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The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity

On-line since: 21st October, 2006




IS MAN in his thinking and acting a spiritually free being, or is he compelled by the iron necessity of natural law? Few questions have been debated more than this one. The concept of the freedom of the human will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in plenty. There are those who, in moral fervor, declare it to be sheer stupidity to deny so evident a fact as freedom. Opposed to them are others who regard as utterly naive the belief that the uniformity of natural law is interrupted in the sphere of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is here declared as often to be the most precious possession of humanity, as it is said to be its most fatal illusion. Infinite subtlety has been devoted to explaining how human freedom is compatible with the working of nature, to which, after all, man belongs. No less pains have been taken to make comprehensible how a delusion like this could have arisen. That here we are dealing with one of the most important questions of life, religion, conduct and science, is felt by everyone whose character is not totally devoid of depth. And indeed, it belongs to the sad signs of the superficiality of present day thinking that a book which attempts to develop a “new faith” 1 ] out of the results of the latest scientific discoveries, contains, on this question, nothing but the words:

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

I do not quote this passage because I consider that the book in which it appears has any special importance, but because it seems to me to express the only view which most of our thinking contemporaries are able to reach, concerning this question. Everyone who claims to have advanced beyond an elementary education seems nowadays to know that freedom cannot consist in choosing at one's pleasure, one or the other of two possible courses of action; it is maintained that there is always a quite definite reason why, out of several possible actions, we carry out a particular one.

This seems obvious. Nevertheless, up to now, the main attacks by those who oppose freedom are directed only against the freedom of choice. Herbert Spencer, who has views which are rapidly gaining ground, says:

“That everyone is able to desire or not to desire, as he pleases, which is the essential principle in the dogma of free will, is negated by the analysis of consciousness, as well as by the contents of the preceding chapter.” 2 ]

Others, too, start from the same point of view in combating the concept of free will. The germs of all that is relevant in these arguments are to be found as early as Spinoza. 3 ] All that he brought forward in clear and simple language against the idea of freedom has since been repeated times without number, but usually veiled in the most complicated theoretical doctrines so that it is difficult to recognize the straightforward train of thought on which all depends. Spinoza writes in a letter of October or November, 1674:

“I call something free which exists and acts from the pure necessity of its nature, and I call that compelled, the existence and action of which are exactly and fixedly determined by something else. The existence of God, for example, though necessary, is free because He exists only through the necessity of His nature. Similarly, God knows Himself and all else in freedom, because it follows solely from the necessity of His nature that He knows all. You see, therefore, that I regard freedom as consisting, not in free decision, but in free necessity.

“But let us come down to created things which are all determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner. To recognize this more clearly, let us imagine a perfectly simple case. A stone, for example, receives from an external cause acting upon it a certain quantity of motion, by which it necessarily continues to move after the impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion of the stone is a compelled one, not a necessary one, because it has to be defined by the thrust of the external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also for every other particular thing, however complicated and many-sided it may be, namely, that each thing is necessarily determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner.

Now, please, suppose that during its motion the stone thinks and knows that it is striving to the best of its ability to continue in motion. This stone which is conscious only of its striving and is by no means indifferent, will believe that it is absolutely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than its own will to continue. But this is that human freedom which everybody claims to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that men are conscious of their desires, but do not know the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that he is free when he desires milk, the angry boy that he is free in his desire for vengeance, and the timid in his desire for flight. Again, the drunken man believes that he says of his own free decision what, sober again, he would fain have left unsaid, and as this prejudice is innate in all men, it is not easy to free oneself from it. For although experience teaches us often enough that man, least of all, can temper his desires and that, moved by conflicting passions, he sees the better and pursues the worse, yet he considers himself free, simply because there are some things which he desires less strongly and many desires which can easily be inhibited through the recollection of something else which is often remembered.”

