Tag: determinism

Morality in a Determined World

This essay will attempt an answer to the following question: If determinism is true, is morality an illusion? In other words, if we take the basic fact of causal necessity – the brute physical explanation that every effect has a cause – as a given, can we justify a belief in moral value and normative judgment in the narrow sense of “good” and “bad”? I will argue that there are good reasons to believe in the reality of both moral judgment and moral value in spite of causal necessity. Firstly, I will show that causal necessity does not entail what determinists insist of it. Secondly, I will argue that causal necessity leaves us no choice but to accept the responsibility of making moral choices, as members of the human community. Lastly, I will argue that the status of morality as a real phenomenon need not rest on naïve notions of ontological independence from the human mind.

The determinist insists on a universe in which all effects are perfectly determined from prior causes all the way back to the so-called “Big Bang”. He argues that we could, in principle, explain all effects in terms of their prior causes, if we only had the means to acquire enough knowledge to do so. We know from quantum physics that this is not actually true. Quantum indeterminacy shows that predictions at the sub-atomic level are a probabilistic affair, at best. Though this is not enough to claim free will (because brute randomness is just as much a causal driver as a perfectly predictable mechanical universe), it does show that the traditional view of determinism is in need of some updating. What’s more, as Peter Tse1 has argued, neural activity – one level up from the sub-atomic – is not a purely ballistic process (i.e., like billiard balls bouncing around). Rather, according to Tse, neurons behave more like a “store and forward” messaging system, in which groups of “epi-connected” neurons assemble into temporary networks, that collect and release electrochemical energy by way of criterial threshold triggers that may be pattern-specific. These criterial triggers can effect future neural states, and the arrangement of subsequent “epi-connected” networks, which makes their behavior indeterminate, but of a non-random nature. These two phenomenon (random quantum indeterminacy, and non-random neural indeterminacy) together, function as a necessary first condition for genuine choice-making activity in the brain. But none of this need be true, necessarily, to refute the main complaint of the determinist. Namely, that moral “responsibility” could not rest with the individual making the apparent choice, because the individual is not the “ultimate” cause of his behavior and because he’s not really making a choice. To begin with, there is no reason I know of, why responsibility can only rest on a causal terminus. So what if I’m not the ultimate cause of my choice? In fact, I can’t really think of any choice I’ve ever made, in which I was the originating source of the choice. By this reasoning, the Big Bang itself would become the ultimate scape goat. So, that objection seems spurious to me. On the question of whether I’m actually making a choice or not, this objection seems to beg the question it is trying to prove. Perhaps I am making an actual choice. The traditional determinist has yet to prove otherwise, and as I have shown, there is good evidence to suggest that he may be operating on obsolete information.

But Dr. Tse’s work is, at the moment, only an untested theory. So, prudence and charity suggests that taking the determinist’s position as a given might be the safer bet. If the human mind is indeed determined in a ballistic sense, just as the rest of physical matter in the universe, and the barrier to making all human activity predictable is not one of principle, but of mere technological prowess, would this mean our impulse to moral judgment is illusory, or that maintaining moral position is indulging in a fiction? When I consider what it means to be a human being, I think not. While we are animals that have evolved just like all others have, we are yet primates of a very peculiar variety. We are creatures driven by a psychology that was chiseled out of environmental pressures that determined a set of genetic traits that were necessary for the reproductive success of primates in that early environment. That process has, as Frans de Waal2 has outlined, equipped us with a highly sophisticated cognitive and emotional apparatus (whether as primary or secondary traits is somewhat irrelevant at the moment), that enabled such things as gratification deferment, long-term planning, cost/benefit calculation, and comparative judgment. These traits have enabled highly sophisticated social interactions and complex social structures in which genetic relatedness, reciprocal altruism, sympathetic resentment, emotional contagion, empathy, and a robust theory of mind, have all culminated in a “moral sense” that is both self- and other-directed. This collection of “moral sentiments” is necessarily normative, because each of us, as a specimen of the human primate species, requires a means by which we can determine our “fit” in the social order so as to budget our resource acquisition and mating opportunities. The ways in which this evaluative process expresses itself and the individual, and subsequently the group, is going to vary broadly with climatic conditions and population (and is a topic for another time), but in general, when attitudes arising from these evaluations are systematized into moral “codes”, or political philosophies, this we want to call “morality”. What this means, is that morality is not illusory, but it is also not what we typically think it is. It is a psycho-biological phenomenon that consists in a process of continuous negotiation, competition, and collaboration, that regulate the behavior of the species over time, and in response to environmental pressures. There is a further consequence: as a member of this species, I have no choice but to participate in this process. My brain is constructed to perform these evaluative judgments, and to seek commerce with (and protection within) my in- groups. The common question, “why should I be moral?”, is thus answerable by saying that you already are, necessarily. The only thing that remains is, what are you going to do about it?

It might be objected at this point, that these evaluations are purely mythical because no such qualities as “good” and “bad” can be identified in the actions of an individual in the way that angular momentum or velocity can be. Or, it may be contested that because such things as moral “value” are negotiated, they are a mere “social construct”, and therefore ought not be taken seriously. Both objections, it seems to me, come down to an unreasonably reductive insistence on a narrow conception of “existence” as nothing more than physical matter and energy. Even the most materialist of Marxist economists would be willing to acknowledge the “real” store of value present in a ten pound note. As noted above, such things as the capacity for long-term planning, gratification deferment, and cost-benefit calculation (as well as language, and a sense of reciprocity and expectation), enable the creation of real symbols of evaluative judgment – simple commodities upon which we psychologically project a certain qualitative or quantitative meaning. While it is true that different groups of people have used different commodities and have imbued those tokens with different degrees of importance and different kinds of meaning, they have all nonetheless engaged in the creation and representation of real value. If we are willing to accept this as an example of value in real form, why would we not accept the same for morality? Why would we take the collective store of moral value to be less “real”, than the collective store of economic value? Seems to me, without a principle for making such a choice, I’d only be engaging in an act of caprice, and denying my own nature in the process.

