A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke
Is there such a thing as freedom of the will?
“All theory is against it; all experience for it.” This was the verdict of Dr. Samuel Johnson according to his biographer James Boswell. It was well said. We must choose between the theory and the experience. The theory is the theory of science, or at least of the philosophers of science, that every event without exception that takes place in the universe is the necessary product of a cause (making due allowance for quantum mechanics which suggests that on the micro scale the product of a cause is a probability). The experience, on the other hand, is that of every single adult human being, that he has the ability to make genuine choices. Those who choose the theory typically believe it makes the experience of freedom impossible. But my purpose here is to examine the actual experience.
My consciousness tells me of many activities that originate within me. I am aware of my heartbeat and the regular breathing of my lungs; I sometimes sneeze and cough. I am conscious of emotions that come unbidden when I look at the picture of my deceased wife, and of a desire arising in me to shorten the conversation with my visitor who is telling me a long story. Not only my body but my mind is a biological being which operates according to its own mysterious laws. The actions of both are part of me and belong to me. It would not be accurate to call them mechanical, for they are alive. But they operate by a kind of causal necessity. Yet they escape out of my control and I cannot identify myself with them in the most fundamental sense. They flow through me. I undergo them. At the innermost core of my being they are not imputable to me and I am not responsible for them. I know about many of them only from the reports of others. Some I learn about by looking in a mirror. Although it is my blood that circulates in my veins, it had to be discovered by Harvey. Although they are activities that belong to me and are part of me, they are not my actions. Some are far from welcome to me.
Besides these activities, however, I am conscious of others which have a much deeper connection with my own being. I do not undergo these but am aware of originating them. They do not flow through me but begin in me. They are motions that I initiate. I am conscious of bringing them into existence in a choice or decision that I make. When I make this choice, I am directly aware that something new comes into the world. I know it is new because I am creating it. Although it may be occasioned by something that went before, that is, it happens in association with something else, it is not caused or produced by that and is not merely a consequence of it that follows from it by necessity. It would not exist unless I deliberately brought it about. It is the product of my will.
It is true the events I am speaking of now have certain preconditions without which they cannot take place. They require a certain energy from me. They make certain assumptions about the world. They are aimed at certain objects. But they are not the product of these presuppositions, which can quite well take place without them.
We commonly designate these events that we ourselves initiate actions. In order to know I am doing these actions I do not need either to look in the mirror or to ask a scientist. I know them because I am performing them. How do I know I am swimming? Because I am swimming! Nothing more is needed. This is a special kind of knowledge we have that deserves more notice from philosophers than it has received: it is a knowledge in and through action, a knowledge of what we are doing simply by the fact that we are doing it.
This kind of knowledge is very different from our ordinary knowledge of the world. Our ordinary knowledge comes from observation or perception: I stand outside the object and look at it. I examine it through my five senses, which report to me an impression or appearance. There can be a question about the relationship of this appearance to the reality: is it reliable or misleading? I can attain greater certitude about its faithfulness to the reality by assembling other appearances which agree with it. But with the knowledge of my own actions there is no question of an appearance. I am immersed in the reality of my action from the beginning. Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) could rightly be certain he was thinking because he was indeed thinking. He could equally have been rightly certain he was walking because he was walking or eating because he was eating. (I say this without endorsing the entire Cartesian project, which is a different matter and more will be said about it later.) Could Putnam’s mad scientist with the brain in the vat convince the brain’s owner, through some artificial stimulus, that he was eating when he was not eating? Could he create such an illusion? No doubt it is possible to dream I am eating when actually I am not, but dreams occur only when I am asleep.
This also applies to our knowledge of a faculty or ability we have just by the fact that we are using it. I know I have the power of memory because I am employing it right now. I know I have the power of imagination because if I wish I can use it to conjure up a picture of how my garden ought to look when I have finished weeding it. I know I possess the ability to make up a new English sentence because that is what I am just now engaged in doing. The scholastics of the middle ages had a Latin phrase that is apt for this: in actu exercito. I know it in the act of exercising it.