Because here we are dealing with a clear and definitely expressed view, it is also easy to discover the fundamental error in it. As necessarily as a stone continues a definite movement after being put in motion, just as necessarily is a man supposed to carry out an action when urged thereto by any reason. It is only because man is conscious of his action, that he regards himself as its free originator. But, in doing so, he overlooks the fact that he is driven to it by a cause which he has to obey unconditionally. The error in this train of thought is soon found. Spinoza, and all who think like him, overlook the fact that man not only is conscious of his action, but may also become conscious of the causes which guide him. No one will deny that when the child desires milk, he is unfree, as is also the drunken man when he says things he later regrets. Neither knows anything of the causes working in the depths of their organisms, which exercise irresistible power over them. But is it justifiable to lump together actions of this kind with those in which a man is conscious, not only of his actions but also of the reasons which cause him to act? Are the actions of men really all of one kind? Should the deed of a soldier on the field of battle, of the research scientist in his laboratory, of the statesman in complicated diplomatic negotiations, be placed, scientifically, on the same level with that of the child when he desires milk? It is indeed true that it is best to attempt the solution of a problem where the conditions are simplest. But inability to differentiate has caused endless confusion before now. There is, after all, a profound difference between whether I know why I do something, or whether I do not. At first sight this seems a self-evident truth. And yet those who oppose freedom never ask whether a motive which I recognize and see through, compels me in the same sense as does the organic process in the child that causes him to cry for milk.

Eduard von Hartmann 4 ] maintains that the human will depends on two main factors: the motive and the character. If one regards all men as alike, or at any rate the differences between them as negligible, then their will appears as determined from without, namely by the circumstances which come to meet them. But if one takes into consideration that men let a representation become a motive for their deeds only if their character is such that the particular representation arouses a desire in them, then man appears as determined from within and not from without. Now, because a representation pressing in on him from without must first, in accordance with his character, be adopted as a motive, man believes himself to be free, that is, independent of external motives. The truth, however, according to Eduard von Hartmann, is that

“even though we ourselves first turn a representation into a motive, we do so not arbitrarily, but according to the necessity of our characterological disposition, that is, we are anything but free.”

Here again, the difference between motives which I allow to influence me only after I have permeated them with my consciousness, and those which I follow without having any clear knowledge of them, is disregarded.

And this leads directly to the standpoint from which the facts will be considered here. Is it at all permissible to consider by itself the question of the freedom of our will? And if not: With what other question must it necessarily be connected?

If there is a difference between a conscious motive of my action and an unconscious impulse, then the conscious motive will result in an action which must be judged differently from one that springs from blind urge. The first question must, therefore, concern this difference, and upon the answer will depend how we are to deal with the question of freedom as such.

What does it mean to know the reason for one's action? This question has been too little considered because, unfortunately, the tendency has always been to tear into two parts what is an inseparable whole: Man. We distinguish the knower from the doer, and the one who really matters is lost sight of: the man who acts because he knows.

It is said: Man is free when his reason has the upper hand, not his animal cravings. Or else: Freedom means to be able to determine one's life and action in accordance with purposes and decisions.

Nothing is achieved by assertions of this kind. For the question is just whether reason, purposes and decisions exercise compulsion over a man in the same way as do his animal cravings. If, without my doing, a reasonable decision emerges in me with just the same necessity as hunger and thirst, then I must needs obey it, and my freedom is an illusion.

Another phrase is: To be free means not that one is able to will what one wants, but that one is able to do what one wants. This thought has been expressed with great clearness by the poet-philosopher, Robert Hamerling. 5 ]

“Man can, indeed, do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants, because his will is determined by motives! He cannot will what he wants? Let us consider these words more closely. Have they any sense? Should freedom of will consist in being able to will something without reason, without a motive? But what does it mean to will something, other than to have a reason to do or to strive for this rather than that? To will something without a reason, without a motive, would mean to will something without willing it. The concept of will is inseparable from that of motive. Without a motive to determine it, the will is an empty ability; only through the motive does it become active and real. It is, therefore, quite correct that the human will is not free, inasmuch as its direction is always determined by that motive which is the strongest. But, on the other hand, it must be admitted that in contrast with this ‘unfreedom,’ it is absurd to speak of a thinkable ‘freedom’ of the will, which would end up in being able to will what one does not will.”