The arguments above cannot help us explain what kinds of things we need to evaluate, what means of evaluation we ought to engage in, how much importance the evaluations deserve, or even which evaluations are appropriate in any given situation. Rather, all I have tried to show, is that accepting a deterministic view of reality hardly excuses us from the fact of morality, as a human phenomenon. Far from excusing us from moral choice because mere illusion, a deterministic understanding, when coupled with the science of evolution and psychology, makes morality an inescapable inevitability for us (or, at least, a biological fact of life – even if accidental). What’s more, in trying to characterize morality as an “illusion” because of causal necessity or biological determination, we’re doing nothing less than trying to deny the responsibility with which nature itself has tasked us. For those of us who choose to take up this burden, the challenge is precisely this: to explain what it really is, and to show how we can best make use of it.


  1. Peter Tse, The Neural Basis of Free Will, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2013 
  2. Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2006 

Essay: Can The Will Ever Be Regarded As Free?

The following essay is one outcome from my previous "research notebook" post. It is the second of four complete drafts. The fourth was the "official" work, sent off into the academic ether. This draft, however, is one I'm posting to my blog, because it offers a lot of food for thought, and isn't meant to be a completely polished argument. I want it to serve as a mile-marker, offering an opportunity for discussion and debate, and signifying my thinking thus far, on the topic. I hope you get some use out of it.

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Research Notebook: Can The Will Ever Be Regarded As Free?

I am working on crafting a meaningful answer to the question posed in this heading. But I have decided that the question can’t be answered until two subordinate questions can be answered. The first is “What is The Will”? and the second, “What is Freedom”? I am holding off on the latter question, for now. The following, is a compilation of my collected notes and remarks on the will itself. Hopefully, you’ll find it useful, too.

What Is The Will?

The short answer is I don’t know. It is entirely unclear to me what, exactly, the “will” is. According to Schopenhauer1, it is a black box int which you pump motives and out of which you receive intentions to act that are utterly compelling. According to Peter Ulric Tse2, the will is:

Whatever it is that triggers actions in the domains of voluntary or endogenous motors or internal actions…

But this just sounds to me like a modern reiteration of Schopenhauer’s “volition… directed toward an object…”. Dennett3 urges us to “trade in mystery for mechanisms”, but as far as I can tell, we’ve just traded one mystery for another in the idea of a “will” as a real thing. I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about it as a verb, either. In most of the modern scientific literature, authors speak in terms of consciousness, or parts of consciousness as biological processes or interrelated systems or networks of systems. The will, it seems, has been dissolved by the acid of modern neuroscience.

Can we even answer this question, then? If there is no “will”, in the sense that Schopenhauer, Kant, or Hume might have thought of it, then it would seem there could be no answer. But would it still work to think of the term as a generalizing metaphor (as Tse has done) to capture all the various processes into one convenient basket of thought? The danger here, it seems to me, is in the fact that metaphors encourage ignorance and frequently propagate destructive misconceptions. I would rather try to work with the bits I do understand, as incomplete as that might be, than to fool myself into thinking I’m with something that doesn’t exist.

But what do I understand? What bits am I working with? Since this is fundamentally a question that extends far beyond the scope of my own understanding (and indeed, still somewhat beyond the scope of the modern science of the mind) the best I’m going to be able to do is craft a tentative answer, cobbled together from a synthesis of scientific and philosophical sources. Let’s see what they have to say.

Robert Kane4 provides us with a nice encapsulation of the classical understanding of “will”, as a rational faculty of ‘practical reasoning’:

… practical reasoning can issue in two kinds of judgment – practical (normative) judgments, on the one hand, about what ought to be done… and choices or decisions, on the other hand, which announce that the agent ‘will’ do such-and-such… Thus ‘the will’ (as ‘rational will’, in the sense we are considering) is a set of conceptually interrelated powers or capacities, including the powers to deliberate, or to reason practically, to choose or decide, to make practical judgments, to form intentions or purposes, or to critically evaluate reasons for actions…

This is a definition of the will from the outside, so to speak. A description of the experience, or the observation of, conscious decision-making and the actions consequent to that decision-making. It is not quite the same thing as what Schopenhauer short-handed as “I can do as I will”. This view of practical reasoning might be better thought of, in Schopenhauer’s terms, as “I can will as I will”.

The notion in the passage from Kane seems to be echoed as well, by Mark Balaguer5, who says this:

…We want free will in connection with a certain subset of our conscious decisions. In particular, we want it in connection with what we can call ‘torn’ decisions. Torn decisions can be defined as… a conscious decision in which you have multiple options and you’re torn as to which is best; more precisely, you have multiple options that seem to you to be more or less tied for best, so that you feel completely unsure… and you decide while you feel torn…

This implicitly invokes the sense of practical reasoning and judgment outlined by Kane, in its description of the kinds of situations faced when such a faculty is necessary. However, it’s still not quite clear where this capacity resides, or how we would identify it.

Anyway, for all it’s apparent precision, Kane’s explanation is admittedly ‘conceptual’, and these interrelated ‘powers’ and ‘capacities’ just seem to be metaphors, rather than theories of mental functions. At least Tse’s basic sketch (more on that later) is referring to specific structures of the brain ‘triggered’ by ‘whatever’. Though, at the moment, this is still only slightly more specific than Schopenhauer’s ‘flint and steel’.

The Schopenhauer Problem

On the question of free will, Schopenhauer set up a dichotomy in his famous essay. Either you think you’re free because you are ‘free to do as you will’, or you think you’re determined because you’re not ‘free to will what you will’. Reading through the Oxford Readings in Philosophy text on free will6, every author in this book seems to accept this dichotomy explicitly, in the way they frame the problem.

