Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/April 1880/The Scientific Aspect of Free-Will

620475Popular Science Monthly Volume 16 April 1880 — The Scientific Aspect of Free-Will1880Albert J. Leffingwell



FROM the time when, as Milton tells us, the lost angels

" . . . . Reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate—
Fixed fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute"—

no problem has excited greater interest in the human mind than the question of free-will. Philosophy, whether pagan or Christian, atheistic. Catholic, or Protestant, has alike found in its consideration an irresistible attraction; and, if the world remains to-day of divided opinions, it is not for lack of abundant argument. Seneca taught that "the same necessity binds both gods and men; divine as well as human affairs proceed onward in an irresistible stream"; while Pope thought he had solved the problem by imagining a Deity

"Who, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will"—

a flattering conclusion which the world finds it easy to accept. Theology, fearful, on the one hand, of rendering Deity the cause of evil, and, on the other, of limiting his due share in the government of the universe, usually teaches that necessity and free-will are alike true, though not to be reconciled; a conclusion which would render all reasoning on the subject inconsequential if not absurd. Some have thought to retain their favorite theory by so defining it that no difference of opinion can exist; as Dr. Haven, for instance, who, in his text-book on "Mental Philosophy," postulates that "freedom of will is power to do as I like," and that "the will is free when I can will to do just what I please"—seemingly unconscious that the whole question is why "I like" or why "I please." Others make both free-will and necessity utterly unfathomable mysteries, and then choose between them. Sir William Hamilton, while admitting that freedom of the will is "wholly incomprehensible"; that we "can not conceive a free volition"; that we are "utterly unable speculatively to understand how moral liberty is possible to man or God"—insists, nevertheless, that the doctrine of necessity is equally unthinkable, because we can not conceive an infinite regression of causes to all eternity; and then finds in "our consciousness of an uncompromising law of duty" a decisive proof of free-will. This is certainly to claim for consciousness of duty, as a witness, a superior function to that which it fills as an agent; for if it has proved again and again an unreliable guide to conduct—leading Calvin to burn Servetus, the Inquisition to torture heretics, and the Puritans to hang witches and Quakers—it is not easy to see why so imperfect a guide to action should be of such supreme value as a testimony to freedom of action. Nor is it clear how a Christian philosopher should have found in our consciousness of the moral law an evidence for a "wholly incomprehensible" theory, superior in force to that which the theistic hypothesis supplies to the doctrine of universal causation.

As it stands to-day, the question is very nearly one between science and theology. On the one hand, science asserts that to the law of causation there are no known exceptions; that mind as well as matter is subject to law. Theology, on the contrary, clings to the freedom of volition as the apparent foundation of morality; and insists that each man is a new cause—a new, unconditioned, responsible factor in the conduct of the universe; and this is the view most generally accepted by the world. The reason is not far to seek: it lies in the teaching of theology regarding man's future state. We instinctively feel that, if upon the nature of our actions depends the awful fate of unending happiness or misery in another existence, justice to the creature demands that his liberty be undetermined in any way by the Creator. Now, theology for the past eighteen centuries has taught, as it yet teaches, this doctrine of eternal punishment. While at the present day it is rarely pushed forward into the old-time prominence, it stands in the creed of every orthodox church; it is yet an essential element of Christian faith. Let us look at it for a moment as presented by a theologian, the greatest that America ever produced, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards. The extracts quoted are from the edition of his sermons published in 1879:

You have often seen a spider when thrown into the midst of a fierce fire; and have observed how immediately it yields to the force of the flames, and the fire takes possession of it, and at once it becomes full of fire, and is burned into a bright coal. Here is a little image of what you will be in hell, except you repent and fly to Christ.—Sermon X.

Do but consider what it is to suffer extreme torment for ever and ever; to suffer it night and day, from one day to another, from one year to another, from one age to another; in pain, in wailing and lamenting, groaning and shrieking and gnashing your teeth; with your bodies and every member full of racking torture; without any possibility of getting ease; without any possibility of moving God to pity by your cries (sic). How dismal will it be under these racking torments to know that you never, never shall be delivered from them; to have no hope; when after you have worn out the age of the sun, moon, and stars, without any rest day or night, or one minute's ease, yet you shall have no hope of ever being delivered; you shall know you are not one whit nearer the end of your torments; but the same groans, the same shrieks, the same doleful cries are incessantly to be made by you, and the smoke of your torment shall ascend up for ever and ever; your bodies, which have been burning and roasting all the while in glowing furnaces, yet shall not have been consumed, but will remain to roast through an eternity yet.Sermon XI

I shall mention several good and important ends which will be obtained by the eternal punishment of the wicked. . . .

