John Translation Chapter 1

Submitted by John Ralph on Fri, 09/25/2009 - 10:33am.

Also see translation notes posted below.

JR September 26, 2009
Conscious Human Action
Chapter 1

1.0 The Question of Freedom

[1] Is the human being a free agent in thought and action, or irresistibly constrained by the laws of nature? Few questions have been debated with more ingenuity. The idea of free will has found as many enthusiastic supporters as it has stubborn opponents. There are those who, with a high moral tone, label as narrow-minded anyone who denies the obvious fact of freedom. Their opponents consider that the peak of unscientific thinking is a belief that the universal laws of nature break down in the field of human action and thought. As often as it is proclaimed to be humanity’s most precious possession, the very same thing is also called its worst illusion. Endless subtle distinctions have been coined to explain how human freedom can be consistent with the laws operating in nature because the human being is so clearly a part of nature. No less effort has been put into explaining how this delusion has arisen. To everyone, apart from the most superficial observer, it is obvious that we are dealing here with one of the most important questions of life, religion, conduct and science.

1.1 Freedom of Indifferent Choice?
A sad indication of the superficiality in contemporary thinking can be found in a book that aims to develop a ‘new faith’ from the results of recent scientific research, and which contains nothing on this question but these words:

“There is no need to go into the question of free will. The supposed freedom of indifferent choice has been recognized as an empty illusion by every reputable philosophy. The determination of moral value in human conduct and character remains untouched by this question.”
(David Friedrich Strauss, Old and New Belief)

While I do not consider Strauss’s book as particularly significant, I quote this passage because I believe that it clearly expresses the single opinion reached on this question by most contemporary thinking.

Everyone today who claims to have outgrown first grade science class seems to know that freedom cannot consist of willfully choosing one or the other of two possible actions. It is claimed that a quite specific reason always exists to explain why we carry out a particular action from among several possibilities.

1.2 Freedom of Choice?
[2] This seems obvious. Yet the main attacks of today’s opponents of freedom are directed entirely against freedom of choice. Indeed, Herbert Spencer, whose views are gaining ever wider acceptance, says:

That every one is at liberty to desire or not to desire, which is the real proposition involved in the dogma of free-will, is negatived [refuted - Trans.] as much by the internal perception of every one as by the contents of the preceding chapters. (The Principles of Psychology, 1855: p617)

1.3 Free Necessity of One’s Own Nature

When opposing the concept of free will, others also begin from the same standpoint. The seeds of all such argument can be found as early as Spinoza. What he brought forward so clearly and simply against the idea of freedom has since been repeated countless times, usually cloaked in such hairsplitting and theoretical rationales that the straightforward essentials of the original train of thought are hard to recognize. Spinoza writes:

“I call free that which exists and acts out of the pure necessity of its nature; I call compelled that existence and activity determined in an exact and fixed way by something else. For example, God is necessarily free because He exists purely out of the necessity of His own nature. In the same way God knows Himself and everything else freely, because solely out of the necessity of His nature it must follow that He is all-knowing. You may observe that I position freedom not in free decision, but in free necessity.

[3] “But let us descend to created things which exist and act in a fixed and exact way determined by external causes. A very simple case allows us to see this most clearly. A stone, for example, receives a certain momentum from an external cause that makes contact with it with sufficient force that subsequently, when the impact of the external cause has ceased, the stone necessarily continues to move. The continued motion of the stone is compelled by the external impact and not by any necessity within the stone’s own nature, because [the continued motion] has to be defined by the thrust of an external cause. What applies here to the stone applies to everything else, no matter how complex and multifaceted it may be. Everything exists and acts in a fixed and exact way that is determined by the necessity of external causes.

[4] “Now please assume that the stone, while in motion, thinks and knows that it is trying as hard as possible to continue moving along. This stone is conscious only of its own striving to which it not at all indifferent, and it will believe that it is absolutely free to continue to move for no other reason than because it wants to. Yet this is the human freedom that everybody claims to possess, and it consists entirely of the fact that people are conscious only of their desires and ignorant of the causes that determine them. Thus the baby believes that it freely desires milk; the angry boy believes that he freely demands revenge, and the coward that he freely chooses to run away. A drunk believes that it is his own decision to say things freely now that, when sober again, he will wish he hadn’t said; and since this biased view is inborn in everybody, it is difficult to free oneself from it. Even though experience teaches us often enough that people can moderate their desires least of all, and that when moved by conflicting passions they see the better and do the worse; yet they still consider themselves free because they desire some things less intensely, and there are some desires that can be easily inhibited by preoccupying oneself with memories of something else." (1674, Letter of October or November)

[5] Because this view is so clearly and definitely expressed it is easy to uncover its fundamental error. Human beings are supposedly driven to carry out an action by some reason with the same necessity as a stone that carries out a specific movement after an impact. Only because human beings are conscious of their action do they look upon themselves as the free initiator of it. But in so doing they overlook the causes driving them, which they must obey unconditionally. The error in this train of thought is soon discovered. Spinoza and all who think like him are overlooking the fact that human beings can be conscious, not only of their actions, but also of the causes that govern them.