I know when I am making a choice, then, simply because I am making it. And I know I have the power to choose, just in and by the fact that I am exercising that power. And I know I have the power to set an event in motion without myself being set in motion.
The actions I initiate have a special significance in my life. They can rightly be imputed to me. They are linked to me in the most intimate way. They belong to me more intensely, at a deeper level of myself. The core of my individual reality is at
stake in them. It is this person, “I,” and no one else, who does them. They are my actions, in a way that the beating of my heart, even though my existence depends on it, is not. I am personally engaged in them and cannot disown them or dissociate myself from them. Many hearts beat in many people, many lungs breathe, but the actions that I initiate cannot be attributed to anyone else. Mediaeval philosophy spoke of the “I” as the suppositum, the uniquely individual underlying ground, of these actions. (It used this concept among other things to distinguish the Persons of the Trinity from one another.) Although they are expressions of my personality, since they emerge from it and within it, they are more than that because they create my personality. Through the actions I initiate, I make myself to be that kind of person.
When I have initiated an action, I realise that is not the end of the story. I am conscious of being responsible for it. I am aware that I am responsible for the effects of my deliberate choice in a way that I am not responsible for other effects that I cause in the world or for other activities that occur within me. I have a sense that my ownership of this action extends beyond the action itself to its consequences in the world. Hegel quotes an old German saying: “A flung stone is the devil’s.” In flinging the stone I expose myself to the wildest vagaries of chance. Once I have flung it it may go anywhere, it may do any damage, and whatever it does was done by me. If it should happen to break a window, it was I who broke the window, even though I had no such purpose. I cannot take it back. Contra factum ne quidem deus. Not even God, though he can forgive it, can make it not done, though sometimes I would give much to undo what I have done.
Even though my action may be thoughtless or negligent, when I later reflect on it impartially I see it is nonetheless the product of my will. It bears me and my will with it into the world and places my stamp or impression on the world. Even when my action — or willful inaction — is the product of weakness of will, yielding to some pressure I ought to resist: a weak will is still a will, and I am still responsible for it.
With the awareness of ownership and of responsibility for my action comes a third, a sense that I am therefore also accountable for it to others. I am not an isolated individual but live in a world of other people to whom I have many kinds of ties, who possess free will like myself and who are affected by my actions. I should be able to justify what I do, give reasons for it, if questions are raised about it. I see I am answerable to them for its effects, even when I did not intend those effects. I have a sense of duty or obligation. I can do good and I can do evil. I am aware of the possibility of guilt. This sense of obligation, while it is a sense of a certain kind of necessity, a moral necessity or “ought,” is not a sense of compulsion or physical necessity, as if either the good or the evil actions I do could not be avoided. On the contrary, whenever I choose to initiate an action, I am aware I could have done something different. I know I had the power, if I wished to use it, to act otherwise. For this is what I mean when I say I make a choice. The fact that I could have made a different choice gives meaning to my actual choice. Confronted with this choice I realise there is a realm or dimension of my being that is not subject to the iron law of causation evident in the other activities that take place within me. I have stepped into the realm of freedom of the will, in which actions are not predetermined by previous events, but only by a being, a center of action: the mysterious one I call “myself.”
My consciousness tells me that my actions are not the product either of necessity or of chance. For I choose them for a reason. My reason for writing these words now is that I wish to communicate something to you. In general my reasons for acting can be described as purposes or intentions. Sometimes my purpose is distinct from my action, a result or product of it; sometimes the purpose is just the action itself, as in dancing or a sport. Often I entertain the purpose in my mind before doing the action; but not always: sometimes I just go ahead and do it. Does the purpose in my mind compel me to do the action? I know, and you know, I can abandon the purpose whenever I choose. The idea that my reason or purpose causes me inevitably to write, as Schopenhauer and others have maintained, is mere dreaming.