III. The saints will be made more sensible how great their salvation is. When they shall see how great the misery is from which God has saved them, and how great the difference he hath made between their state and the state of others who were by nature, and perhaps by practice, no more sinful and ill-deserving than they, it will give them a sense of the wonderfulness of God's grace. . . . The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven.

IV. The sight of hell-torments will excite the happiness of the saints for ever; it will make them more sensible of their own happiness; it will give them a more lively relish of it! Oh, it will make them sensible how happy they are!—Sermon XI.

When they shall see how miserable others of their fellow creatures are—when they shall see the smoke of their torment and the raging flames of their burning, and shall hear their shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the mean time are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity, how they will rejoice!. . . How joyfully they will sing to God and the Lamb when they behold this!—Sermon XIII.

So long as this remains the orthodox view of the fate reserved for a majority of the human race, so long as to doubt the reality of such a Deity is to incur the suspicion of atheism, it will be difficult for men to yield the intellectual figment of "free-will" for the logic of necessity. True, the doctrine of predestination, which teaches that "by the decree of God, and for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death," still stands in many a creed; but most men do not suspect its existence; it is rarely if ever preached at the present day. Otherwise unable to reconcile eternal torture with an ideal of divine justice, probably the faith of ninety-nine out of every hundred persons is that each human being possesses a perfect liberty of choice, and undetermined volition.

The view of science upon this question is widely different. Of eternal fires, which serve at once to torture the skeptic and heighten the felicity of the saint, it knows nothing; the belief in them belongs rather to those cherished mysteries of faith which lie far beyond its scope. In that functional activity we call mind, it recognizes no power to originate uncaused volition. The universe is subject to law. Nothing ever happens or comes to pass without a cause. The cause determines the event, so that it could not be otherwise. What determines volition? Motives. The will is always determined by the strongest motive.

Given the motives which are present to an individual's mind, and given likewise the character and disposition of the individual, his actions might unerringly be inferred.—John Stuart Mill.

The conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of Nature.—Hume.

The only meaning of the law of causation in the physical world is, that it generalizes universal experience of the order of that world; and, if experience shows a similar order to obtain among states of consciousness, the law of causation will properly express that order. That such an order exists is acknowledged by every sane man.—Huxley.

It is claimed, however, that consciousness asserts itself with decisive force in favor of free-will. Is this true? "I dispute altogether," says Mill, "that we are conscious of being able to act in opposition to the strongest desire or aversion." But this is a point which we are all able to investigate for ourselves. Indeed, the peculiar advantage of metaphysical study is the opportunity universally possessed of testing theory by observation, in watching the operations of our own minds. I propose, therefore, to go directly upon the ground assumed as their own by the advocates of free-will, and rest the proof of causation upon the uniform testimony of consciousness. It seems to me that the evidence in favor of the scientific view is so cumulative and convincing that a reasonable being, capable of comprehending the problem, and unbiased by dogma, could, after its consideration, more easily assert his intangibility than his liberty of volition.

If we define the will as that "by which the mind chooses anything," and an act of the will as an act of choosing or choice between two or more courses of conduct, or between action and inaction, it is evident that by far the greater portion of our acts occur without conscious exercise of this faculty. Walking along a muddy street, engaged in deep thought or earnest conversation with a friend, one picks his way, but consciously does not determine where at each step his foot is to be placed. We laugh when amused; weep from sympathy or grief; cry from pain; become agitated, irritable, excited, or angry, if sufficiently vexed, without previous choice whether or not we shall yield to these emotions. We speak of ourselves as acting "from the impulse of the moment," from habit, or "as we always do under such circumstances." Let any one, for instance, review in his mind the events of yesterday, from the first moment of awakened consciousness until he sank into slumber at night, and remember, if he can, before how many of the ten thousand actions which constituted his daily life he paused to choose. Awakened in the morning, he arose, doubtless, at his usual hour—performed ablution, assumed his garments, one by one, in a certain methodical order, and descended to breakfast. He read portions of his newspaper; commented on events or politics; the coffee was burned and the steak tough, and he was irritable and morose; or both were excellent, and he was amiable and talkative. He walked to his place of business by the route he always takes; crossing the streets where he had crossed a thousand times previously; arriving at the usual hour, notwithstanding he might have made—had the motives existed—innumerable variations from his regular course in each of these proceedings. Now, up to this point, he has probably performed several thousand distinct muscular efforts, each under the control of his will—from the glance of an eye to the propulsion of his body along the street. How many of them can he remember, or does he suppose to have resulted from conscious choice between action as performed and another imaginable possible alternative? Probably he could count on his fingers all the acts of conscious choice performed during the entire day. The rest have been as instinctive and impulsive, as unconsciously determined by circumstances, as the operations of ordinary animal existence.

