Free Will or Determinism?

Submitted by Tom Last on Sat, 10/31/2009 - 11:37pm.

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The Philosophy Of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Chapter 1 Conscious Human Action
What is Freedom?

The Question Of Freedom

[1] Is a human being free in thinking and acting, or compelled by the iron necessity of purely natural lawfulness? Few questions have been the focus of more ingenuity. The idea of free will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in great number. There are those who, in their moral zeal, label anyone narrow-minded who can deny so obvious a fact as freedom. Opposed to them are others who regard it as the height of unscientific thinking for anyone to believe that the lawfulness of nature fails to apply to the area of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is just as often proclaimed to be the most precious possession of humankind as it is to be the worst illusion. Endless subtlety has been expended to explain how human freedom can be consistent with the laws working in nature, of which the human being, after all, is a part. From the other side no less effort has gone into explaining how such a delusion as this could have arisen. That we are dealing here with one of the most important questions of life, religion, conduct, and science must be felt by all but the most superficial thinkers.

Freedom Of Indifferent Choice
It is one of the sad signs of the superficiality of contemporary thinking, that a book which attempts to develop a "new faith" out of the results of recent scientific research---David Friedrich Strauss’s The Old and New Belief---has nothing more to say on this question than these words:

”There is no need for us to go into the question of free will. The supposed freedom of indifferent choice has been recognized as an empty illusion by every philosophy worthy of the name. Determining the moral value of human conduct and character remains untouched by this question.”

I quote this passage, not because I consider the book in which it occurs has any special importance, but because it seems to me to express the only view to which the thinking of most of our contemporaries manages to rise on this question. Everyone who claims to have outgrown scientific childhood seems to know that freedom cannot consist in choosing, at one’s pleasure, between one or other of two possible courses of action. There is always, so we are told, a quite specific reason why we carry out just one particular action from among several possible ones.

Freedom Of Choice
[2] This seems obvious. Nevertheless, down to the present day, the main attacks of the opponents of freedom are directed only against freedom of choice. Even Herbert Spencer, whose views are gaining wider acceptance with each day, says:

That everyone is at liberty to desire or not to desire, which is the real proposition involved in the dogma of free will, is refuted as much by the analysis of consciousness as by the contents of the preceding chapters [on psychology].”

Freedom To Act Out Of Own Nature
Others also start from the same point of view when fighting the concept of free will. All of the relevant arguments can be found in germinal form as early as Spinoza. What he presented in clear and simple language against the idea of freedom has since been repeated countless times, but for the most part cloaked in the most sophisticated doctrines, so that it becomes difficult to recognize the straightforward train of thought which alone matters. Spinoza writes in a letter of October or November 1674:

”I call a thing free that exists and acts out of the pure necessity of its nature; and I call it compelled if its existence and activity are determined in a precise and fixed way by something else. For example, God exists, although with necessity, still freely because he exists only out of the necessity of his own nature. Similarly, God knows himself and everything else freely, because it follows solely out of the necessity of his nature that he knows everything. You see, then, that I locate freedom not in free decision, but in free necessity.”

[3] ”But let us come down to created things which are all determined by external causes to exist and act in a fixed and definite way. To see this more clearly, let us imagine a very simple case. A stone, for example, receives from an external cause that comes into contact with it a certain momentum through which it necessarily continues to move after the impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion of the stone is compelled, for it is due to the external impact and not to any necessity in the stone’s own nature. What applies here to the stone, applies to everything else, no matter how complex and many-sided it may be; everything is determined with necessity by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite way.”

[4] ”Now please assume that the stone, while moving along, is thinking, and knows that it is striving to the best of its ability to continue in motion. This stone, which is only conscious of its striving and is not at all indifferent, will believe that it is completely free and that it continues in motion for no other reason than because it wants to. But this is just the human freedom that everybody claims to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that people are conscious of their desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined."

"Thus the child believes it desires milk of its own free will, the angry boy regards his desire for revenge as free, and the coward the desire for flight. Furthermore, drunkards believe that they say of their own free will what, when sober again, they will wish they had not said. Since this prejudice is inborn in everybody, it is difficult to free oneself from it. For---although experience teaches us often enough that people are least able to moderate their desires and that, moved by conflicting passions, they see the better and pursue the worse---people still consider themselves free because there are some things they desire less intensely, and some desires can be easily inhibited by recalling a memory of something else that is familiar."

