page contents

Blog

Chapter 1 - The Conscious Human Deed

NEW TRANSLATION PROJECT SEE LATEST TRANSLATION HERE.

1. THE CONSCIOUS HUMAN DEED

What is the conscious human deed?
1.0 The Question Of Freedom
1.1 Freedom Of Indifferent Choice
1.2 Freedom Of Choice
1.3 Free Necessity Of One's Nature
1.4 Conduct In Accord With Character
1.5 Action Resulting From Knowledge
1.6 Free When Controlled By Rational Decision
1.7 Freedom To Do What One Wishes
1.8 Unconditioned Impulse Of Will
1.9 Knowledge Of The Reason For Action
1.10 Driving Force Of The Heart
1.11 Idealized Love
1.12 Seeing The Good

5/12/16
1.0 The Question Of Freedom
[1] Is the human being free in action and thought, or compelled by the unyielding necessity of natural law? Few questions have expended so much ingenuity. The idea of freedom has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in large numbers. There are people who, in their moral zeal, declare it to be sheer stupidity to deny so obvious a fact as freedom. Standing against them are others who say it is naively unscientific for anyone to believe that the universality of natural law is suspended in the field of human action and thought. One and the same thing is as often proclaimed to be humanity's most precious possession as it is declared to be our worst illusion. Endless distinctions have been used to explain how human freedom can be compatible with Determinism; that is, a freedom consistent with the laws working in nature, of which man is, after all, a part. No less effort has gone into explaining how this delusion has come about. The importance of the question of freedom for life, religion, conduct and science can be felt by anyone whose character is not totally lacking in depth.

5/13/16
1.1 Freedom Of Indifferent Choice
It is one of the sad indications of the superficiality of contemporary thought that a book intending to formulate a 'new faith' from the results of recent scientific research (David Friedrich Strauss: The New and the Old Belief), has nothing more to say on this question than these words:

"We are not concerned with the question of free will. The supposedly 'indifferent' freedom of choice has been recognized as an empty illusion by every reputable philosophy worthy of the name. Determining the moral value of human conduct and character is not affected in any way by an indifferent choice."

I quote this passage, not because I consider the book in which it is found to be of special importance, but because it seems to me to express the only view that the thinking of most of our contemporaries is able to reach on this question. Everyone who claims to have advanced beyond elementary science seems to know nowadays that freedom cannot consist in neutrally choosing, entirely at will, one or the other of two possible courses of action. There is always, so we are told, a quite specific reason that explains why a person carries out one particular action from among several possibilities.

5/14/16
1.2 Freedom Of Choice
[2] This seems obvious. And yet, right up to the present day, the main attacks of the opponents of freedom are only directed against the freedom of choice. Even Herbert Spencer, whose doctrines are growing in popularity with each day, says:
 
"That everyone is at liberty to desire or not to desire, as he pleases, which is the real proposition concealed in the dogma of free will, is refuted by everyone's own internal observation as by the contents of the preceding chapter [on psychology]."

1.3 Free Necessity Of One's Nature
Others also take the same starting point when attacking the concept of free will. The seeds of all the relevant arguments can be found as early as Spinoza. What he presented in clear and simple language against the idea of freedom has since been repeated countless times, but as a rule enclosed in the most complicated theoretical doctrines that make it difficult to recognize the simple line of thought, which is all that 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 unfree, if its existence and activity are determined in an exact and fixed way by something else. For example, God is free, although he exists in a necessary way, because he exists solely out of the necessity of his own nature. Similarly, God knows himself and all other things freely, because it follows solely from the necessity of his nature to know all. So you see 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 to act in a fixed and exact way. To see this more clearly, let us imagine a very simple case. A stone, for example, receives a certain momentum from an external cause that strikes it, so that afterwards, of necessity, the stone 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 the necessity of the stone's own nature. What is true here for the stone is true also for everything else, no matter how complex and multifaceted it may be, for everything is determined by external causes with the necessity to exist and to act in a fixed and exact way. 