Turning now to the consideration of those acts which are preceded by that conscious weighing of motives which constitutes true volition, we shall find these no less determined by law. Appealing confidently to the consciousness of every reader, I submit that we not only invariably choose, but we can only choose, that object or course of action which at the instant, the will is exercised to choose, appears to us, all things considered, the most desirable.

This can hardly be doubted. For the very act of conscious choice implies of necessity (except in those imaginary cases of absolute indifference wherein morality can not be concerned) a preference, even if it be only momentary. Mind, I do not say the thing chosen is really desirable; perhaps the only courses open are all very undesirable, terrible, full of painful consequences, and the confused mind may pass from one to another with a hesitating tremulousness of indecision—obliged, however, ultimately to make a choice. Put yourself to any fair test, and see if you can possibly choose that which you prefer least to choose. Pain is exceedingly undesirable, is it not? Take a needle and place the point against your bared arm; now choose whether or not you shall force it to enter your flesh. "But it will hurt me," you say, and you throw down the needle, proceeding no further. Do you so decide without cause? Or perhaps you push the point beneath the skin, and inflict upon yourself pain, without apparent adequate motive. Yet is it not evident that the mere desire to make the experiment made even the pain momentarily desirable? But, omitting the petty experiences of our every-day life, let us test the proposition by reference to the highest occasions of choice possible to man. Life is sweet, and yet how poor would be the records of heroism did they not tell us of men who, for the sake of great and noble ends, preferred death! You can not imagine them as choosing it if they did not regard it as the more desirable. We have all seen the picture of the Huguenot lovers, on the eve of St. Bartholomew, and the choice of death which one made even in the arms of her he loved. How many martyrs in silent dungeons have been offered life, liberty, home, and the loving companionship of wife and children, the possibility of long years of happiness and usefulness, at the price of apostasy to their convictions; who chose rather an ignominious death at the stake, prolonged tortures, confiscation of property, beggary of children, execration of friends, a dishonored and forgotten name—and whose faces shone with happiness as the flames kindled around them! But men have chosen more than this—not only to die, but to live a life of torture first. History does not record for us instances of greater self-abnegation, of more intense eagerness to suffer and to die for others, than those of the Jesuit missionaries who labored among the Indians of this country two centuries ago. One of them, writing from the Iroquois country in 1644, said: "This letter is soiled and ill-written, because the writer has only one finger of his right hand left entire, and can not prevent the blood oozing from his wounds, still open, from staining the paper." He had suffered protracted tortures in every form consistent with the preservation of life: given to children to torment; burned with live coals, forced to walk on hot cinders, hung by the feet, lacerated by savage dogs; a finger-nail burned off one day, and the joint burned off the next—a fiendish economy of torture—and finally ransomed by the Dutch, only to save him from the stake; yet, as soon as his health was partially restored, he chose to embark again for the wilderness and its awful possibilities. Turn the yellow pages of the missionary "Relations" and you come upon sentiments like these, expressed in the antiquated orthography of the time: "Nous mourrons, nous serons pris, nous serons bruslez, nous serons massacrez—passe. Je ne voy icy personne baisser la tête; au contraire—on demande de monter aux Hurons; et quelques uns protestent que les feux des Hiroquois sont l'un de leur motifs pour entreprendre un voyage si dangereux!" Of others, their biographer says: "They had borne all that the human frame seems capable of bearing. They had escaped as by miracle from torture and death. Did their zeal flag or their courage fail? A fervor, intense and unquenchable, urged them on to more distant and more deadly ventures. They burned to do, to suffer, to die; and now from out a living martyrdom they turned their heroic gaze toward a horizon dark with perils yet more appalling, and saw in hope the day when they might bear the cross into the blood-stained dens of the Iroquois." In the tortured captives they had baptized even amid the flames, they saw their own fate, but it caused not a moment's hesitation. These all chose what to them seemed most desirable; for, beyond torture and death, they seemed to see the martyr's crown, the eternal reward. Not less on these supreme occasions than in the most ordinary affairs of daily life, choice is determined by the apparent desirableness of things.

