end shall I pour forth my torrent of eloquence, painting in vivid colors the joys of virtue and the varied miseries which lurk upon the path of the evil-doer? Are my words supposed to have effect, or are they not? If not, it is not worth while to utter them. Evidently they cannot have effect in determining 'free' actions, for such actions cannot be effects of anything. It seems, then, that Tommy's mother and his aunts and all his spiritual pastors and masters have for years approached Tommy upon a strictly deterministic basis. They have thought it worth while to talk, and to talk a great deal. They have done what all pedagogues do—they have adjusted means to ends, and have looked for results, taking no account of 'freedom' at all. Of course, in so far as Tommy upon a strictly deterministic basis. They have thought it worth of the melancholy situation of the man who finds himself the father of half a dozen little 'free-will' monsters who cannot possibly be reached either by moral suasion or by the rod!

It is a melancholy world, this world of 'freedom.' In it no man can count upon himself and no man can persuade his neighbor. We are, it is true, powerless to lead one another into evil; but we are also powerless to influence one another for good. It is a lonely world, in which each man is cut off from the great whole and given a lawless little world all to himself. And it is an uncertain world, a world in which a knowledge of the past casts no ray into the darkness of the future. To-morrow I am to face nearly a hundred students in logic. It is a new class, and I know little about its members save that they are students. I have assumed that they will act as students usually act, and that I shall escape with my life. But if they are endow r ed with 'free-will,' what may I not expect? What does 'free-will' care for the terrors of the Dean's office, the long green table, and the Committee of Discipline? Is it interested in Logic? Or does it have a personal respect for me? The picture is a harrowing one, and I drop the curtain upon it.

Fortunately for us all, 'freedom' is the concern of the philosophers; freedom is what we have to do with in real life. The judge, the philanthropist, the moralist, the pedagogue, all assume that man may be a free agent without on that account being forced beyond the pale into the outer darkness of utter irrationality. Men generally regard a man as free when he is in a position to be influenced by those considerations by which they think the normal man not under compulsion naturally is influenced. They do not think that he is robbed of his freedom in so far as he weighs motives, seeks information, is influenced by persuasion. What would become of our social system if men were not affected by influences of this sort? It would be the annihilation of all the forces which we have put in motion, and upon which we depend, for the amelioration of mankind.

There is scarce any tyranny so great as the tyranny of words. It is as reasonable to believe that strong drink will make a man strong, as that 'freedom' will make a man free, and yet how many believe it! So difficult is it to escape the snares of verbal confusion that I cannot be confident that some of my readers will not suppose that I have been arguing against human freedom. The forms of expression which have been chosen by some determinists are in part responsible for their error. The 'free-willists' are not wholly to blame. I feel, then, that I ought to close this brief paper with an unequivocal and concise statement of my position. It is this:

I believe most heartily in freedom. I am neither fatalist nor materialist. I hold man to be a free agent, and believe that there is such a thing as justice in man's treatment of man. I refuse to regard punishment as the infliction of pain upon one who did not do the thing for which he is punished, could not have prevented it, and cannot possibly be benefited by the punishment he receives. I view with horror the doctrine that the teacher's desk and the pulpit, the force of public opinion and the sanction of law, are of no avail. I am unwilling to assume without evidence that each man's breast is the seat of uncaused and inexplicable explosions, which no man can predict, against the consequences of which no man can make provision and which set at defiance all the forces which make for civilization.

  1. Chapter XV., pp. 191-192.