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Meditation 569
Views of an Agnostic
Free Will

by: Ross E. Browne

This is part 9 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.

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By “freedom of the will” is meant freedom of the individual in the act of willing. In the popular mind it implies that we are capable of choosing without regard to external influence, and that we have the original power to initiate our own actions. Reference is had to our so-called voluntary acts only. Our involuntary acts we naturally regard as automatic.

It is an old and hackneyed theme which in times gone by was productive of much disputation and literary effort. Practical people now commonly avoid discussion of the subject, relying implicitly upon their consciousness of power, and seeing no benefit to be derived from the inquiry.

The subject has been treated by many philosophers. Hume, the skeptic, in his terse way made his meaning clear in a short argument. He said we have the liberty to act in accordance with our choice; but choice follows fixed laws as a matter of necessity, and therefore we have no freedom in choosing. Jonathan Edwards, in his remarkable “Inquiry,” handled the question with keen logical skill, and reached a similar conclusion. He was a minister of the gospel and a defender of the Calvanistic doctrine of predestination. Kant said if we understood the subject well enough we could predict the act of man with the same certainty as an eclipse, though he elsewhere indicated a different view from a different standpoint. Spencer, in his argument, left no room for an element of freedom of choice. Huxley, whose broad interest in science led him to give considerable attention to metaphysical questions, and who was always clear and unequivocal, said we are “conscious automata.” Haeckel said : “Freedom of the will... is a pure dogma, based on an illusion, and has existence.” There are a number of philosophers who have expressed views very different from these. I am not familiar enough with their works to comment intelligently upon their theories. Some of those whose essays I have glanced over appear to base their views upon, or co-ordinate them with fanciful conceptions of the functions of a Divine Providence, or to make truth dependent upon desirability.

The argument sustaining the more skeptical view is about as follows : In our actions we are necessarily restricted within the limits of our physical and mental capacities. Within such limits we may act as we choose. This is what we call freedom; but it is freedom in a very narrow sense. Our choice is directed by our motives. Our motives are partly inherited and partly the effects of experience. We do not originate them. They are handed over to us and we simply follow them automatically in forming our choice.

This conclusion is dependent upon assuming either the arbitrary control of a “Divine Providence,” or the hypothesis that “all phenomena, including the mental, are governed by invariable law.” The latter is a very “plausible” hypothesis, and I shall so designate it in the following pages.

This theory denies us all originality. It prescribes that all our thoughts and actions are predetermined; and that we are unable to deviate by a hair’s breadth from exact lines fixed for us in advance. It makes no difference whether the governing laws are “natural” or “supernatural” so long as they are controlling. If we adopt the theory we must accept the doctrine of fatalism in its most rigid sense, as applicable to every sensation, thought and action in extreme detail. Once accept the “plausible hypothesis;” and there is no escape from the conclusion that we are mere puppets – it is the inevitable logical sequence.

The theory is in violent opposition to one of our most persistent intuitive assumptions, that of original power. Our present attitude in the matter is about as follows: We are conscious of the possession of some power, exclusively our own, which enables us to shape the future events of our lives to a very considerable extent. We assume that there is an element of originality in our choice and determination to act. This assumption is an essential element in all ambition, resolve, and voluntary endeavor. It influences every step which deliberately contemplates a future accomplishment, It is a salient feature in the motives which instigate our more pretentious acts, and accompanies innumerable daily acts of a trivial character. If this be doubted, let us stop and consider what we do in contemplating an act of importance. We marshal before us all known facts and search our memories for suggestions. We weigh reasons pro and con. We subject ourselves to uneasiness or worry lest some important consideration should be overlooked, or our conclusion should be wrongly drawn. We exert ourselves in the effort to invent methods of promoting desirable ends, or of avoiding unpleasant consequences. We have an innate feeling of personal’ responsibility. Is not this feeling, as we experience it, incompatible with the assumption that the outcome was predetermined before we were born? Argue as we may, our efforts and worries are due in great part to an innate assumption of an element of originality in our power, and it is not presumed that there exists an intelligent human being who is free from it. I venture to say that this natural assumption has been largely, if not mainly, instrumental in raising our intellectual and moral standards from the lower level of our prehistoric ancestors.