The first essay in the book is by Chisolm7. This essay has apparently been ‘discredited’, according to a number of other authors in the book, but it still offers a number of thoughtful passages on the idea of the will itself, and the Schopenhauer dichotomy:

…even if there is such a faculty as ‘the will’, which somehow sets our acts a-going, the question of freedom, as John Locke said, is not the question ‘whether the will be free’; it is the question ‘whether a man be free’. For if there is a ‘will’, as a moving faculty, the question is whether the man is free to will to do the things that he does will to do – and whether he is free not to will any of those things that he does will to do, and again, whether he is free to will any of those things that he does not will to do…

Chisolm goes on to say this:

…the metaphysical problem of freedom does not concern actus imperatus; it does not concern the question whether we are free to accomplish whatever it is that we will or set out to do; it concerns the actus elicitus, the question whether we are free to will or set out to do those things that we will or set out to do…

It’s a slightly more readable version of the first passage, but it doesn’t include all of the combinations set out in the first. Eliminating them obscures the problem slightly. Probably a much more succinct way to put it, would be to say, ‘could I have willed otherwise’, in any situation of either action or inaction on my part. But this is slightly off topic.

Frankfurt’s Will

Harry Frankfurt8 seems to reduce will to a collection of primitive desires, that necessarily compel action:

…the desire (or desires) by which [an agent] is motivated in some action he performs, or… the desire (or desires) by which he will or would be motivated when or if he acts. An agent’s will, then, is identical with one or more of his first-order desires…

He further tries to clarifies this, to be sure we understand that they are a specific set of desires:

…the notion of the will, as I am employing it, is not coextensive with the notion of first-order desires. It is not the notion of something that merely inclines an agent in some degree… Rather it is the notion of effective desire – one that moves (or would move) a person all the way to action…

The distinction between “inclinational” and “effective” desire is not entirely helpful. In fact, because this definition seems to work backward from apparent phenomena to explanatory theories, it seems circular to me. If I say that my will to act is ‘coextensive’ with whatever desire caused my action, I am saying that the will is only identifiable in observable acts, because observable acts come from the will. In other words: my will are my acts, because my acts are my will.

Frankfurt’s account gets even more paradoxical from here. He says this, for example:

… now consider… statements in which the term ‘to X’ refers to a desire of the first-order. There are also two kinds of situation in which it may be true that A wants to want X. In the first place, it might be true of A that he wants to have a desire to X despite the fact that he has a univocal desire, altogether free of conflict and ambivalence, to refrain from X. Someone might want to have a certain desire in other words, but univocally want that desire to be unsatisfied.

Why would anyone yearn for a desire that he could actively deny for the sake of the denial itself, unless he was some sort of fringe case of sadomasochistic schizophrenia? Frankfurt tries to answer this question with a hypothetical thought-experiment:

Suppose… that a [psychotherapist working] with narcotics addicts believes that his ability to help his patients would be enhanced if he understood better what it is like for them to desire the drug to which they are addicted. Suppose that he is led in this way to want to have a desire for the drug. If it is a genuine desire that he wants, then what he wants is not merely to feel the sensations that addicts characteristically feel when they are gripped by their desire for the drug. What the physician wants, in so far as he wants to have a desire, is to be inclined or moved to some extent to take the drug… he does not want this desire to be effective. He may not want it to move him all the way to action.

This example fails on three grounds, it seems to me. First, Frankfurt seems to be reducing the complex subtlety of emotional considerations in any given situation down to a binary of effective and ineffective desire. It essentially reduces the human capacity for empathy and understanding down to a kind of me-tooism. Why would a therapist think that the only way he could help his nation is to become the patient himself (at least, in some sense? Surely psychological training has tools for dealing with these sorts of issues that don’t require these kinds of bizarre and frankly dangerous measures. More to the point, there’s no reason to think that a therapist’s curiosity, or concern, or frustration, or wonder, can be equated directly with something like “ineffective” or “effective” desire. Lastly, in the form this example takes, you can see what he was avoiding in silhouette: namely, that the patient already must have a desire not to want what he already wants, and sometimes that desire wins. After all, this is why the patient is in treatment, presumably. The point here is that it’s not clear what the will really is. If we’re simply going to say, “yesterday, the patient’s will was not to take drugs, because he didn’t take drugs; today, the patient’s will is to take drugs because he took them”, we’re reducing the idea of the will to a triviality.

The rest of Frankfurt’s paper goes on to describe the interrelation of first-order and second-order desires. I am primarily interested in his conception of first-order desires, since this is where his notion of a genuine will resides. But these interactions are important, because they characterize the effective will. As he puts it, in relation to the therapist:

…a desire to have a certain desire that [one] does not have may not be a desire that [one’s] will should be at all different than it is…

In other words, one may not desire to act out a desire. Or, more simply, to will (make a desire effective). So again, we are left with a definition of the will that identifies it directly with the observable fact of action. Whatever those second-order desires are, they’re not part of the will. Frankfurt makes this relationship even more muddy, in section three of his essay:

…It is only because a person has volitions of the second-order that he is capable both of enjoying and of lacking freedom of the will. The concept of a person is not only, then, the concept of a type of entity that has both first-order desires and volitions of the second-order. It can also be construed as the concept of a type of entity for whom the freedom of its will may be a problem…

So, on Frankfurt’s view, the “will”, which is made up of only the first-order desires is determined, at least in the psychological sense, and requires second-order desires to condition it, or “free” it from its determination. But this suggests that the second-order is where the real “will” resides, since it seems to be capable of somehow overriding the first-order desires. Still, even if we take this at face value, we’re still only talking about psychological determination. In no sense is Frankfurt addressing the underlying physical question (i.e. causal necessity), as highlighted by Schopenhauer and Chisolm.