5/15/16
[4] "Now please assume that the stone, while in motion, thinks 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 to what it is doing, will be convinced that it is entirely free and that it continues in motion, not because of an external cause, but only because it wants to do so. This is just the human freedom that everyone claims to possess, and the reason it appears to be freedom is because human beings are conscious of their desires, but ignorant of the causes that determine those desires. Thus the child believes it freely desires milk, the angry boy believes he freely demands revenge, and the coward believes he freely chooses to run away. The drunken man believes he says things of his own free will that, when sober again, he will wish he had not said; and since this bias is inborn in everybody, it is difficult to free oneself from it. Even though experience teaches us often enough that people are least able to moderate their own desires, and when torn by conflicting passions they see the better and pursue the worse, yet they still regard themselves as free because they desire some things less intensely, and can easily inhibit some cravings by recalling a familiar memory that often preoccupies one's mind."

[5] Because this view is so clearly and definitely expressed, it is easy to discover the fundamental error within it. A human being is supposedly compelled to carry out an action when driven to it by any reason, with the same necessity as a stone that is put in motion by an impact. It is only because a human being is conscious of his action alone that he believes himself to be the free originator of it. In doing so, however, he overlooks that he is driven by a cause that he must obey unconditionally. The error in this line of thought is soon discovered. Spinoza and all who think like him overlook the fact that a human being can not only be conscious of his action, but may also become conscious of the causes that guide him. Anyone can see that a child is not free when it desires milk, and the drunken man is not free when saying things he later regrets. Neither knows anything of the causes working deep within their organisms that exercise irresistible control over them. But is it right to group such actions together with those of a human being who is not only conscious of his actions, but also of the reasons that motivate him? 

Are human actions really all of one kind? Should the deeds of a soldier on the battlefield, of a research scientist in his laboratory, or a statesman involved in complex diplomatic negotiations be ranked in the same scientific category as those of a child craving milk? It is certainly true that the best way of seeking the solution to a problem is where the conditions are simplest. But the inability to see distinctions has often caused endless confusion. There is, after all, a profound difference between knowing and not knowing why I act. This would seem to be an obvious truth. Yet the opponents of freedom never ask whether a motive of action that I recognize and understand, compels me in the same way as the organic process that causes a child to cry for milk.

1.4 Conduct In Accord With Character
Eduard von Hartmann asserts in his Phenomenology of Moral Consciousness that human willing depends on two main factors: motives and character. If we look at human beings as all alike, or at least see their differences as negligible, then their will appears to be determined from outside, that is, by the situations they encounter. But if one bears in mind that people are different and a person will adopt an idea as the motive of their conduct, only if his character is such that this idea arouses a desire in him to act, then his will appears to be determined from within and not from outside. Now, the human being believes he is free—that is, independent of outside motivation—only because the idea imposed on him from outside must first, in accordance with his character, be made into a motive. But the truth is, according to Eduard von Hartmann, that,

"Even though we first adopt an idea as a motive, we do not do this arbitrarily, but rather according to necessity; according to the disposition of our character. That is to say we are anything but free."

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

5/16/16
1.5 Action Resulting From Knowledge
[7] This leads us straight to the standpoint from which the subject will be considered here. Should the question of free will be posed narrowly by itself, in a one-sided way? And if not, with what other question must it necessarily be linked?

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

[9] What is the significance of knowing the reasons for one's action? Too little attention has been given to this question because, unfortunately, there is a tendency to tear in two what is an inseparable whole: the human being. The doer is distinguished from the knower, but the one that matters most is lost sight of—the knowing doer, the one who acts out of knowledge.

5/17/16
1.6 Free When Controlled By Reason
[10] A view has been expressed that says a man is free when his actions are controlled by reason alone and not by his animal cravings. 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 crucial question is just whether reason, purposes, and decisions work with the same kind of compulsion over a human being as his animal cravings. If, without my active involvement, a rational decision occurs in me with the same necessity as hunger or thirst, then I can only follow it, and my freedom is an illusion.

1.7 Freedom To Do What One Wishes
[12] Another view is: To be free does not mean being able to will as one wishes, but being able to do what one wishes. The poet-philosopher Robert Hamerling expresses this thought incisively in his Atomistik des Willens.