What would be the effect of relinquishing this and substituting in its stead an intuitive conviction of fatalism? Should we not lose one of our principal incentives to high endeavor? As we are now constituted it is quite certain that vanity and pride are essential elements of our ambitions, and the introduction of intuitive fatalism would sadly impair our motives. If the skeptical philosopher says his motive has not been so impaired, the inference is that his newly-formed opinion has signally failed to evict his intuitive assumption and take its place as a matter of substitution. I dare say the intuition remained active in every one of our skeptical authorities in spite of his logical deduction.

There appears, however, some danger of such substitution in the distant future when so many of the ablest representatives of profound and accurate thought have come to believe in fatalism. If, in process of time, rational men generally become so convinced, the doctrine may gradually enter our code of precepts for the instruction of youth, and by habitual entertainment become intuitive. It is true that fate might do better for us than we ourselves would with partial control. It is not fatality per se, but the prospective consciousness of it which appears threatening. There may be some way of directing the effect of such consciousness into a harmless channel, but I must say I cannot now imagine the influence to be other than demoralizing.

To be sure, the danger indicated has no bearing whatever upon the question of truth, but it suggests the propriety of a closer scrutiny of the argument.

In the following pages I shall attempt to show that we cannot substantiate originality by reason; that the suggestions of reason all seem to favor the “plausible hypothesis” ; that this hypothesis, however, insofar as it concerns so-called “voluntary power,” is mainly based on analogy without scientific verification; that such verification is now impossible, and we can foresee no probability of its becoming possible ; that in our present state of ignorance there appears no way of establishing the truth in the matter conclusively by process of reason, and we are left to our instinctive assumption of original power as our natural guide.

An external occurrence does not directly affect our motive or choice. If it arouses in us a sensation, the latter, as a part of us, constitutes the direct influence. Recurrence of the sensation, due to memory, continues to influence us, and ultimately becomes a more or less significant element in our stock of habitual motives. An external phenomenon which does not produce in us a sensation does not affect our motive. It is apparent then that choice is directly governed only by internal influences. Each such influence constitutes an elementary motive. Every deliberate choice is governed by a motive which is the resultant of various elementary motives. This resultant is often exceedingly complex in its origin. It is mainly due to the impress of innumerable experiences, in the form of memories mysteriously aroused, and to many variable sensations and natural tendencies derived -by the inexplicable processes of inheritance from a vast line of complex ancestors.

As an illustration of this complexity, it is safe to say of the 1,600,000,000 human inhabitants of the earth at the present time that no two will always think and act exactly alike under the same external conditions. Mental phenomena are far more variable even than this illustration indicates. This complexity is not cited to prove originality, though it is entirely compatible with it, but to indicate the extreme difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of a practical and comprehensive test.

In active life we are concerned with the essence rather than the origin of things. We only remember the source of a motive when it has made an unusual impression or is of recent origin. It is plain that a large portion of our motives are derived from sources long since forgotten, and these, together with our inherited tendencies, we are, in a loose way, wrongly inclined to regard as original.

We are ordinarily more concerned with the present and future than with the past. We are always making a fresh start, and there is ever present the feeling that the mainspring which generates our power is our own. At the moment of acting, our motives are wholly our own, no matter how derived. Consciousness of this fact gives rise to a feeling of independence in choosing. Independence implies freedom from dependence upon external influence, or, we may say, it implies ownership of all upon which we really depend. Originality implies first cause and is not necessarily involved in independence; but it has already been shown that our assumption is not confined to independence, but involves originality as well. Our independence, thus defined, is verifiable, and our belief in it is not a mistake. But our originality is not verifiable by any feasible test and our assumption of it is wholly intuitive, without proof, and may be erroneous. That we are at present committed to this assumption has already been shown. Whether it be sound or hallucinatory is another question.