In short, the question comes down to one Frankfurt himself posed rhetorically to Chisolm: “Why, in any case, should anyone care whether he can interrupt the natural order of cause…?” Why, indeed. Frankfurt provides no account for this, himself, as far as I can tell. In fact, Frankfurt goes on to admit that all three of his hypothetical drug addicts have wills that are not really free, despite their willing being free. He says:

…It seems conceivable that it should be causally determined that a person is free to want what he wants to want. If this is conceivable, then it might be casually determined that a person enjoys a free will…

This seems to me, obtuse and contradictory. He’s attempting to claim that freedom is determined. I find this sort of speculation to be on the order of a “one hand clapping” kind of deepity (as Dennett use the term).

Wallace Grounds Frankfurt

R. Jay Wallace’s “Addiction as a defect of the will”9 tried to provide some model for the will through the lens of medicine. Taking Frankfurt’s hypothetical as serious inspiration, Wallace walks us through a more naturalistic theory, and criticizes Frankfurt in the process. To start with, Wallace picked up on the same problem I did:

…to say that we always do what we must want, where “want” can be interpreted in the sense of intention in action, is thus to say nothing more interesting than that human action is an intentional goal-directed phenomenon…

In other words, “my will are my actions, because my actions are my will”. He further describes Frankfurt’s view of the will as the “Hydraulic Conception” of desire, and criticizes it heavily:

…desires are conceptually and empirically distinct from our intentions in action, in the sense that one can want to do something without necessarily intending or choosing to do it. They are given to us, states we find ourselves in rather than themselves being primitive examples of agency [volition], things that we ourselves do or determine. The hydraulic conception maintains furthermore, that desires that are given in this way have a substantive explanatory role play in the etiology intentional action… This kind of psychological determinism is in my view the underlying philosophical commitment of the hydraulic model; but it is also its undoing. The problem, in broad terms, is that the model leaves no room for genuine deliberative agency. Action is traced back to the operation of forces within us, with respect to which we as agents are ultimately passive, and in a picture of this kind, real agency seems to drop out of view. Reasoned action requires the capacity to determine what one shall do in ways independent from the desires that one merely finds oneself with, and an explanatory framework that fails to leave room for this kind of self-determination cannot be adequate to the phenomenon it is meant to explain…

But for all his emphasis on explanation, Wallace himself goes on to argue for a conception of “self-control” as will that is fundamentally unfalsifiable:

…compelled agents retain a capacity to initiate a regime of self-control that cannot itself plausibly be reconstructed in terms of responses under various contrary-to-fact conditions. We think of such agents as possessing the power to struggle against their wayward impulses, not merely in counterfactual circumstances, in which the desires and beliefs to which they happen to be subject are different, but in the psychological circumstances in which they actually find themselves…

How is this belief to be shown as a matter of fact? How would one demonstrate that the will to “overcome” is a signal of freedom, or simply the product itself of deeper forces at work within the brain? How could we even tell the difference? In the end, Wallace argues for a volitional notion of the will that is vaguely similar to Kane’s classical depiction of the rational will of practical reason, in an attempt to escape the psychological determinism of what he called the “hydraulic” conception of the will:

We need, in my view… a third moment irreducible to either deliberative judgment or merely given desire. This is the moment I shall call ‘volition’. By ‘volition’ here, I mean a kind of motivating state that by contrast with the given desires that figure in the hydraulic conception, are directly under the control of the agent. Familiar examples of volitional states in this sense are intentions, choices, and decisions… Primitive examples of the phenomenon of agency itself…

Wallace gets significantly more specific a bit further down:

…[it is] the kind of agency distinctive of those creatures capable of practical reason. From the first-personal standpoint of practical deliberation take it that we are both subject to and capable of complying with rational requirements, and the volitionist approach enables us to make sense of this deliberative self-image…

He doesn’t actually explicitly mention why he uses the term “practical reason”, but I have to take this to mean what it meant traditionally (in Aristotle’s Ethics and Kant’s Groundwork): namely, the faculty for moral decision-making. So, Wallace is adding another layer to the cake of will: first, the physical; next, the psychological; and now, the moral. In short, “I can do as I will, and I can will as I reason from practical principles”. This may help Wallace escape the problem of psychological determinism, but it only pushes the metaphysical question (causal necessity) back by one degree. In other words, am I free to reason from practical principles? Schopenhauer thought not. The character of the will was baked-in from birth, according to him. So we can’t even desire what we desire. Kant, however, thought we could do this. That reasoning from practical principles was, indeed, a duty because we were rational beings, that the ultimate duty could be (indeed, must be) reasoned a priori, and that once we had done that, we were duty bound to act on it.

But all of this is starting to distract from the central question of this exploration. Namely, what in the world is the will? So far, the theories have been restricted to extensional descriptions of subjective experiences of judgment or choice, or working backward from physical phenomena like actions, but we don’t yet have a theory for the faculty itself. For that, I’m really going to have to return to Peter Tse, and Michael Gazzaniga.


  1. A. Schopenhauer, Prize Essay On The Freedom Of The Will, New York, Dover Publications, 2005 
  2. P. E. Tse, The Neural Basis of Free Will, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 2013 
  3. D. Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Londone, Penguine Books, 2003 
  4. R. Kane, The Significance of Free Will, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998 
  5. M. Balaguer, Free Will, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 2014 
  6. G. Watson (ed), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013 
  7. Chisolm, R. M., ‘Human Freedom and the Self’, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 26-36 
  8. Frankfurt, H., ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 322-336 
  9. Wallace, R. J., ‘Addiction as Defect of the Will: Some Philosophical Reflections, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 424-452 

Is it possible to act selflessly?

The following is my attempt to answer a question posed to me recently.

When I look at the question, it seems to focus on the individual. So, I think the easiest way to begin this, is to start with the self. Since I’m no Derek Parfit or Bernard Williams, and the question seems to be focusing on moral sentiment and moral choice, I’m going to reduce the ‘self’ to just that part we always end up talking about, when we talk about choice: The Will. Lacking a more sophisticated understanding of consciousness, I’m going to cobble together a rudimentary theory of the conscious self from Schopenhauer (Freedom of The Will), Dennett (Freedom Evolves, Consciousness Explained), and Peter Ulric Tse (The Neural Basis of Free Will).