Every action I initiate represents a new beginning in the universe. Though they could not exist without the chain of causation that binds the material universe together, these actions escape from that chain, and they cannot be explained adequately in terms of it. For to explain the action scientifically would be to point to a previous event which necessarily produced it. But the whole marvel of a free action is that it escapes from that necessity. A free action cannot be explained by any factor that precedes it. It can only be explained by the actor’s purposes: something that the action itself is intended to satisfy or produce. I conceive of a purpose and I choose or resolve upon that purpose: this is what explains my action.
Some will say my actions merely appear to escape from the chain of causation when seen from the first-person perspective. But this reply is rather evidence of what Elizabeth Anscombe remarks, that “…in modern philosophy we have an incorrigibly contemplative conception of knowledge.” (Intention, par. 32) The knowledge I have of what I am doing through the fact that I am engaged in doing it is not knowledge by “appearance.” It is knowledge, as she says, “not by observation.” It is a direct and immediate knowledge through being the agent of an action. She gives the example of
a man who admires a possession of mine and I say, “It’s yours!”, thereby giving it to him (Ibid., par. 45). Although there may be various appearances involved, it becomes his, and I know it becomes his, not through any of them but solely through my action, my will.
Every action I initiate is a new beginning even though it may strongly resemble or repeat other actions I have done before, or actions others have done. It is this particular action now that is new and unpredetermined, not the species or general class of the action.
But, it might be said, believing that something is true is an action, and at first glance, although we would say it is one we do for a reason, i.e. we have a motive for it, we would not say it was done for a purpose: we believe because of the evidence. Yet we can reject the evidence and refuse to believe. We are never truly compelled to believe, but can always find an alternative way out if we are sufficiently determined, as Quine saw.
Every adult human being not only knows that he himself has this freedom, or ability to act in ways that are not predetermined by previous factors; he knows equally that other adults possess it too. For we are quick to notice when it is not true, when another person’s power of free decision and choice is impaired, for example by alcohol or drugs. When this happens, his actions sink back into the chain of causation and become the mere product of forces acting on him, such as his desires or his resentments. To accept determinism is to say there is little difference between the control an individual has over his own actions when he is normal and when he is drunk. We know what people are like when their actions are predetermined. They act as animals do. It is not always a pretty sight.
Kant, as is well known, held that though the will is in fact free, this truth cannot properly speaking be known, but can only be assumed. It can and must be assumed, he argued, because it is a prerequisite for morality, but it is not an object of knowledge because it cannot be proven “theoretically,” i.e. scientifically, because it is not empirical. There is no experiment we could carry out to test whether the will is free or not.
Not only that, but Kant extended the zone of the unexperienceable, and therefore unknowable, beyond free will to the very existence of mind or the ego. Just as we can only assume, but not know, that we have free will, so we can only assume but not know our own existence, as “the transcendental synthetic unity of apperception.” What we consider to be our self is actually nothing more substantial than the unity of our perceptions. We can and must postulate the existence of our own ego as the hidden and mysterious factor that unifies our perceptions and judgements, for the same reason that we can and must postulate our free will, because of the practical necessity of ethics and daily life, but we cannot, properly speaking, have theoretical or scientific knowledge of our ego because it is not empirical. It cannot be experienced by the senses, as everything that scientific knowledge reaches to must be either directly experienced by the senses or tightly linked to what is experienced by the senses.
Kant thought that our apparent experience of freedom of will was only a negative experience, the experience of an absence, the absence of restraint. But in actuality it is more than that: it is the positive experience of exercising our freedom, the experience of choosing.
This was part of the yawning chasm Kant established, the immense moat he dug, between the world of sense experience, the phenomenon, the realm of appearance, and reality in itself apart from sense experience, the noumenon. Knowledge is restricted to what can be proved, he asserts, and what can be proved is only what belongs to the former and not the latter. From the viewpoint of knowledge, the gap is unbridgeable, he asserts. Yet a knowledge that is only of appearance and not of reality has no right to be considered knowledge at all, but is mere illusion and ignorance. In truth we have good reason to believe that the Kantian gulf is exaggerated. For appearance is always the appearance of something. As Schopenhauer saw, to his credit. The phenomenon is not merely an appearance, but the coming to appearance of the noumenon. No doubt our knowledge is always the product of the interaction of our mind with reality. But in that product the voice of reality is not dumb but can still be heard.
