Sunday, June 27, 2004

Can you will what you will? Human Freedom and my Revision Notes. 

Sorry, but I've not quite got a handle on this. If Daniel Dennett is right, as I think he must be, in saying that human freedom is not incompatible with a causal, or even a deterministic universe (Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 2003), then why is Schopenhauer so bleakly persuasive?

Here's my notes:

Arthur Schopenhauer, “Freedom of the Will”.

The concept of freedom is a negative concept – it implies the absence of restraint and obstruction.

By physical freedom, we mean the absence of material impediment. “The characteristic of animals is that their movements proceed from their will, are voluntary, and consequently are called free when no material object makes this impossible.” (p 174).

We move, therefore, to a positive concept of freedom and say that such things are free as move according to their will.

“For as soon as an animal acts only from its will, it is in this sense free; and no account is taken here of what may have influenced its will itself.” (p 174).

“A people is also called free, and by this we understand that it is governed only by laws and that it itself has issued them; for then in every case it obeys only its own will. Accordingly, political freedom is to be classed under physical freedom.” (p 175).

Intellectual freedom is the matter of the voluntary and involuntary with respect to thought.

Moral freedom, the liberum arbitrium, is related to physical freedom: “In a good many cases it was observed that, without being impeded by material obstacles, a human being was restrained from acting as otherwise would certainly have been in accordance with his will, by mere motives, such as threats, promises, dangers, and the like” (p175).

Is such a person therefore still free, or has a counter-motive been imposed to obstruct the free will? In a common way of speaking, one might say that physical obstacles can easily overcome the human being, whereas no motive is ever entirely irresistible. Even the strongest of motives such as the preservation of life can be overcome – one may sacrifice oneself for others, for one’s ideals etc. Conversely, one may endure all sorts of physical impositions for the sake of one’s motive – one may endure the torture rack to spare the lives of others.

Motives have “no purely objective and absolute compulsion”, yet “a subjective and relative one could nevertheless belong to them, namely for the person concerned” (p 176).

The question therefore is, “can you also will what you will?” Is a person completely self-determining? As the question is posed, it appears as if willing were determined by yet another will behind it, and if we pursue it to its logical extreme, “can you will what you will what you will what you will etc”, we find that we may as well settle on the final instance of willing and ask, simply, “can you will?” (p 176).

As we noted, freedom has a generally negative character, but this negative character derives from the positive concept of necessity. What, therefore, is necessary?

“Necessary is that which follows from a given, sufficient ground”. (p 177).

“In each case, the necessary adheres to the consequent with equal strictness if the ground is given. Only insofar as we understand something as the consequent of a given ground do we recognise it as necessary … for all grounds are compelling”. (p 177).

“The contingent is conceived as the opposite of the necessary; but the one does not contradict the other. For everything contingent is only relatively so. For in the real world, where only the contingent is to be found, every event is necessary in regard to its cause; but in regard to everything else with which it coincides in time and space, it is contingent ” (p177).

“Now as the absence of necessity is characteristic of what is free, the latter would have to be dependent on absolutely no cause at all, and consequently would have to be defined as absolutely contingent.” (p 177).

Schopenhauer cannot vouch for the conceivability of this concept (although he has just conceived of it).

However, such a concept of freedom, applied to the human will, “would state that in its manifestations (acts of will) an individual will would not be determined by causes or sufficient reasons in general … On this rests Kant’s definition according to which freedom is the power to initiate of itself a series of changes.” (p 177).

“Of itself”, in this case, means “without antecedent cause”, which is identical to “without necessity”. Therefore, we are once again left with a purely negative definition of freedom.

“The particular manifestations of such a will (acts of will) would therefore proceed absolutely and quite originally from itself” (p178).

“In the case of such a concept, clear thinking is at an end because the principle of sufficient reason in all its meaning is essential to our whole faculty of cognition” (p178).

Such a concept, however, may be given a name: liberum arbitrium indifferentiae (free choice of indifference). This is “the only clearly determined, firm, and settled concept of that which is called freedom of the will” (p 178), and the corollary is that for a person endowed with such a quality, under any given circumstances, two diametrically opposite actions are just as possible.

We are therefore only truly free when we will nothing.

Our self-conscious selves repeat the inner mantra “I can do what I will”, yet all this means is that decisions arising from the dim depths of our souls must pass through our intuitive sense – it is the intuition which bridges the inner and outer worlds, which would otherwise be separated by an insurmountable chasm.

The self-consciousness of will is roughly expressed thus: “I can do what I will; if I want to go to the left, I go to the left; if I want to go to the right, I go to the right. This depends entirely on my will alone. I am therefore free.” “Certainly this statement is perfectly true and correct, yet with it the will is already presupposed” (p179).

Human beings may tend to regard this certainty as so obvious, and all questions about it only so much dialectical horseplay, but Schopenhauer thinks this is possibly because the human being is “primarily and essentially a practical and not a theoretical being” who is more conscious of the active side of his will – its effects – than of the passive side of his will – its dependency. The question, however, is not whether one’s decision is predicated purely on one’s will, but rather whether one can freely will – one what does willing depend? (p 179).

“For example, when choosing between two mutually exclusive objects, can you prefer the possession of one just as much as that of the other” (p 179).

The counter-argument may come – I admit the choice would be difficult, but it will always depend entirely on me whether I will choose one or the other. If we ask, “but on what does your willing itself depend?” He may reply – on nothing other than myself! I will, I will, I will! I will what I will, and what I will, that I will. Pressed to the limit, this imaginary speaker therefore identifies a will within the will – as if he might have an I within the I. (p 179).

The ordinary human, untutored in philosophy, will take flight from the perplexity that such a question – seriously posed – is likely to cause. (p180).

Schopenhauer, on the other hand, fearless cynic that he is, stands firm on his groundless ground and warns us that we have no freedom. Except that he did later come to the view, derived from Buddhism, that it was possible to will exactly nothing, perfect nothing, and therefore be truly free.

But now, I see why he is so persuasive. G. E. M. Anscombe demonstrated that Hume, in his overthrowing of the concept of causality, in fact only overthrew one kind of causality - that kind which we associate with a "necessary connection". But, as she "shews", Hume did not make a persuasive argument for suggesting that causality had to involve necessary connection. In fact, such a notion would have utterly perplexed most of the world's citizens who were either believer, astrologers or magical adepts, and consequently expected the "laws" of nature to be suspended at any moment. It was only in the Republic of Letters that the idea of a necessary connection gained any purchase whatsoever. Since neither Hume nor Schopenhauer make any persuasive case for suggesting that causality must involve necessary connection, Anscombe argues that we are entitled to a more modest notion of causality, that which involves simply one thing following from another - not inevitably, not without exception but simply in the sense that in this instance my pressing the light switch caused the bedroom to be illumined. To Hume's challenge to his readers that they might find an example of causal "efficacy", Anscombe makes the excellent contrarian reply: "Nothing easier: are not cutting, chewing, purring all kinds of efficacy?" This goes to the heart of the matter in my view. Causality is something we learn from human action, from our own ability to impact on the world. And, in PF Strawson's idiom, it is our ability to resent the impact of others that is the essence of human freedom.

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