We are entirely ignorant of the origin and character of many of the essential elements of our power. Being thus ignorant and at the same time possessed with the feeling of independence, we should doubtless intuitively assume originality whether we really possessed it or not, whether the “plausible hypothesis” be untrue or true. Hence our assumption does not constitute valid evidence. At the same time the fact that it may be fallacious must not be taken as a proof that it is so.

When we consider the subject from a rational standpoint, we make assumptions which appear to us in accord with reliable experience. We may thus argue that intelligence is mainly based on experience, and experience cannot produce originality. Therefore, an intelligent motive cannot be wholly, or even mainly, original. Our elementary motives are derived from inheritance and experience. Inheritance means experience of our forefathers, plus their inheritance. The further back we go the more dominating appears the factor of experience in our motive, and in this retrospection the residue of inheritance which may still contain an element of originality seems to approach a vanishing point. If we go back to the original monad – if, indeed, there ever was such – we find.,what does not appear to be a very promising source of originality.

But this reasoning is unsatisfactory in various ways. There may be omitted some essential consideration of which we are wholly ignorant. It may be suggested that if there is an element of originality in us, logically it must have always existed, and must either have been transmitted with the spark of life, or have been absorbed by us at an early stage in our individual existence, choosing our brain, so to speak, as a temporary habitat. But such suggestions lead us into the domain of unfathomable mystery, where, as already asserted, the rational attitude is that of profound ignorance.

Let us consider the foundation of the “plausible hypothesis.” It has already been indicated in a previous chapter that the principle of “complete government by invariable law” is acceptably established in the field of natural phenomena other than the mental; but that in connection with mental processes we should not be justified in applying it by mere analogy. Definite verification is required, for there are mysteries connected with the mind to which we should not glibly apply our knowledge of inanimate substance or even the activities of unintelligent life. However, upon reflection we may claim to recognize certain relations which have some bearing on the question. We realize that, in the strictly logical processes of sane minds, the same premises always lead to the same conclusions, as, for example, in mathematical reasoning. We infer that this means government by invariable law. We realize further that certain physical occurrences produce certain sensations which are always followed by very similar thoughts and impulses. There are many sequences of ideas which occur so persistently as to indicate close relationship and suggest complete interdependence. We are not, as a rule, able to trace these sequences with the same accuracy and precision observed in connection with the physical tests upon which we relied in establishing the original hypothesis, but they are suggestive and the apparent inaccuracies may be due to complications unaccounted for. We also realize that the intensity and the very existence of mental activity, so far as exhibited to us, are dependent upon known physical phenomena – upon the effects of stimulating food, etc. – which we have excellent reason for believing to be controlled by invariable law. So far the inference by analogy seems to be justified and we are prone to jump to the conclusion that we ought to extend the hypothesis to all mental phenomena without reserve. Gradually the inference has become more and more plausible, until we feel strongly impelled to adopt it as a broad rule unlimited in its application.

But the relations above cited are only suggestive and do not prove the contention. The sequences in many of the logical processes are determined with precision, but in these processes the mental faculties involving motive and will power are not concerned. Intensity of mental activity is not directly involved in the issue. There is no proof in approximate correspondence under similar conditions.

No one will doubt that many, or even the great majority of the factors in man’s thought and action are governed as claimed; but, in order to verify the assumption that every factor is so governed, we should have to be able to predict man’s exact thought and action under precisely established conditions in a variety of cases involving separately each, or jointly all of his faculties, The problems encountered would be so complex and would incorporate so many variables, demanding so many equations, that we could not possibly handle them, even if theoretically determinate, and indetermination in connection with a single element would leave the assumption of complete government by law without verification.