But, if this be granted, it immediately becomes evident that one's views of what is desirable arise from an infinite variety of coincident circumstances with which the individual concerned had no more to do than with the shape of his skull or the color of his skin. That no two persons have exactly the same preferences or tastes, or would choose alike on every occasion, is a truism. Their ideas of what is desirable may have resulted from congenital or inherited constitutional tendencies. A drunkard's children are often endowed with a craving for stimulants, that sooner or later brings them to drunkards' graves. One man possesses fierce and strong animal propensities; another is never tempted by vicious allurements. The social condition of men has a great influence in this respect. I do not suppose the Prince of Wales ever perceived the desirableness of snatching a loaf from a baker's cart; but many a starving London tramp has felt it. Hunger and poverty meet a thousand temptations that never assail full stomachs and well-clothed bodies. Victor Hugo says that English statistics prove four robberies out of five to have hunger for their immediate cause. Or the state of the health may influence men's views of the desirableness of, things. Of the effect of impaired vitality in vitiating desires, every physician is aware. Many of us, offered a glass of wine, could accept it without the remotest danger of thereby becoming drunkards; but others, men like Mr. Gough, tell us that for them such indulgence would be the first step to a long debauch. How powerful is the influence of habit in this respect! I enter a tobacconist's with no other desire apparent to myself than to do my errand and escape as soon as possible; but a venerable gentleman told me the other day that, after breaking off the use of tobacco for thirteen years, the chance inspection of some fresh samples renewed with overwhelming force the old appetite and refixed the old habit. Or the decision may be due to occasion and other surrounding circumstances attending the moment of choice. There is a profound significance in the petition, "Lead us not into temptation." Many a woman walks our streets wrecked, from the fortuitous conjunction of opportunity, temptation, and desire, whose virtue would never have yielded to either alone. What an immense influence is exerted upon men's desires by their religious belief! The Jesuit among the Hurons could choose a daily martyrdom that, now and then, he might touch a dying papoose with holy water and snatch its little soul from eternal fires; can we imagine a Universalist clergyman so suffering for such results? How largely also are our notions of right and wrong determined for us by early parental training! A landlady of mine, in Leipsic, a pastor's daughter, of the most rigid type of Protestant orthodoxy, attended church one Sunday morning, and a representation of "Faust" at the theatre the same evening; and saw no incongruity in a course which, by a majority of people in this country, would be regarded as a fearful sin. Both views of Sunday are merely results of religious education at a period when the mind is peculiarly receptive, and when no one claims that a child should decide as to the correctness of the opinions taught. These are only a few out of the infinite number of circumstances, beyond individual control, which decide what shall be the views we take of the qualities of things and the desirableness of action. They mold character; they shape opinions; they make the man what he is. Since by these facts of organization, education, religious training, social position, etc., independent of our wish or will, are determined for us the view s we invariably take of the apparent desirableness of all objects or actions—since upon this apparent desirableness the choice of conduct of mankind invariably depends—it follows that the human will is as subject to the law of causation as the movements of the planets or the flight of an insect in the air.

