FREEDOM OF THE WILL
Spirit of man revolts from physical and psychological determinism–Former examined and rejected–The latter more subtle–Vice of “associationism”–Psychology without a self. Condemnation of psychological determinism–Room for freedom–The self in action–Astronomical forecasts–Foreseeableness of any human action impossible–Human wills centres of indetermination–Not all our acts free–True freedom, self-determination.
Before passing on to an examination of Bergson’s treatment of Evolution, we must consider his discussion of the problem of Freedom of the Will. Few problems which have occupied the attention of philosophers have been more discussed or have given rise to more controversy than that of Freedom. This is, of course, natural as the question at issue is one of very great importance, not merely as speculative, but also in the realm of action. We ask ourselves: “Are we really free?” Can we will either of two or more possibilities which are put before us, or, on the other hand, is everything fixed, predestined in such a way that an all-knowing consciousness could foretell from our past what course our future action would take?
The study of the physical sciences has led to a general acceptance of a principle of causality which is of such a kind that there seems no place in the universe for human freedom. Further, there is a type of psychology which gives rise to the belief that even mental occurrences are as determined as those of the physical world, thus leaving no room for autonomy of the Will. But even when presented with the arguments which make up the case for physical or psychological determinism, the spirit of man revolts from it, refuses to accept it as final, and believes that, in some way or other, the case for Freedom may be maintained. It is at this point that Bergson offers us some help in the solution of the problem, by his Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience, better described by its English title Time and Free Will.
The arguments for physical determinism are based on the view that Freedom is incompatible with the fundamental properties of matter, and in particular, with the principle of the conservation of energy. This principle “has been assumed to admit of no exception; there is not an atom either in the nervous system or in the whole of the universe whose position is not determined by the sum of the mechanical actions which the other atoms exert upon it. And the mathematician who knew the position of the molecules or atoms of a human organism at a given moment, as well as the position and motion of all the atoms in the universe, capable of influencing it, could calculate with unfailing certainty the past, present, and future actions of the person to whom this organism belonged, just as one predicts an astronomical phenomenon.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 144 (Fr. p. 110).] Now, it follows that if we admit the universal applicability of such a theory as that of the conservation of energy, we are maintaining that the whole universe is capable of explanation on purely mechanical principles, inherent in the units of which the universe is composed. Hence, the relative position of all units at a given moment, whatever be their nature, strictly determines what their position will be in the succeeding moments, and this mechanistic succession goes on like a Juggernaut car with crushing unrelentlessness, giving rise to a rigid fatalism:
“The moving finger writes; and having writ Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a line, Nor all thy tears wash out a Word of it.”
Is there no way out of this cramping circle? We feel vaguely, intuitively, that there is. Bergson points out to us a way. Even if we admit, he says, that the direction and the velocity of every atom of matter in the universe (including cerebral matter, i.e., the brain, which is a material thing) are strictly determined, it would not at all follow from the acceptance of this theorem that our mental life is subject to the same necessity. For that to be the case, we should have to show absolutely that a strictly determined psychical state corresponds to a definite cerebral state. This, as we have seen, has not been proved. It is admitted that to some psychical states of a limited kind certain cerebral states do correspond, but we have no warrant whatever for concluding that, because the physiological and the psychological series exhibit some corresponding terms, the two series are absolutely parallel. “To extend this parallelism to the series themselves, in their totality, is to settle a priori the problem of freedom.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 147 (Fr. pp. 112-113).] How far the two series do run parallel is a question–as we saw in the chapter on the relation of Soul and Body–for experience, observation, and experiment to decide. The cases which are parallel are limited, and involve facts which are independent of the power of the Will.