Here again, only motives in general are discussed. without regard for 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. Should it matter to me whether I can do a thing or not, if I am forced by the motive to do it? The immediate question is not whether I can or cannot do a thing when a motive has influenced me, but whether only such motives exist as affect me with compelling necessity. If I have to will something, then I may well be absolutely indifferent as to whether I can also do it. And if, through my character, or through circumstances prevailing in my environment, a motive is pressed upon me which to my thinking is unreasonable, then I should even have to be glad if I could not do what I will.

The question is not whether I can carry out a decision once made, but how the decision arises within me.

What distinguishes man from all other organic beings is his rational thinking. Actions he has in common with other organisms. Nothing is gained by seeking analogies in the animal world to clarify the concept of freedom of action of human beings. Modern natural science loves such analogies. When scientists have succeeded in finding among animals something similar to human behavior, they believe they have touched upon the most important question of the science of man. To what misunderstandings this view leads is seen, for example, in a book by P. Rée, 6 ] where the following remark on freedom appears:

“It is easy to explain why the movement of a stone seems to us necessary, while the will-impulse of a donkey does not. The causes which set the stone in motion are external and visible, while the causes which induce in the donkey impulses of will are internal and invisible, that is, between us and the place where they are active there is the skull of the donkey. ... The dependence on a cause is not seen and the conclusion, therefore, is drawn that no dependence is present. It is explained that the will is, indeed, the cause of the donkey's turning round, but that it is itself unconditioned; it is an absolute beginning.”

Here again, human actions in which man is conscious of the reasons why he acts, are simply ignored, for Rée declares:

“Between us and the place where the causes are active there is the skull of the donkey.”

From these words can be seen that Rée had no notion that there are actions, not indeed of the donkey, but of human beings, in which between us and the deed lies the motive that has become conscious. That Rée does not see this he shows again later, when he says:

“We do not perceive the causes by which our will is determined, hence we believe that our will is not causally determined at all.”

But enough of examples which show that many oppose freedom without knowing in the least what freedom is.

That an action cannot be free, of which the doer does not know why he carries it out, is obvious. But what about an action for which we know the reason? This leads us to the question: What is the origin and significance of thinking? For without knowledge of the thinking activity of the soul, it is impossible to form a concept of what it means to know something, and therefore also of what it means to know the reason for an action. When we recognize what thinking in general means, then it will also be easy to become clear about the role that thinking plays in human action. As Hegel 7 ] rightly says,

“It is thinking that turns the soul, with which the animals are also endowed, into spirit.”

And this is why thinking gives to human action its characteristic stamp.

It is not maintained that all our action springs only from the sober deliberations of our reason. Far be it from me to consider human in the highest sense only those actions which result from abstract judgments. But as soon as our conduct rises above the sphere of the satisfaction of purely animal desires, our motives are always permeated by thoughts. Love, pity and patriotism are motivating forces for deeds which cannot be analyzed away into cold concepts of the intellect. It is said that here the heart and the mood of soul hold sway. No doubt. But the heart and the mood of the soul do not create the motives. They presuppose them and let them enter. Pity enters my heart when the representation of a person who arouses pity appears in my consciousness. The way to the heart is through the head. Love is no exception. Whenever it is not merely the expression of bare sexual instinct, it depends on the representation we form of the loved one. And the more idealistic these representations are, just so much the more blessed is our love. Here too, thought is the father of feeling. It is said: Love makes us blind to the failings of the loved one. But this also holds good the other way round, and it can be said: Love opens the eyes just for the good qualities of the loved one. Many pass by these good qualities without noticing them. One, however, sees them, and just because he does, love awakens in his soul. He has done nothing other than form a representation of something, of which hundreds have none. They have no love because they lack the representation.

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

Last Modified: 15-Nov-2017
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