[5] Because this view is so clearly and definitely expressed it is easy to detect its fundamental error. With the same necessity by which a stone carries out a specific movement in response to an impact, human beings are supposed to be compelled to carry out an action by a similar necessity when driven to it by any reason. Only because they are conscious of their action do they consider themselves to be the free originator of it. But in doing so they overlook the fact that they are driven by causes they must obey unconditionally. The error in this train of thought is soon found. Spinoza, and all who think like him, overlook the fact that people are not only conscious of their action, but may also become conscious of the causes which guide their action.

No one will deny that a child is unfree when it desires milk, or the drunk who says things and later regrets them. Both know nothing of the causes at work in the depths of their organism that exercise irresistible control over them. But is it right to lump together actions of this kind with those in which a person is conscious not only of their actions but also of the reasons that cause them to act? Are the actions of human beings really all of one kind? Should the act of a warrior on the battlefield, a research scientist in the laboratory, a diplomat involved in complex negotiations, be placed scientifically on the same level as that of a child when it desires milk? It is certainly true that it is best to seek the solution to a problem where the conditions are simplest. But the lack of ability to make distinctions has before now caused endless confusion. There is, after all, a profound difference between knowing and not knowing the reason why I do something. At first sight this seems obvious. Yet the opponents of freedom never ask themselves whether a motive of action that I recognize and see through compels me in the same sense as the organic process that causes a child to cry for milk.

Freedom Of External Influences
[6] Eduard von Hartman, in his Phenomenology of Moral Consciousness,  asserts that human willing depends upon two main factors: motive and character. If we consider all people to be alike, or at least the differences between them to be negligible, then their will appears to be determined from outside, that is, by the circumstances they come in contact with. But if we bear in mind that a person adopts an idea or mental picture, as the motive of their action only if their character is such that this mental picture arouses a desire in them, then the person appears to be determined from within and not from without. Now, because an idea, given to us from outside, must first be adopted as a motive according to our character, we believe that we are free, that is, independent of external influences. The truth, however, according to Eduard von Hartman is that:

”even though we ourselves must first adopt a mental picture as a motive, we do not do this arbitrarily, but according to the necessity of our characterological disposition, that is, we are anything but free.”

Here, too, the difference between motives that I allow to influence me only after I have consciously made them my own, and those that I follow without having any clear knowledge of them, is completely ignored.

Action Result Of Conscious Motive
[7] This leads us straight to the standpoint from which the subject will be considered here. Can we consider the question of free will at all by itself? And, if not, with what other question must it necessarily be linked?

[8] If there is a difference between a conscious motive of action and an unconscious urge, then the conscious motive will result in an action which must be judged differently from one that springs from blind impulse. Our first question will concern this difference and the result of this inquiry will determine the position we have to take on the question of freedom.

[9] What does it mean to have knowledge of the motives of one’s action? Too little attention has been paid to this question, because, unfortunately, we have torn into two what is really an inseparable whole: the human being. The doer is distinguished from the knower, while the one who matters the most has been overlooked: the one who acts because they know.

Free When Controlled By Reason
[10] It is said that the human being is free when controlled by reason alone and not by animal passions, or that freedom means being able to determine one’s life and action according to purposes and deliberate decisions.

[11] Nothing is gained by assertions of this kind. For the question is whether reason, purposes, and decisions exercise the same kind of compulsion over a person as their animal passions. If without my cooperation, a rational decision emerges in me with the same necessity as hunger and thirst happen to me, then I can but obey its compulsion, and my freedom is an illusion.

Free To Do As One Wills
[12] Another form of expression runs: to be free does not mean to be able to want as one wills, but to be able to do what one wills. This thought has been expressed with great clearness by poet-philosopher Robert Hamerling in his Atomistics of the Will:

”Human beings can certainly do what they will---but they cannot want as they will, because their wanting is determined by motives. They cannot want as they will? Let us consider these words more closely. Do they contain any reasonable meaning? Does freedom of will, then, mean being able to want something without having grounds, without a motive? But what does wanting mean other than having grounds for doing, or trying to do, this rather than that? To want something without grounds or motive would be to want something without wanting it. The concept of wanting is inseparably bound up with the concept of motive. Without a determining motive the will is an empty faculty: only through the motive does it become active and real. Therefore, it is entirely correct that the human will is not ‘free’ inasmuch as its direction is always determined by the strongest motive. But it is absurd, in contrast to this ‘unfreedom’, to speak of a conceivable ‘freedom’ of the will that amounts to being able to want what one does not want.”

