THE QUESTION OF 'FREE-WILL.'
From The Principles of Psychology, Chapter XXVI, pp.569-79Especially must we, when talking about it, rid our mind of the fabulous warfare of separate agents called ideas.' The brain-processes may be agents, and the thought as such may be an agent. But what the ordinary psychologies call ideas' are nothing but parts of the total object of representation. All that is before the mind at once, no matter how complex a system of things and relations it may be, is one object for the thought. Thus, A-and-B-and-their-mutual-incompatibility - and - the - fact - that - one-alone-can-be-true-or-can - become - real-notwithstanding -the-probability-or-desirability-of-both' may be such a complex object; and where the thought is deliberative its object has always some such form as this. When, now, we pass from deliberation to decision, that total object undergoes a change. We either dismiss A altogether and its relations to B, and think of B exclusively; or after thinking of both as possibilities, we next think that A is impossible, and that B is or forthwith shall be real. In either case a new object is before our thought; and where effort exists, it is where the change from the first object to the second one is hard. Our thought seems to turn in this case like a heavy door upon its hinges; only, so far as the effort feels spontaneous, it turns, not as if by some one helping, but as if by an inward activity, born for the occasion, of its own. The psychologists who discussed 'the muscular sense' at the international congress at Paris in 1889 agreed at the end that they needed to come to a better understanding in regard to this appearance of internal activity at the moment when a decision is made. M. Fouillée, in an article which I find more interesting and suggestive than coherent or conclusive,* seems to resolve our sense of activity into that of our very existence as thinking entities. At least so I translate his words.† But we saw in Chapter X how hard it is to lay a verifying finger plainly upon the thinking process as such, and to distinguish it from certain objects of the stream. M. Fouillée admits this; but I do not think he fully realizes how strong would be the position of a man who should suggest (see Vol. I. p. 301) that the feeling of moral activity itself which accompanies the advent of certain 'objects' before the mind is nothing but certain other objects, — constrictions, namely, in the brows, eyes, throat, and breathing apparatus, present then, but absent from other pulses of subjective change. Were this the truth, then a part, at any rate, of the activity of which we become aware in effort would seem merely to be that of our body; and many thinkers would probably thereupon conclude that this 'settles the claims' of inner activity, and dismisses the whole notion of such a thing as a superfluity in psychological science. I cannot see my way to so extreme a view ; even although I must repeat the confession made on pp. 296-7 of Vol. I, that I do not fully understand how we come to our unshakable belief that thinking exists as a special kind of immaterial process alongside of the material processes of the world. It is certain, however, that only by postulating such thinking do we make things currently intelligible; and it is certain that no psychologist has as yet denied the fact of thinking, the utmost that has been denied being its dynamic power. But if we postulate the fact of the thinking at all, I believe that we must postulate its power as well; nor do I see how we can rightly equalize its power with its mere existence, and say (as M. Fouillée seems to say) that for the thought-process to go on at all is an activity, and an activity everywhere the same; for certain steps forward in this process seem prima facie to be passive, and other steps (as where an object comes with effort) seem prima facie to be active in a supreme degree. If we admit, therefore, that our thoughts exist, we ought to admit that they exist after the fashion in which they appear, as things, namely, that supervene upon each other, sometimes with effort and sometimes with ease; the only questions being, is the effort where it exists a fixed function of the object, which the latter imposes on the thought? or is it such an independent 'variable' that with a constant object more or less of it may be made? It certainly appears to us indeterminate, and as if, even with an unchanging object, we might make more or less, as we choose. If it be really indeterminate, our future acts are ambiguous or unpredestinate: in common parlance, our wills are free. If the amount of effort be not indeterminate, but be related in a fixed manner to the objects themselves, in such wise that whatever object at any time fills our consciousness was from eternity bound to fill it then and there, and compel from us the exact effort, neither more nor less, which we bestow upon it, — then our wills are not free, and all our acts are foreordained. The question of fact in the free-will controversy is thus extremely simple. It relates