Suppose we could, by leaving out one group of elements, make a provisional solution of the problem, and suppose this group was ordinarily overshadowed, and only occasionally of material importance. We should then, by applying our formulae, be able to hit close to the mark in a great majority of cases, and should only exceptionally be subject to material error in our forecasts, and this is far more than we may now claim to do. In our present state we have only the uncertain results of a few equations. These enable us to make many good guesses, but often lead us astray – occasionally far astray. Such unreliability our skeptical authorities attribute wholly to ignorance, and say if we understood the subject well enough we could always make accurate predictions. This excuse suggests a weak point in their argument. The “plausible hypothesis” is empirical in origin, or based on experience and test. It cannot be so based in a field in which we are professedly too ignorant to make the test. The natural inference is that the hypothesis is borrowed from another field and applied here by analogy, and its adoption may be premature. Judging by my own limitations, it appears to me improbable that our authorities could have legitimately deduced the hypothesis of complete government from what they know of mental phenomena alone. It may be claimed that whatever rational knowledge we have is in conformity with it, and that no one can prove an exception, etc. ; but these claims are not conclusive. To establish the hypothesis, there appears to be required either a more definite knowledge; or some comprehensive verification by practical test. There is something lacking in the present basis to make it satisfactory.

The philosopher’s apparent prepossession in favor of his hypothesis may be due to his method of reasoning. The scientific method certainly assumes complete government by invariable law, which means absence of arbitrary power in the subject investigated. How then may the scientist expect to deal with the question of originality by process of reason ? He may only infer it from the failures of reason, and such inference could only be convincing after showing that every law he could possibly assume fails to govern – and this is manifestly unfeasible.

What has been said in substance in the last few pages may bear repetition in a slightly different form. Our search for rational knowledge is a search for underlying principles, which means practically a search for the terms of laws which are presumed to govern. We assume complete government in order to find the terms. Originality means absence of complete government. We thus assume the absence of originality in the subject to be investigated. In case of mental phenomena we have found various occurrences which correspond accurately with the assumption, but do not involve all our faculties ; others which correspond more or less approximately, and still others which we are unable to put to the test. Let us not imagine that we have established the truth of our premise. In making the assumption we are doubtless satisfied of its truth beforehand, and are prone to adopt a limited corroboration and jump to a premature conclusion. The latter is quite as intuitive in character as the original assumption.

By a circuitous route we have once more arrived at a starting point. We are face to face with a plain conflict of intuitions. We have on the one hand the layman’s assumption of an element of originality, on the other hand the philosopher’s assumption of complete government. These are directly opposed. Which shall prevail ? There is no assurance that either is right. Intuitive assumptions are often wrong, as indicated in a former chapter. Comparing the two, that of originality is the more primitive and the more widely spread. It is the natural assumption of every man. On the other hand, the belief in complete government is the result of philosophical deliberation.

In conclusion, I must admit that, so far as I can see, every rational argument of a positive character favors “conscious automatism,” and it is only the recognition of uncertainties which may be rationally urged against its adoption. It seems quite impossible to reach any other conclusion by the scientific method as we now conceive and define it. The method, however, is of man’s invention, and the question arises: Does it cover the whole ground ? It is very serviceable in tracing relations within prescribed limits, but it does not explain anything really fundamental. I cannot say with confidence that my intuitive assumption of so-called free will is not the result of the habitual entertainment of an illusion, but I can say with conviction that, as I am now constituted, the assumption is an essential element of my motive power in every so-called voluntary action.

Let us once more call to mind the fact that we are animals still, and are still dependent to a great extent upon instinct, especially in a field as yet only superficially explored by reason. Do not let us be too hasty in assuming that we know the underlying principles before we have even discovered a satisfactory method of investigation.

I clearly recognize the ordinarily preponderating influences of inherited tendency, experience and instruction, and consideration of these elements has from time to time cast many shadows of doubt upon my assumption of original power, but there is something missing in the arguments they lead to, which prevent the latter from being conclusive to my mind. Pending further rationalization, I must adhere to my animal instinct in the matter. Paradoxically, I automatically assume that I am no automaton, and my presumption of free will persists willy nilly.