It is asserted, however, by the advocates of the popular doctrine, that the scientific negation of free-will obliterates what is called "moral responsibility," and places man, as respects bis actions, on the plane of other animals. A full consideration of this point would lead us too far aside from our subject; yet, were all imagined consequences sure to arise from general disbelief in accountability for action, I fail to see how this proves the truth of the doctrine of free-will. It can never be too often repeated that, regarding each and every theory, dogma, or proposition. Science can ask but one question. Is it true? The answer must come from other sources than the imagined sequence of its acceptance or rejection. But let us suppose that mankind should some day admit the proposition that moral responsibility, in the theological sense, does not exist; that the will is determined by the strongest motive: what fearful results would ensue! Would punishment cease to follow crime? On the contrary, its use would never be more logical. If the stronger motive has led an individual to transgress the rights of society, then society must punish for three reasons: 1. That the memory of the punishment may act as a strong motive in deterring from future repetition of the offense; 2. That the example may deter others; and, 3. That society may be protected from a dangerous man. These reasons are all consistent with the doctrine of necessity; what others would the advocates of uncaused volition add? To assert that punishment should only be inflicted where "moral responsibility" exists, is either to confer it upon our domestic animals, or else to deny the justice of our every-day action regarding them. A child throws stones at strangers passing by; a dog barks at their heels; both are soundly whipped at each offense, and sooner or later both cease its repetition. In both instances punishment was given from the same standpoint; its action on child and dog was alike—equally effectual, and I see no reason for the interposition of moral responsibility in the one case, if denied in the other.

I do not believe that the doctrine of necessity, if generally held, would lessen in any way our abhorrence of evil, or our approval of the good. To assert, as Professor Bascom does in his recent work on "Ethics," as a proof of free-will, that the doctrine of necessity "does not merely strangle virtue—it leaves every thought and action as true and as just, one as another," and that "all our moral action loses its character without liberty," seems to me to make statements unsupported by any evidence whatever. Would Professor Bascom allow that Deity is free to become a fiend? And if not—if to be God he must of necessity be good—does he conceive that divine action "loses its character without liberty"? Or can he explain why conduct should be deprived of the distinctions of good and evil because conditioned, any more than physical qualities admitted to be determined independently of the individual's will? If beauty in the human form is better than ugliness, health than disease, symmetry than distortion, intelligence than idiocy, why should not modesty, humanity, justice, and truth, not only seem, but be better than profligacy, cruelty, iniquity, and falsehood? The fact is, goodness is essentially beautiful, and in the slow progress of mankind upward, from savagery to the ultimate civilization yet to be, can not fail to command admiration. Evil is hateful, independently of its relations to ethics, and its awful realm extends far beyond the area of human action. In the spider springing upon the entangled fly, the cat playing with its victim before tearing it to pieces, in the teeth of the shark, the fangs of the rattlesnake, the poisonous slaver of the rabid dog; in the deposition of tubercle, the slow growth of cancer, the ravages of syphilis upon innocent childhood, we get glimpses of the great mystery of Evil, separate from human will, where we pity but never condemn. And if, perchance, some day the world should learn to discriminate in the sphere of human action between the deed and doer; if, acknowledging necessity, it should come to have a larger and more comprehensive charity for all mankind, will it have strayed very far from the example and precepts of the world's great Teacher? Was there not one who, hating leprosy, loved the leper?—about whom Pharisees murmured because he sat at meat with sinners?—who condemned not her whom the law would have stoned?—who taught that "it must needs be that offenses come," and whose last prayer asked forgiveness for his enemies, "for they know not what they do"? I do not believe these dying words were without meaning; they were the expression of a scientific truth.

Nor, finally, will belief in the conformity of will to law hinder our approval and admiration of great and good deeds. The highest and noblest action results never from conscious choice, but springs unconsciously from the force of noble character—"instinctively," as we sometimes say. Of Cato, it was said that he was good because he could not be otherwise. So far from lessening the excellence of conduct that noble motives act always with irresistible force upon great men, that is the chief reason for honoring them, because they at least could not act ignobly. "Here I stand," said Luther, at Worms, "God help me, Ich kann nicht anders!" This is the key-note of noble action everywhere, "I can not otherwise!" The engineer, at New Hamburgh, hesitating not a moment when duty called him to a horrible death; the captain of the sinking steamer who will not leave the ship until every passenger is safe, and so goes down with her; Arnold Winkelried crying, "Make way for liberty!" and rushing upon the Austrian spears; Sir Philip Sidney, mortally wounded, taking from his parched lips the water brought him, that a poor soldier, who looked longingly with dying eyes at the cup, might first drink; the martyrs who have chosen to suffer ignominy and death that we might have freedom of thought and speech—these are types of men humanity will ever honor; their example and memory we shall reverence even though we know—rather because we know—that the needle points not more surely to the pole than that for them, there and then, meanness was impossible—that their great souls were only capable of noble deeds.