solely to the amount of effort of attention or consent which we can at any time put forth. Are the duration and intensity of this effort fixed functions of the object, or are they not? Now, as I just said, it seems as if the effort were an independent variable, as if we might exert more or less of it in any given case. When a man has let his thoughts go for days and weeks until at last they culminate in some particularly dirty or cowardly or cruel act, it is hard to persuade him, in the midst of his remorse, that he might not have reined them in; hard to make him believe that this whole goodly universe (which his act so jars upon) required and exacted it of him at that fatal moment, and from eternity made aught else impossible. But, on the other hand, there is the certainty that all his effortless volitions are resultants of interests and associations whose strength and sequence are mechanically determined by the structure of that physical mass, his brain; and the general continuity of things and the monistic conception of the world may lead one irresistibly to postulate that a little fact like effort can form no real exception to the overwhelming reign of deterministic law. Even in effortless volition we have the consciousness of the alternative being also possible. This is surely a delusion here; why is it not a delusion everywhere? My own belief is that the question of free-will is insoluble on strictly psychologic grounds. After a certain amount of effort of attention has been given to an idea, it is manifestly impossible to tell whether either more or less of it might have been given or not. To tell that, we should have to ascend to the antecedents of the effort, and defining them with mathematical exactitude, prove, by laws of which we have not at present even an inkling, that the only amount of sequent effort which could possibly comport with them was the precise amount which actually came. Measurements, whether of psychic or of neural quantities, and deductive reasonings such as this method of proof implies, will surely be forever beyond human reach. No serious psychologist or physiologist will venture even to suggest a notion of how they might be practically made. We are thrown back therefore upon the crude evidences of introspection on the one hand, with all its liabilities to deception, and, on the other hand, upon a priori postulates and probabilities. He who loves to balance nice doubts need be in no hurry to decide the point. Like Mephistopheles to Faust, he can say to himself, "dazu hast du noch eine lange Frist," for from generation to generation the reasons adduced on both sides will grow more voluminous, parti pris outweighs that of keeping questions open, or if, as a French philosopher of genius says, "l'amour de la vie qui s'indigne de tant de discours," awakens in us, craving the sense of either peace or power, — then, taking the risk of error on our head, we must project upon one of the alternative views the attribute of reality for us; we must so fill our mind with the idea of it that it becomes our settled creed. The present writer does this for the alternative of freedom, but since the grounds of his opinion are ethical rather than psychological, he prefers to exclude them from the present book.* A few words, however, may be permitted about the logic of the question. The most that any argument can do for determinism is to make it a clear and seductive conception, which a man is foolish not to espouse, so long as he stands by the great scientific postulate that the world must be one unbroken fact, and that prediction of all things without exception must be ideally, even if not actually, possible. It is a moral postulate about the Universe, the postulate that what ought to be can be, and that bad acts cannot be fated, but that good ones must be possible in their place, which would lead one to espouse the contrary view. But when scientific and moral postulates war thus with each other and objective proof is not to be had, the only course is voluntary choice, for scepticism itself, if systematic, is also voluntary choice. If, meanwhile, the will be undetermined, it would seem only fitting that the belief in its indetermination should be voluntarily chosen from amongst other possible beliefs. Freedom's first deed should be to affirm itself. We ought never to hope for any other method of getting at the truth if indeterminism be a fact. Doubt of this particular truth will therefore probably be open to us to the end of time, and the utmost that a believer in free-will can ever do will be to show that the deterministic arguments are not coercive. That they are seductive, I am the last to deny ; nor do I deny that effort may be needed to keep the faith in freedom, when they press upon it, upright in the mind. There is a fatalistic argument for determinism, however, which is radically vicious. When a man has let himself go time after time, he easily becomes impressed with the enormously preponderating influence of circumstances, hereditary habits, and temporary bodily dispositions over