Bergson then proceeds to an examination of the more subtle and plausible case for psychological determinism. A very large number of our actions are due to some motive. There you have it, says the psychological determinist. Your so-called Freedom of the Will is a fiction; in reality it is merely the strongest motive which prevails and you imagine that you “freely willed it.” But then we must ask him to define “strongest,” and here is the fallacy of his argument, for there is no other test of which is the strongest motive, than that it has prevailed. Such statements do not help to solve the difficulty at all, for they avoid it and attempt to conceal it; they are due to a conception of mind which is both false and mischievous, viz., Associationism. This view regards the self as a collection of psychical states. The existing state of consciousness is regarded as necessitated by the preceding states. As, however, even the associationist is aware that these states differ from one another in quality, he cannot attempt to deduce any one of them a priori from its predecessors. He therefore endeavours to find a link connecting the two states. That there is such a link as the simple “association of ideas” Bergson would not think of denying. What he does deny however, very emphatically, is the associationist statement that this relation which explains the transition is the cause of it. Even when admitting a certain truth in the associationist view, it is difficult to maintain that an act is absolutely determined by its motive, and our conscious states by one another. The real mischief of this view lies, however, in the fact, that it misrepresents the self by making it merely a collection of psychical states. John Stuart Mill says, in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy: “I could have abstained from murder if my aversion to the crime and my dread of its consequences had been weaker than the temptation which impelled me to commit it.” [Footnote: Quoted by Bergson, Time and Free Will, p. 159 (Fr. p. 122).] Here desire, aversion, fear, and temptation are regarded as clear cut phenomena, external to the self which experiences them, and this leads to a curious balancing of pain and pleasure on purely utilitarian lines, turning the mind into a calculating machine such as one might find in a shop or counting-house, and taking no account of the character of the self that “wills.” There is, really, in such a system of psychology, no room for self-expression, indeed, no meaning left for the term “self.” It is only an inaccurate psychology, misled by language, which tries to show us the soul determined by sympathy, aversion, or hate, as though by so many forces pressing upon it from without. These feelings, provided that they go deep enough, make up the whole soul; in them the character of the individual expresses itself, since the whole content of the personality or soul is reflected in each of them. Then my character is “me.” “To say that the soul is determined under the influence of any one of these feelings, is thus to recognize that it is self-determined. The associationist reduces the self to an aggregate of conscious states, sensations, feelings, and ideas. But if he sees in these various states no more than is expressed in their name, if he retains only their impersonal aspect, he may set them side by side for ever without getting anything but a phantom self, the shadow of the Ego, projecting itself into space. If, on the contrary, he takes these psychical states with the particular colouring which they assume in the case of a definite person, and which comes to each of them by reflection from all the others, then there is no need to associate a number of conscious states in order to rebuild the person, for the whole personality is in a single one of them, provided that we know how to choose it. And the outward manifestation of this inner state will be just what is called a free act, since the self alone will have been the author of it and since it will express the whole of the self.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, pp. 165-166 (Fr. pp. 126-127).] There is then room in the universe for a Freedom of the human Will, a definite creative activity, delivering us from the bonds of grim necessity and fate in which the physical sciences and the associationist psychology alike would bind us. Freedom, then, is a fact, and among the facts which we observe, asserts Bergson, there is none clearer. [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 221 (Fr. p. 169).] There are, however, one or two things which bear vitally upon the question of Freedom and which tend to obscure the issue. Of these, the foremost is that once we have acted in a particular manner we look back upon our actions and try to explain them with particular reference to their immediate antecedents. Here is where the mischief which gives rise to the whole controversy has its origin. We make static what is essentially dynamic in character. We call a process a thing. There is no such “thing” as Freedom; it is a relation between the self and its action. Indeed, it is only characteristic of a self IN ACTION, and so is really indefinable. Viewed after the action, it presents a different aspect; it has then become historical, an event in the past, and so we try to explain it as being caused by former events or conditions. This casting of it on to a fixed, rigid plan, gives action the appearance of having characteristics related to space rather than to time, in the real sense. As already shown in the previous chapter, this is due entirely to our intellectual habit of thinking in terms of space, by mathematical time, rather than in terms of living time or la duree.
Another point which causes serious confusion in the controversy is the notion that because, when an act has been performed, its antecedents may be reckoned up and their value and relative importance or influence assigned, this is equivalent to saying the actor could not have acted in any other way than he did, and, further, that his final act could have been foretold from the events which led up to it. It is a fact that in the realm of physical science we can foretell the future with accuracy. The astronomer predicts the precise moment and place in which Halley’s comet will become visible from our earth. It is also a fact that we say of men and women who are our intimate friends: “I knew he (or she) would do such and such a thing” or “It’s just like him.” We base our judgment on our intimate acquaintance with the character of our friend, but this, as Bergson points out, “is not so much to predict the future conduct of our friend as to pass a judgment on his present character–that is to say, on his past.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 184 (Fr. p. 140).] For, although our feelings and our ideas are constantly changing, yet we feel warranted in regarding our friend’s character as stable, as reliable. But, as Mill remarked in his Logic: “There can be no science of human nature,” because, although we trust in the reliability of our friend, although we have faith in his future actions, we do not, and can not, know them. “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” To say that, if we knew all the conditions, motives, fears, and temptations which led up to the actions of another, we could foretell what he would do, amounts to saying that, to do so, we should have actually to become that other person, and so arrive at the point where we act as he did because we are him. For Paul to foretell Peter’s act, Paul would simply have to become Peter. [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 187 (Fr. p. 144).] The very reasons which render it possible to foretell an astronomical phenomenon are the very ones which prevent us from determining in advance an act which springs from our free activity. For the future of the material universe, although contemporaneous with the future of a conscious being, has no analogy to it. The astronomer regards time from the point of view of mathematics. He is concerned with points placed in a homogeneous time, points which mark the beginning or end of certain intervals. He does not concern himself with the interval in its actual duration. This is proved by the fact that, could all velocities in the universe be doubled, the astronomical formulae would remain unaffected, for the coincidences with which that science deals would still take place, but at intervals half as long. To the astronomer as such, this would make no difference, but we, in ourselves, would find that our day did not give us the full experience. Situations which arose as a result of the introduction of “summer time” serve to make this point clear. As then we find that time means two different things for the astronomer and the psychologist, the one being concerned with the points at the extremities of intervals, and the other with the enduring reality of the intervals themselves, we can see why astronomical phenomena are capable of prediction and see too that, for the same reason, events in the realm of human action cannot be so predicted and therefore the future is not predetermined but is being made.