Schopenhauer’s basic sketch of the conscious self, while not scientifically accurate anymore, is vague and general enough not to conflict with the a simple “modular” or “functional” understanding of the mind (one theory currently being batted around in science these days). So, I’m going to take his model as read, with some technical embellishments: The conscious, motivated, active self is (for our purposes), a neurochemical process of the brain that gives rise to a sensual consciousness (awareness of the outside world), a self-consciousness (awareness of our desires and intentions), and a ‘will’ embedded within that self-consciousness, from which all intentions to act originate, and upon which all chosen intentions are acted by that self. 

Free will seems essential to this question. Schopenhauer, of course, argued against such a thing. But I don’t think his argument is conclusive. In short, if we’re looking backward in time, causal explanation chains are not necessarily evidence of causal necessity looking into the future (see Hume, on Induction). Further, it has been shown that sub-atomic indeterminacy can play a role in the way neurons function (see Tse, and Dennett). Thus, it seems there is room to suppose at a minimum, that absolute determinism is not a certainty (and, at best, that there is some sort of freedom of the underlying will that does not necessarily violate physical causation). Thus, I think we can tentatively accept the idea of an underlying will that is at least possibly free. 

But even if all that is wrong, Schopenhauer still gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card, for the purposes of the class. He defines a conventional notion of freedom at the beginning of his essay that he calls “negative” freedom; meaning, in a phrase, “I am free to do as I will” (regardless of whether the will itself is free). In short, I am unimpeded or uninhibited in the choices available to me, in the basic physical sense. Since this conception of freedom is enough to get us to the point where we have to start making choices, and value judgments about our choices, I think this might be an acceptable “plan B” for answering this question.

So, we have a conscious self that is free to choose to act or not, on the intentions presented to it by it’s will. The next question would be (restating the original question a bit) is it possible for this self to act ‘selflessly’? Here, I think we have a straightforward answer, in both the metaphysical and logical sense:

  1. The will is contained within the consciousness that corresponds to it’s identified self.
  2. The will cannot present intentions to any other self, than the one to which it corresponds.
  3. The self cannot act upon intentions not presented to it by its own will (I will expound on this point, below).
  4. Therefore, it is not possible to act selflessly. 

On premise three: Here, it might be tempting to ask, “but what about other people’s stated intentions? Can’t we act on those?”. To this, I would appeal to Schopenhauer’s conception of consciousness. If some friend is making an appeal to me (to act in some way), he would be presenting my sensual consciousness with a motive. The sensual consciousness would pass that motive to the self-consciousness, and the self-consciousness would report back the intentional desire to act from the will. At this point, I could choose to act on the impulse and respond positively, or I could deny the impulse and respond negatively to my friend. Even if I respond positively, I am still fundamentally acting from the self, because it is my will that gave rise to the impulse to act. This means (at least logically) that I could not possibly be acting selflessly. Therefore, all acts are selfish acts.

But this whole discourse from the raw metaphysical possibility seems a bit impoverished. Perhaps we mean to ask, “Is it possible to act purely from altruistic motives”? Or perhaps, “Is acting altruistically also acting selfishly”? These are much more difficult questions, I think. Mostly, because they’re intensely psychological. For the first question, I’d lean on my Schopenhauer again, and say yes it is possible to act from an ‘altruistic’ motive, because though we characterize the motive as “altruistic”, it is still fundamentally a motive experienced and intention exhibited by a self, thus it is necessarily (by definition?) acting ’selfishly’. 

The second question is more interesting, and more perplexing. It’s essentially asking how motives interact in the mind. Perhaps even, what are the basic nature of these two motives (altruism and selfishness). If these two are not mutually exclusive, what happens when they “mix” in the mind? Is it an additive mixture, or a subtractive one? However, if they are exclusive, what calculus is taking place to privilege one over the other? What circumstances or other motives might have an effect on that calculation? Is the mixture or calculus something we can reduce to a principle? If so, would that function as a moral fundamental (even if not THE moral fundamental)?

Arguing from the psychological, I would speculate that a kernel of selfish motive lies at the core of all actions, even those dominated by selfless motives. Logically speaking, this would still be an affirmative answer to your question (Yes, it is possible to act selflessly). However, perplexingly, I could also say, ‘no it’s not possible, because that kernel of selfishness is present’ — and both answers would be true, because both motives are present in my mind at the same time. But perhaps my speculation is incorrect? Perhaps only one motive can be present at a time? Somehow, I doubt that…

That’s what’s interesting about the psychological question. It’s not quite a paradox, because it’s not actually a binary. It’s like drops of black paint in a bucket of white paint. If there is a kernel of selfishness at the core of all my selfless acts, does it “pollute” my altruism? Am I being dishonest somehow if I don’t acknowledge it? Does my worry about being dishonest betray some “turtles all the way down” higher authority that I want to appeal to? Or is this more like microprocessor voltages (below 5volts of selfishness = altruism; above 5volts of selfishness = selfishness)? 

We might want to say this is where value judgments can help us out. Well, they may help us to clarify which of the two motives would dominate our intentions in some specific instance, but I’m not sure how that could get us to a universal principle (viz. Altruism Is Good, or Selfishness Is Good or Altruism is Bad or Selfishness is Bad). 