“The human being can certainly do what he wishes, but he cannot will as he wishes, because his will is determined by motives! — He cannot will as he wishes? Let us look at these words more closely. Do they make any sense? Is free will to mean the ability to will something without reason, without motive? But what else does willing mean, other than having a reason for doing or striving for this rather than that? To will something for no reason and with no motive would mean to will it without wanting it. The concept of willing is inseparably connected with that of motive. Without a determining motive the will is an empty capacity: only through the motive does it become active and real. It is, therefore, correct to say that the human will is 'unfree' to the extent that its direction is always determined by the strongest motive. But it is absurd, in contrast to this 'unfreedom', to speak of a possible 'freedom of will' that amounts to being able to will what one does not want.”

[13] Here again only motives in general are discussed, without taking into account the difference between unconscious and conscious motivations. If a motive affects me, and I am compelled to act on it because it proves to be the "strongest" of several motives, then the idea 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 the motive has influenced me, but whether all motives work with inescapable necessity. If I am compelled to will something, then I may well be completely indifferent as to whether I can also do it. And if, because of my character and the circumstances prevailing in my environment, a motive is forced on me that I find to be unreasonable, then I would even be glad if I am unable to do what I will.

[14] The question is not whether I can carry out a decision once made, but how the decision comes about within me.

5/18/16
1.8 Unconditioned Impulse Of Will
[15] What distinguishes humans from all other organic beings is rational thinking. Activity is something we have in common with other organisms. Seeking analogies for human action in the animal kingdom does not help to clarify the concept of freedom. Modern science loves these analogies. When scientists succeed in finding among animals something similar to human behavior, they believe this has something to do with the most important question of the science of man. An example of what misunderstandings this view leads is seen in the book The Illusion of Freewill by P. Rée, who says the following about freedom:

"It is easy to explain why it appears to us that the movement of a stone is by necessity, while the will impulse of a donkey is not by necessity. The causes that set the stone in motion are external and visible. But the causes that determine the donkey's acts of will are internal and invisible: between us and the place where they occur is the donkey’s skull... We cannot see the causal conditioning, and so believe that it does not exist. They agree that an impulse of will is certainly the cause of the donkey’s turning around, but then they claim that the will itself is not conditioned, it is an absolute beginning.”

Here too, human actions in which there is an awareness of the reasons for the action are simply ignored, because Rée explains that: “between us and the place where they occur is the donkey’s skull.” As these words show it has not dawned on Rée that there are actions, not of the donkey but of the human being, where between us and the deed lies the motive that has become conscious. A few pages later Rée demonstrates the same blindness when he says: “We do not perceive the causes that determine our will and so believe it is not causally determined at all.”

[16] But enough of examples proving that many argue against freedom without knowing at all what freedom really is.

5/19/16
1.9 Knowledge Of The Reason For Action
Obviously, an action cannot be free if the doer carries it out without knowing the reason why. But what are we to say of the freedom of an action, if we reflect on the reasons for carrying it out? This leads us to the question: What is the origin of our thoughts and what does it mean to think? For without knowing something about the minds activity of thinking, it is not possible to form a concept of knowledge about anything, including knowledge of the reasons for why we act. When we know the general meaning of what it means to think, it will be easier to see clearly the role that thinking plays in human action. As Hegel rightly says,

"It is thinking that turns the soul, common to us and animals, into spirit."

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

5/20/16
1.10 Driving Force Of The Heart
[18] This is not meant to imply that all our actions proceed only from the calm deliberations of our reason. I am not suggesting that only actions that result from abstract judgment alone are, in the highest sense, “human”. But the moment our conduct rises above the satisfying of purely animal desires, our motives are always shaped by thoughts. Love, compassion, and patriotism are driving forces for deeds that refuse to be reduced to cold intellectual understanding. It is said that this is where heart-felt sensibility prevails. No doubt. But the heart and its sensibility do not create the motives of action, which are given, and then received into the hearts domain. Compassion appears in my heart after the thought of a person who arouses compassion occurs in my mind. The way to the heart is through the head.

1.11 Idealized Love
Love is no exception. Whenever it is not merely the expression of the sexual drive, it depends on the thoughts we form of the loved one. The more idealistic these thoughts are, the more blissful is our love. Here, too, thought is the father of feeling.

1.12 Seeing The Good
It is said that love makes us blind to the failings 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 these good qualities without noticing them. One, however, sees them, and just because he does, love inwardly awakens. He has done nothing other than perceive what hundreds have failed to see. They have no love because they lack the perception.

End

You need to be a member of The Philosophy Of Freedom to add comments!

Join The Philosophy Of Freedom