what might seem a spontaneity born for the occasion. "All is fate," he then says; "all is resultant of what preexists. Even if the moment seems original, it is but the instable molecules passively tumbling in their preappointed way. It is hopeless to resist the drift, vain to look for any new force coming in; and less, perhaps, than anywhere else under the sun is there anything really mine in the decisions which I make." This is really no argument for simple determinism. There runs throughout it the sense of a force which might make things otherwise from one moment to another, if it were only strong enough to breast the tide. A person who feels the impotence of free effort in this way has the acutest notion of what is meant by it, and of its possible independent power. How else could he be so conscious of its absence and of that of its effects? But genuine determinism occupies a totally different ground; not the impotence but the unthinkability of free-will is what it affirms. It admits something phenomenal called free effort, which seems to breast the tide, but it claims this as a portion of the tide. The variations of the effort cannot be independent, it says; they cannot originate ex nihilo, or come from a fourth dimension; they are mathematically fixed functions of the ideas themselves, which are the tide. Fatalism, which conceives of effort clearly enough as an independent variable that might come from a fourth dimension, if it would come but that does not come, is a very dubious ally for determinism. It strongly imagines that very possibility which determinism denies. But what, quite as much as the inconceivability of absolutely independent variables, persuades modern men of science that their efforts must be predetermined, is the continuity of the latter with other phenomena whose predetermination no one doubts. Decisions with effort merge so gradually into those without it that it is not easy to say where the limit lies. Decisions without effort merge again into ideo-motor, and these into reflex acts; so that the temptation is almost irresistible to throw the formula which covers so many cases over absolutely all. Where there is effort just as where there is none, the ideas themselves which furnish the matter of deliberation are brought before the mind by the machinery of association. And this machinery is essentially a system of arcs and paths, a reflex system, whether effort be amongst its incidents or not. The reflex way is, after all, the universal way of conceiving the business. The feeling of ease is a passive result of the way in which the thoughts unwind themselves. Why is not the feeling of effort the same? Professor Lipps, in his admirably clear deterministic statement, so far from admitting that the feeling of effort testifies to an increment of force exerted, explains it as a sign that force is lost. We speak of effort, according to him, whenever a force expends itself (wholly or partly) in neutralizing another force, and so fails of its own possible outward effect. The outward effect of the antagonistic force, however, also fails in corresponding measure, "so that there is no effort without counter-effort,... and effort and counter-effort signify only that causes are mutually robbing each other of effectiveness."* Where the forces are ideas, both sets of them, strictly speaking, are the seat of effort — both those which tend to explode, and those which tend to check them. We, however, call the more abundant mass of ideas ourselves; and, talking of its effort as our effort, and of that of the smaller mass of ideas as the resistance,† we say that our effort sometimes overcomes the resistances offered by the inertias of an obstructed, and sometimes those presented by the impulsions of an explosive, will. Really both effort and resistance are ours, and the identification of our self with one of these factors is an illusion and a trick of speech. I do not see how anyone can fail (especially when the mythologic dynamism of separate ideas,' which Professor Lipps cleaves to, is translated into that of brain-processes) to recognize the fascinating simplicity of some such view as his. Nor do I see why for scientific purposes one need give it up even if indeterminate amounts of effort really do occur. Before their indeterminism, science simply stops. She can abstract from it altogether, then; for in the impulses and inhibitions with which the effort has to cope there is already a larger field of uniformity than she can ever practically cultivate. Her prevision will never foretell, even if the effort be completely predestinate, the actual way in which each individual emergency is resolved. Psychology will be Psychology,* and Science Science, as much as ever (as much and no more) in this world, whether free-will be true in it or not. Science, however, must be constantly reminded that her purposes are not the only purposes, and that the order of uniform causation which she has use for, and is therefore right in postulating, may be enveloped in a wider order, on which she has no claims at all.