No one will deny the fact that the baby is unfree when it desires milk, or that the drunk is unfree who speaks and later regrets it. Neither knows anything of the causes, working deep within their physiology, that exercise an irresistible control over them.
But is it right to lump such actions together with those of human beings who are conscious, not only of their actions, but also of the reasons that motivate them? Are the actions of human beings really all of one kind? Should the acts of a warrior on the battlefield, a research scientist in the laboratory or a diplomat involved in complex negotiations be placed in the same scientific category as those of a baby who desires milk?
It is no doubt best to seek the solution of a problem under the simplest conditions. But the lack of any ability to discriminate has often caused endless confusion. There is certainly a profound difference between knowing and not knowing why I act. At first sight this seems to be a self-evident truth. Yet the opponents of freedom never ask themselves whether an action’s motive that I recognize and understand compels me in exactly the same way as the physiological process which gives a baby cause to cry for milk.

1.4 Free from External Influences?
[6] Eduard von Hartman asserts in his Phenomenology of Moral Consciousness that human will depends on two main factors: motives and character. If we consider that people are all the same, or at least have negligible differences, then their will appears to be determined from outside by the circumstances that come to meet them. But if we consider that different people make a mental image into a motive of action only if their character permits this mental image to arouse a desire in them, then the human being appears to be determined from inside and not from outside. But because we must first make a mental image, forced upon us from outside, into a motive in accordance with our personal character, we believe that we are free and independent of external motivation. However, according to Eduard von Hartmann the truth is that,

“Even though we must first raise mental images into motives ourselves, we do not do this arbitrarily, but rather according to the necessity of our character’s inclination; which means that we are anything but free.” (p451)

Here again, no consideration is given to the difference between those motives that I allow to influence me only after I have become fully conscious of them and those motives that I follow blindly.

1.5 Action Resulting from Conscious Motive
[7] This leads straight to the position from which the subject will be considered here. Can the question of free will be asked in isolation and on its own? And if not, what other question needs to be connected to it?

[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 that must be judged differently from one arising from blind impulse. Our first question will consider this difference. The answer to this question will then determine what position we need to take on the actual question of freedom itself.

[9] What is the significance of knowing the reasons for one’s action? Too little attention has been given to this question because unfortunately we have always torn in two the inseparable whole that is the human being. We differentiate between doer and knower, and leave out the one who matters most: the one who acts out of knowledge.

1.6 Free When Governed by Reason?
[10] It is said that human beings are only free when they stand under the rule of reason and are not subject to animal passions. In other words, freedom means being able to determine one’s life and actions according to purposeful aims and deliberate decisions.

[11] Nothing is gained by assertions of this kind. For the real question is whether reason, purpose and decisions exercise the same compulsion over a person as animal passions. If a rational decision only emerges in me without my involvement then I cannot avoid following it with the same need as hunger or thirst, and my freedom is an illusion.

1.7 Free to Do as One Wants?
[12] Another assertion is that freedom does not mean being able to determine what one wants, but being able to do what one wants. This thought has been very clearly expressed by poet and philosopher Robert Hamerling in his Atomistics of the Will:

“The human being can, to be sure, do what he wants --- but he cannot determine what he wants, because his will is determined by motives. He cannot determine what he wants? Let us look at these words more closely. Do they make any sense? Is free will, then, being able to want something without having a reason, without a motive? But what does wanting mean other than having a reason for preferring to do or trying to do this rather than that? To want something without a reason, without a motive, would be to want something without wanting it. The concept of wanting is inseparable from 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 human will is not ‘free’ to the extent that its direction is always determined by the strongest motive. But, in contrast to this ‘unfreedom’, it is absurd to speak of a possible ‘freedom’ of the will that amounts to having the ability to want what one does not want.” (pp213, 214)

[13] Here too, only motives in general are discussed without considering the difference between unconscious and conscious motives. If a motive works on me, and I am compelled to follow it because it proves to be the ‘strongest’ of its kind, then any thought of freedom ceases to be meaningful. Why should it matter to me whether I can do something or not if I am forced by the motive to do it? The point is not whether I can or cannot do something after the motive has influenced me, but whether any motives exist other than those that compel me with irresistible necessity. If I have to want something, then it is possible, under certain circumstances, that I may be completely indifferent as to whether I can actually do it. And if a motive is forced upon me by my character, or the circumstances prevailing in my environment, and which I think is unreasonable then I would necessarily have to be glad if I could not do what I wanted.