Kant divided the world up into two contrasting spheres. But in actuality there is a third sphere lying in between them, which consists in our own actions, including the freedom of those actions, and our self which is doing them. This sphere bridges the gap between appearance and reality, the phenomenon and the noumenon.
While Kant is right to say neither the freedom of the will nor the existence of the ego can be proven scientifically, and this is an important truth about science that we must never forget, it does not follow, then, that the freedom of the will and the existence of the ego cannot be known. For we know many things that cannot be proven scientifically. The principal thing we know by this other route is our own actions. Which, to repeat, we know because we are doing them. And in knowing our own actions we know both our freedom of will and also our own existence. We know our freedom and our ego in actu exercito.
Since we have knowledge of the existence of our own mind, we have a basis for a justifiable claim to know the existence of other minds. Not by the same route of the actus exercitus, but by another route that requires its own discussion on another occasion. The problem of our knowledge of the existence of God, it may be noted in passing, is just a particular form of the general problem of our knowledge of other minds.
The phenomenon of life itself is not empirical and cannot, properly speaking, be either identified or discovered by science. It is true we know many ways by which typically life manifests its presence. As Plato said, living things move themselves, and so when not only we but even animals are looking for something alive, we look for something that moves itself. Living things digest food and have metabolism. They have the ability to reproduce themselves. But these are only signs of life. We do not experience life itselfby means of our senses, we cannot see it or touch it or taste it, but only its symptoms. And so nobody can say what life is in itself. What is it that causes some beings to be able to move themselves and digest food and reproduce themselves while others cannot? What exactly would we have to do to bring something that has died back to life? No one knows. No one even has a theory about it. To use Kant’s term, it is supersensible. But we know that we ourselves are alive, in the same way we know our actions, our freedom of will and the existence of our ego. We know we are alive by living. And in and through our knowledge that we are alive, we have a foundation for our knowledge of life. Amongst other things this tells us that life is something far other, far more spontaneous, innovative and creative, than the mechanistic process that much contemporary science assumes it to be. As just remarked, Plato points out that living things move themselves. But by this term “move” (κινεω) he does not merely mean movement in place, locomotion, but change in general (μεταβολην). Living things change themselves. When a tree grows, this does not consist merely in certain existing leaves or branches moving further out from the trunk, but in the fact that it brings into being new leaves and branches that did not exist before. This dynamic and self-changing quality of life is a truth that Darwin’s theory, which is essentially mechanistic, overlooked.
To return to our knowledge of our own freedom of will. This knowledge in actu exercito is a form of knowledge that is superior in important ways to scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is always only provisional. It is dependent on the adequacy of its theory, and can be considered valid only until a better theory has established itself. It is true, as Quine pointed out, that there is no belief that cannot be doubted if we are sufficiently resolved to doubt it, and to make the adjustments to our view of the world that such a resolve necessarily entails. To that extent it is also possible to doubt the deliverances of our direct knowledge of our own actions, as it is to doubt any assertion of science. But apart from this terminal doubt, the direct knowledge of our own actions is, as a form of knowledge, unsurpassable in its certainty.
To repeat, then, every adult human being knows he has freedom of the will, because he experiences himself initiating new actions and creating new events. Dr. Johnson (to return to him) therefore was right to say, “Sir, we know we are free, and that’s an end on’t.”
 Schopenhauer was one who did notice it, but his conclusions, pointing to a mystical view of life akin to that of the Upanishads, are likely to strike many readers today as eccentric. Elizabeth Anscombe has drawn attention to it as knowledge “not by observation,” or “knowledge of one’s intentional action,” which she contrasts with knowledge by obervation. (Intention, pars. 8, 29, etc. Harvard University Press, 2000 (1957, 1963)) See also Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London, Routledge, 1962). The final chapter of this, “Freedom,” is relevant to our theme.
 “…in composition and decomposition, by increase and diminution and generation and destruction….”