[13] Here also, only motives in general are discussed, without taking into consideration the difference between unconscious and conscious motives. If a motive affects me, and I am compelled to act on it because it proves to be the “strongest” of its kind, then the thought of freedom ceases to have any meaning. Why should it matter to me whether I can do something or not, if I am forced by the motive to do it? The primary question is not whether I can or cannot do something once a motive has worked upon me, but whether there exist only motives that work with compelling necessity. If I am compelled to want something, then I may even be completely indifferent as to whether I can also do it. And if, because of my character or the circumstances prevailing in my environment, a motive is forced upon me that to my thinking is unreasonable, then I would even have to be glad if I could not do what I want.

[14] The question is not whether I am able to carry out a decision once made, but how the decision is brought about within me.

Unconditioned Will
[15] What distinguishes humans from all other organic beings is rational thinking. Activity we have in common with other organisms. Nothing is gained by seeking analogies in the animal world to clarify the concept of freedom as applied to the actions of human beings. Modern natural science loves such analogies. When scientists have succeeded in finding something among animals similar to human behavior, they believe they have touched upon the most important question of knowledge about the human being. To what misunderstandings this view leads is shown, for example, in the book The Illusion of Freewill, by P. Rée, who says the following about freedom:

”It is easy to explain why it seems to us that the movement of the stone were by necessity, while the willing of a donkey is not. The causes that set the stone in motion are external and visible, but the causes that determine the donkey’s will are internal and invisible. Between us and the place where it occurs is the donkey’s skull….. Because the determining causes are not visible they are thought to be non-existent. The will, it is explained, is indeed the cause of the donkey’s turning around, but is itself unconditioned; it is an absolute beginning (a first cause and not a link in a chain of events). An assumption of that kind is contradicted by experience and the universal validity of the law of causality… Let us now leave the realm of animals and proceed to consider man. Everything is the same here.”

Here too, human actions in which there is a consciousness of the motives are simply ignored, for Rée declares, “Between us and the place where it occurs is the donkey’s skull.” As these words show, it has not so much as dawned on Rée that there exist actions---not of the donkey, to be sure, but of human beings---for which between us and the action lies a motive that has become conscious. Rée demonstrates his blindness once again a few pages later when he says:

”We do not perceive the causes that determine our will, therefore we think it is not casually determined at all.”

[16] But enough of examples which prove that many argue against the existence of freedom without knowing at all what freedom is.

Knowledge Of An Action
[17] It is entirely obvious that an action cannot be free if the doer does not know why they carry it out. But what about the freedom of an action for which the reasons are known? This leads us to the question of the origin and significance of thinking. For without the recognition of the thinking activity of the soul, it is impossible to form a concept of knowledge about anything, including the knowledge of an action. When we know what thinking in general means, it will be easier to see clearly the role that thinking plays in human action. As Hegel rightly says:

”It is thinking that transforms the soul, with which beasts too are gifted, into spirit.”

Therefore it will also be thinking that gives to human action its characteristic stamp.

Action Springs From The Heart
I do not mean to imply that all our actions flow only from the sober deliberations of our reason. I am very far from calling human, in the highest sense, only those actions which proceed from abstract judgment. But the moment our conduct lifts itself above the sphere of the satisfying of purely animal cravings, our motives are always permeated with thoughts. Love, compassion, and patriotism are springs of action that cannot be analyzed away into cold concepts of the intellect. It is said that the heart, the mood of the soul (Gemüt*) comes into its own here. No doubt. But the heart and mood of soul do not create the motives. They presuppose the motives and receive them into their own domain. Compassion enters my heart when the mental picture of a person who arouses compassion appears in my consciousness. The way to the heart is through the head.

Love Of Another
Love is no exception. Whenever love is not merely the expression of sexual instinct, it depends on the mental picture we form of the loved one. The more idealistic these mental pictures are, the more blessed is our love. Here too, thought is the father of feeling.

Seeing Good Qualities
It is said that love makes us blind to the flaws of the loved one. But the opposite view can be taken, that love opens our eyes to the good qualities. Many pass by these good qualities without noticing them. One person, however, sees them, and just because of this, love awakens in the soul. What else has this person done but make a mental picture of what hundreds of others have failed to see? The others do not have the love because they lack the mental picture.

From whatever point we approach the subject it becomes ever clearer that the question regarding the nature of human action presupposes another, that of the origin of thinking. I will turn, therefore, to this question next.

*Gemüt: has no direct equivalent in English. It points more to the totality of our inner being than "heart" does... It refers to a blending of thinking, willing, and feeling that one can feel with one's whole body, but is centered in the region of one's heart. A poetic translation, "the mind warmed by a loving heart and stimulated by the soul's imaginative power" and this more intellectual one, "the soul in a state of unconscious intuition arising from the working together of heart and mind."