A conversation with Artur Schopenhauer on his conception of freedom

The following is a dialogue between myself and Artur Schopenhauer, in which I basically try to interrogate the text as if I were talking directly to Schopenhauer, in an interview or discussion. All of Dr. Schopenhauer’s responses below come from the text of his essay, either as direct quotes or as slight rephrasing, in order to fit them into the flow of a conversation. It should be noted that I have not read World As Will And Representation (written before this essay), and that I have only a cursory knowledge of Schopenhauer’s biography. So, it is likely that additional context might have made this more insightful. In any case, this is meant only to offer an engaging way to consider the basic ideas contained within this essay, not as a serious critique of Schopenhauer, as such. I hope you enjoy it…

Me : Herr Doctor Schopenhauer, thank you for joining me, today.

Artur: You’re welcome. These days, I don’t have much else to do, and my hermitage in heaven is getting a bit stale. So, I need the outing.

Me: : As you know, we’re here to discuss your famous Prize Essay On The Freedom of the Will. To begin with, I want to take a page out of the philosopher’s playbook, and focus on your definitions. What do you think is meant by ‘freedom’?

Artur: When carefully examined, the concept of ‘freedom’ turns out to be negative… it signifies merely the absence of any hindrance or restraint… animals and men are called ‘free’ when their actions are not hindered by any physical or material obstacles — such as fetters, or prison, or paralysis. They proceed in accordance with their will… the concept in this meaning is not subject to doubt or controversy, and its reality can always be authenticated empirically.

Me : So, you take the common sense view of freedom to be the most compelling?

Artur: No, just the most obvious. In fact, it is perhaps the least interesting of the three different subspecies of freedom.

Me : Three ‘subspecies’? What do you mean?

Artur: Yes, as I was describing, freedom is a negative concept. The absence of restraint. But this means restraint is a positive concept, in the form of the power it manifests. The nature of this power can be seen in three different subspecies of freedom correspondent to it: physical, intellectual, and moral. I have only just begun to outline the physical subspecies.

Me : Are these three subspecies, in combination, what we mean when we use terms like “free will”?

Artur: Well, you’re jumping ahead a bit, but you are on the right track. With physical freedom, I do not take into account whatever may influence the will itself. For in it’s original, immediate, and therefore popular meaning, the concept of freedom refers only to the ability to act… However, as soon as we… consider the two remaining kinds, we are dealing with the philosophical sense of the concept, which leads to many difficulties.

Me : Let’s take the other two in order then, yes? What do you mean by ‘intellectual freedom’?

Artur: You are quite right to single out intellectual freedom first, because it is very closely related to physical freedom, but I cannot explain it properly unless we deal with moral freedom first.

Me : Well, in that case, what do you mean by moral freedom?

Artur: The key question here, is what is the true nature of the restraint to moral freedom. With physical freedom, I noted that material obstacles are the restraint upon physical freedom. It is present, when they are absent. In the case of moral freedom, however, it has been observed that a man, without being hindered by material obstacles, can be restrained by mere motives — such as threats, promises, dangers, and the like — from acting in a way in which, if these motives were absent, would have certainly expressed his will.

Me: Yes, I can think of several examples of this…

Artur: Of course, but the point is whether such a man is still free —

Me: I would say no, because the motive, provided it is sufficiently compelling, is more or less the same as a physical obstacle. To use one of the examples I thought of, I would certainly not act out my will, if I knew my will were to lead to direct harm to someone I loved.

Artur: You’re missing the point. If you refrain from acting, because you know it will harm a loved-one, you are acting in accordance with your will, not against it.

Me:: But isn’t that because my will has been restrained by the motive, in the same way that my physical action has been restrained by shackles?

Artur: A sound mind would say that a motive can never act in the same way as a physical obstacle! Undoubtedly, the physical restraint easily transcends human bodily powers unconditionally, but a motive can never be irresistible in itself, and has no absolute power. It can always be offset by a stronger counter-motive, provided that such a counter-motive is present and that you can be determined by it.

Me: That’s quite a lot to take in. I guess I don’t understand what you mean by a ‘motive’. And, what do you mean by ‘whether I can be determined by’ a motive?

Artur: I am not ready to explain this completely, just yet, but here is one example for you, to help you see what I mean: the motive to preserve one’s life. Does that make sense?

Me: So, a sort of fundamental desire or instinct?

Artur: Close, but not quite. But we’re getting side-tracked here. Can we simply accept this example for now?

Me: Ok.

Artur: Great. Now, the motive to preserve one’s own life is perhaps the strongest of all motives —
Me: — But how did we determine that?

Artur: Grrr… Ok, can you think of a motive stronger than the self-preservation motive? The will to live?

Me: Hrm. No, not at the moment.

Artur: Right. So, it is the strongest of all motives, and yet it can be outweighed by other motives, for example, in suicide or in sacrificing one’s life for others —

Me: But wait! Doesn’t that make those motives the strongest motives, in the moment they are expressed? The strongest motive, by definition, is the motive that results in it’s own expression, yes?

Artur: My boy, you’re making my point for me. Though motives bring with them no purely objective and absolute compulsion, still one could ascribe to them a subjective and relative compulsion namely, to the person involved. And, now I can finally begin to answer your original question…

Me: Ok, I’m confused, what do you mean?

Artur: You’ll notice that all this talk of motives and restraints, which as been imposed upon one’s ability, relates to willing. So, the question remains: is the will itself free? So far, we have defined freedom according to the popular conception as acting “in accordance with one’s own will.” So, to ask whether the will itself is free, is to ask whether the will is in accordance with itself. This, of course, is self-evident, but also says nothing at all.

Me: Wait. So, you mean to ask not “am I free”, but “is my will free”? In other words, you think there is a difference between “me”, and my will?

Artur: Let me see if I can make it clearer for you. The empirical concept of freedom signifies: “I am free when I can do what I will.” Here in the phrase “what I will” the freedom is already affirmed. But when we now inquire about the freedom of willing itself, the question would then take this form: “can you also will your volitions?”, as if a volition depended on another volition which lay behind it. Suppose that this question is answered in the affirmative. What then? Another question would arise: “can you also will that which you will to will?” Thus we would be pushed back indefinitely…

Me: It’s an infinite regress!