[14] The main point is not whether I am able to carry out a decision once it is made, but how the decision emerges within me.

1.8 Unconditioned Will?
[15] Rational thinking fundamentally distinguishes human beings from all other living beings. Activity we have in common with other organisms. Nothing is gained by seeking analogies in the animal world to clarify a concept of freedom that applies to the actions of human beings. Modern natural science loves such analogies. When science has succeeded in finding something similar to human behaviour among animals, it believes that it has touched on the most significant question of the science of humanity. This view leads to such misunderstandings as this example from Paul Rée’s book The Illusion of Free Will, which says the following about freedom:

“It is easy to explain why the movement of a stone appears to come about by necessity, while the will of a donkey does not. The causes that set the stone in motion are external and visible. But the causes of the donkey's desires are internal and invisible; between us and the place where they occur is the skull of the donkey.….. Not seeing the conditioning cause, its presence is not believed. The explanation given is that the will is indeed the cause of the donkey’s turning around, but the will itself is unconditioned; it is an absolute beginning (a first cause and not a link in a chain of events). A presumption of this kind is contradicted by experience and the universal validity of the law of causality… Let us now leave the animal kingdom and proceed to consider the human being. Everything is the same here.” (1885)

Here too, human actions that are imbued with conscious awareness of their reasons are simply ignored, for Rée declares, “Between us and the place where it occurs is the skull of the donkey.” These words show that Rée has no clue that there are actions – not a donkey’s actions, admittedly, but human actions – where a motive that has become conscious lies between us and the action. Rée demonstrates this view again, a few pages later, with the words:

“We do not perceive the causes that determine our will, and so we believe it is not casually determined at all.”

[16] These are sufficient examples to show that there are many who oppose the existence of freedom without knowing at all what freedom is.

1.9 Knowing the Reason for the Motive

[17] It is obvious that an action cannot be free if it is done without knowing why. But what about those actions whose reasons are known? This leads us to ask another question. What is the origin and significance of thought? For without the ability to recognise the mental activity of thinking, it is impossible to recognise what it means to have knowledge of anything, including an action. Once we are able to distinguish in general what thinking means, it will be more straightforward to clarify the role that thought plays in human action. Hegel is right when he says that “it is only thinking that turns the soul, which animals also possess, into spirit,” therefore it is thought that impresses upon human action its distinguishing features.

1.10 Action Arising from the Heart?
This certainly does not mean that all human actions flow only from the sober deliberations of the intellect. Those that proceed from abstract judgments are far from being the only actions that can be called human in its highest sense. But the moment our conduct lifts itself above the mere satisfaction of purely animal desires, our motives are invariably permeated with thoughts.
Love, compassion, and patriotism are driving forces for actions that cannot be reduced into cold intellectual concepts. It can be said that here is where heart-felt sensibility comes into its own. Of this there can be no doubt. But the heart and its sensibility do not create the motives of action. The motives are already established before being received into the heart’s domain. Compassion arises in my heart only after the mental image of a person who arouses compassion appears in my consciousness. The way to the heart is through the head.

1.11 Love of Another
Love is no exception to this. If it is not merely the expression of the sexual drive, then love flows out of the mental images we form of the loved one. The more idealistic are these mental images, the more blissful is our love. Even here, thought is the father of feeling.

1.12 Mental Image of Good Qualities
It is said that love makes us blind to the flaws of the loved one. But we can turn this around and say that love opens our eyes to the good qualities of the loved one. Many pass by without noticing those good qualities. Just because one person does see them, love awakens within. What has this person done other than make a mental image of something that hundreds of others have not noticed? Others do not love because they have not formed this mental image.

However we want to approach this subject, it becomes ever clearer that an investigation into the origin of thought is required before questioning the nature of human action. Therefore I will now turn to this question.


Notes on the above by John Ralph
American word liberty by John Ralph