Artur: Yes, that’s quite right. You can see then that it is impossible to establish a direct connection between the concept of freedom — in its original, empirical meaning derived from action — and the concept of willing.

Me: But I thought we already covered this. You said before that the physical understanding wasn’t enough, and that I needed to understand moral freedom as well. What am I missing?

Artur: What you’re missing is the point. You want to understand what freedom is, yes?

Me: Yes, that’s what I was hoping you could tell me.

Artur: Please, do try to follow me, then. In order to be in a position to apply the concept of freedom to the will, one must modify it by making the concept of freedom signify in general only the absence of any necessity. Thus interpreted, the concept retains its negative character, which I attributed to it from the very beginning. Accordingly, one must first investigate the concept of necessity. For this is the positive concept which gives meaning to the negative one — and which gives form to the power I described at first.

Me : Ok, so then is ‘necessity’ the same as the restraint you were talking about, at first?

Artur: Yes, but this needs to be explained better. Something is necessary which follows from a given sufficient ground… Only insofar as we comprehend something as the consequent of a given ground do we recognize it to be necessary. Conversely, as soon as we recognize something to be a consequent of a sufficient ground, we see that it is necessary. This is because all grounds are compelling.

Me : I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘ground’ or ‘compelling’.

Artur: The necessity of a logical cause will be the conclusion from valid premises. The necessity of a mathematical cause will be the equality of the terms on either side of the operator, and the necessity of physical cause will be its immediate effect. In all these cases, with equal strictness, the necessity is attached to the consequent when the ground is given. The ground is my conception of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, something I don’t have time to explain here, but you can read my doctoral thesis for a full treatment. Suffice to say, everything that is grounded has a proper cause.

Me : Ah, ok. Well, then you must be saying that all causes necessitate their effects, is that right?

Artur: In a word, yes. The absence of necessity would be identical with the absence of a determining sufficient cause. Still, we think of the accidental as the opposite of necessary.

Me : Wait, what? Why? Isn’t an accidental cause still a cause? If so, how could it not be sufficient?

Artur: There is no conflict between these views, each accidental occurrence is only relatively so. For in a world where only accidents can be encountered, every event is necessary in relation to its cause, while in relation to all other events which are contemporaneously and spatially contiguous with it, the event is accidental.

Me : Ok, this is confusing. You seem to be agreeing with me. But what does all this have to do with freedom?

Artur: I must concede, this is the most problematic notion of my idea of freedom. Since the mark of freedom is absence of necessity, that which is free would have to be absolutely independent of any cause and would therefore have to be defined as absolutely accidental.

Me : Absolutely accidental? This is getting even more confusing. Are you saying that freedom, to be ‘real’, would have to be somehow disconnected, or even violate, causal necessity?

Artur: That is precisely what I am saying. It coincides in a singular fashion with the concept of freedom, but I don’t guarantee that it is conceivable. At any rate, that which is free remains that which is in no respect necessary, that is, not dependent on any ground. If we apply this concept to the will of man, it would mean that an individual will in its manifestations (volitions) would not be determined by causes or by sufficient grounds at all.

Me : This is astounding. Are you actually saying that there is no freedom?

Artur: Well, yes, I suppose so. But more must be done to prove it, before we can be certain. At the moment, I am simply setting the criteria by which we might identify a will that is free. A free will then, would be the will which is not determined by grounds — and since everything that determines another must be a ground, in real things a real ground, that is, a cause — a few will would not be determined by anything at all. The particular manifestations of this will (volitions) would then proceed absolutely and quite originally from the will itself, without being brought about necessarily by antecedent conditions, and hence also with being determined by anything according to a rule.

Me : But why should identifiable antecedent causes necessitate a lack of freedom? Just because I can look into my past and point to a chain of causal events — even necessary ones — that led me to the present interview, surely that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a choice, nor that I did not have the power to act on that choice, does it? To suggest that a causal explanation is evidence of some sort of necessity, one must be able to demonstrate that these causes stripped me of my capacity to choose.

Artur: When we try to deal with this concept, clear thinking abandons us because, while the positing of a ground, in all of its meanings, is the essential form of our entire cognitive faculty, we are here asked to refrain from positing a ground. But every consequent of a ground is necessary, and every necessity is the consequent of a ground. Still, there is no lack of a technical term for this concept: liberum arbitrium indifferentiae… such a free will of indifference includes the peculiar feature that for a human individual equipped with such a feature, under given external conditions which are thoroughly determined in every particular, two diametrically opposed actions are equally possible.

Me : But there must be some way out of this paradox! Clearly, I feel like I am willing my choices freely. How can I feel free, and yet be completely compelled by causal necessity?

Artur: One cannot get away from the negative conception of freedom, without involving oneself in vacillating, hazy explanations, behind which hides hesitant indecision, as when one talks about grounds which do not necessarily bring about their consequents.

Me : Well, I may not be able to get away from it, but I don’t have to like it! In any case, we’ve run out of time for this episode, I’m afraid. Next time, we’ll be moving on to your conception of consciousness, if you’re available.

Artur: Yes, I think I still might be able to talk some sense into you. An explication of my view of consciousness that may help to clear a few things up for you.

Me : Well, thank you for your time Doctor Schopenhauer, and until next time listeners, keep thinking!

On Schopenhauer’s Essay On The Freedom Of The Will

Expound and assess Schopenhauer’s argument that free will is an illusion. Does he succeed in showing what he calls “relative” freedom is not really enough to constitute free will?

Schopenhauer does succeed in logically arguing that what he calls “will” is not “free”, as he conceives the terms “will” and “free”. However, he does not succeed in showing that what we commonly understand to be freedom, is in any way undermined by his conception of the will. At best, he shows is that our common conception is incomplete. I will show that Schopenhauer sets up a false dichotomy between causality and the will via a misapplication of the notion of “negative” freedom, and that he asserts a scientifically inaccurate view of human consciousness that conflates causality with fatalism through his use of the concept of the “character” of the will. Finally, I will forgive Schopenhauer his mistakes, and show how his conception of the will, as crude as it was, pointed (perhaps inadvertently) to a more sophisticated approach to understanding human freedom.

Schopenhauer distinguishes man from animal in his essay by describing our capacity for rational deliberation and showing how this capacity provides us with a means to project decisions far into the future, thus freeing us from the constraints of instinctive behavior determined by immediate environmental concerns. Schopenhauer believes this sense of control over our own actions is what gives us the feeling that “I can do as I will”. This, he says, is the “negative” conception of freedom, meaning that my actions are not necessitated by external obstacles or coercions. But, he argues, being “free to do as I will” is in some sense still constrained, because acts originate from the will, and the will itself is constrained by causality. So, for Schopenhauer, a “free” will would be one that could function independently — i.e., in violation of — the laws of physical causality; and, since no one can show this to be the case except by special pleading, the will must be causally determined, and as such, not “free”.

While the notion of being “free from obstacles” is a good starting point in searching for a definition of freedom, it is a mistake to equate the laws of physical causality with a metaphysical “obstacle”. It suggests that existence is some sort of hurdle that needs to be overcome. This is akin to Descartes’ demand for absolute certainty as a standard of “knowledge”. Both yearn for an ideal realm of absolutes in which the mind is effectively godlike, possessing a sort of unmediated awareness of everything, and capable of a spontaneity akin to Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Engine, producing “decisions” in isolation (or even opposition) to the universe around it. In other words, like Descartes’ conception of knowledge, Schopenhauer’s conception of freedom is designed to render it impossible, leaving us no choice but to accept the negative conclusion that there is no such thing. But is there really no other way to look at this problem, than as an impossible metaphysical trolly dilemma between an utter enslavement to fate, or a miraculous denial of physical causality? For Schopenhauer, the answer is no, and this comes down to his view of the will.

Schopenhauer’s conception of the will is one shrouded in mystery. He describes it only in silhouette, as a feature of what he calls the “self-consciousness”: that part of the mind that is “turned inward” exclusively, and that makes us aware of our inner emotional states. He claims that the will cannot be known “in itself”, but only through the observation of our emotional states and our actions. He describes a decision, or choice, as an event in which an external “motive” is presented to the “outward-looking” consciousness, which then passes that awareness to the will. The combination of motive and the “character” of the will then produces an impulse to act in a certain way, which we can observe via the self-consciousness. He goes on to assert that the “character” of the will is something we are born with, and that remains fixed and immutable throughout our lives. So, for Schopenhauer, the “will” is a sort of Chinese Room, into which motives are inserted, and decisions are ejected, and if we had enough accumulated knowledge of every man’s decisions, we could conceivably define their character precisely, and predict all of their actions into the future, given a complete set of input “motives”.

This is a highly mechanistic view of human psychology of which even B. F. Skinner might have been skeptical. Modern neuroscience and psychology tell us that the brain is a highly “plastic” well into adulthood, that there does not seem to be any “center” of conscious control (aka “will”), and that there are many clinical therapy methods that have been very successful at altering not only behavior, but desires, impulses to action, and emotional responses to external stimuli. If we were to maintain even a metaphorical conception of the “character of the will”, modern science would compel us to a view of it that is anything but immutable. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense why an immutable will is required for Schopenhauer’s conception of the will as “causally determined”. Why is it not possible for external motives to have lasting causal effects on the “character” of the will, such that it’s later outputs did not match early results? Schopenhauer seems, implicitly, to think that this immutability is required in order to maintain his positive claim of causal determinism, but he does not explain why. Perhaps this was his attempt to avoid the “could have done otherwise” question?

For all of the vague and inexplicable features of his theory of will, Schopenhauer did manage to do us a favor. By formulating an idea that was fundamentally empirical, he offered us an opportunity for new knowledge through scientific testing of his theory. By making the distinction between matter-of-fact “negative” freedom, and the more fundamental metaphysical freedom, Schopenhauer helped to clarify the proper boundaries of our concept of freedom. By attempting to delineate the features of the conscious mind in order to isolate the will, he actually helped to begin the process of freeing us from the muddle of Cartesian dogmatisms, even while relying on them in some sense. Seen through the hind-sight lens of modern science, Schopenhauer was quite right to suspect an unexplored universe of activity in the mind occurring below the level of consciousness. The mistake he made, and that we continue to make today, is in assuming that this activity renders us incapable of acting “freely”. Schopenhauer does this because he conflates freedom with a miraculous power to untether oneself from the laws of physics. But it seems perfectly feasible that a complex process of activity – entirely governed by the laws of physics – could be going on at the neuronal level, that produced a behavioral phenomenon in living organisms that could be described as acting “freely”. The problem is, how would we know this? How could we correctly judge which of an organism’s behaviors was “free” and which was not? If I ran a rat through a maze 1,000 times, and it took the same path every time, could I say that the rat’s behavior was “determined”? Whether or not it was actually making “a free choice” is effectively an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If I drive the same route to work every day for a year, and then suddenly decide to change my route because I’m bored, is that evidence of “freedom”, or evidence of some causal factor that if I’d been aware of it a year earlier, could predict accurately, my change in habit? And even if I could predict this accurately, could it really be said that I did not have a “free choice” to take a different route when the year came due? It’s really not clear either way. This suggests that the whole question might be a red herring.

Schopenhauer wisely recognized that our concept of free will was superficial, and somewhat tenuous. Although his effort to achieve clarity overreached was could reasonably asserted in his day, he offered a dim light on the path to understanding the role of the subconscious in our decision-making processes. As such, he helped to make it possible for us to satisfy ourselves with “relative” freedom, even if he was correct that such a thing is an “illusion”. Though, as I have explained already, he hasn’t quite demonstrated that either.