Upon exactly parallel lines lie the references to causality in the controversy. In the physical realm events may recur, but in the mental realm the same thing can never happen again because we are living in real, flowing time, or la duree, and our conscious states are changing. Admitting that there is that in experience which warrants the application of the principle of causality, taking that principle as the statement that physical phenomena once perceived can recur, and that a given phenomenon, happening only after certain conditions, will recur when those precise conditions are repeated, [Footnote: See the brief paper Notre croyance a la loi de causalite, Revue de metaphysique et de morale, 1900.] still it remains open whether such a regularity of succession is ever possible in the human consciousness, and so the assertion of the principle of causality proves nothing against Freedom. We may admit that the principle is based on experience–but what kind of experience? Consideration of this question leads us to assert that the principle of causality only tends to accentuate the difference between objects in a realm wherein regular succession may be observed and predicted and a realm where it may not be observed or predicted, the realm of the self. Just because I endure and change I do not necessarily act to-day as I acted yesterday, when under like conditions. We do expect, however, that this will not be the case in the physical realm; for example, we expect that a flame applied to dry paper will always set it alight. Indeed, the more we realize the causal relation as one of necessary determination, we come to see that things do not exist as we do ourselves, and distinction between physical and psychical events becomes clear. We perceive that we, in ourselves, are centres of indetermination enjoying Freedom, and capable of creative activity.
We must, however, be careful to observe that such Freedom as we have is not absolute at all and that it admits of degrees. All our acts are by no means free. Indeed, Free Will is exceptional, and many live and die without having known true Freedom. Our everyday life consists in the performance of actions which are largely habitual or, indeed, automatic, being determined not by Free Will, but by custom and convention. Our Freedom is the exception and not the rule. Through sluggishness or indolence, we jog on in the even tenor of a way towards which habit has directed us. Even at times when our whole personality ought to vibrate, finding itself at the cross-roads, it fails to rise to the occasion. But, says Bergson, “it is at the great and solemn crises, decisive of our reputation with others, and yet more with ourselves, that we choose in defiance of what is conventionally called a motive, and this absence of any tangible reason, is the more striking the deeper our Freedom goes.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 170 (Fr. p. 130).] At such times the self feels itself free and says so, for it feels itself to be creative. “All determinism will thus be refuted by experience, but every attempt to define Freedom will open the way to determinism.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 330 (Fr. p. 177).]
It has been urged that, although Bergson is a stanch upholder of Freedom, it is Freedom of such a kind that it must be distinguished from Free Will, that is, from the liberty of choice which indeterminists have asserted and which determinists have denied; and that the Freedom for which he holds the brief is not the feeling of liberty that we have when confronted with alternative courses of action, or the feeling we have when we look back upon a choice made and an action accomplished, that we need not have acted as we did, and that we could have acted differently. Such Freedom it has been further maintained, is of little importance to us, for it is merely a free, creative activity which is the essence of life, which we share with all that lives and so cannot be styled “human” Freedom. Now, although many of Bergson’s expressions, in regard to free, creative activity in general, lead to a connexion of this with the problem of “human” Freedom, such an identification would seem to be unfair. This seems specially so when we read over carefully his remarks about the coup d’etat of the fundamental self in times of grave crisis. We cannot equate this with a purely biological freedom or vitality, or spontaneity. But in the light of the criticism which has been made, it will be well to consider, in concluding this chapter, the statements made by Bergson in his article on Liberty in the work in connexion with the Vocabulaire philosophique for the Societe francaise de philosophie: [Footnote: Quoted by Le Roy in his Une nouvelle philosophie: Henri Bergson, English Translation (Benson), Williams and Norgate, p. 192.] “The word Liberty has for me a sense intermediate between those which we assign, as a rule, to the two terms ‘Liberty’ and ‘Free Will.’ On one hand I believe that ‘Liberty’ consists in being entirely oneself, in acting in conformity with oneself; it is then to a certain degree the ‘moral liberty’ of philosophers, the independence of the person with regard to everything other than itself. But that is not quite this Liberty, since the independence I am describing has not always a moral character. Further, it does not consist in depending on oneself as an effect depends on the cause which, of necessity, determines it. In this, I should come back to the sense of ‘Free Will.'” And yet, he continues, “I do not accept this sense either, since Free Will, in the usual meaning of the term, implies the equal possibility of two contraries, and, on my theory, we cannot formulate or even conceive, in this case, the thesis of the equal possibility of the two contraries, without falling into grave error about the nature of Time. The object of my thesis has been precisely to find a position intermediate between ‘moral Liberty’ and ‘Free Will.’ Liberty, such as I understand it, is situated between these two terms, but not at equal distances from both; if I were obliged to blend it with one of the two, I should select ‘Free-Will.'” Nor is Liberty to be reduced to spontaneity. “At most, this would be the case in the animal world where the psychological life is principally that of the affections. But in the case of a man, a thinking being, the free act can be called a synthesis of feelings and ideas, and the evolution which leads to it, a reasonable evolution.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 243 (Fr. p. 205).] “In a word, if it is agreed to call every act free, which springs from the self, and from the self alone, the act which bears the mark of our personality is truly free, for our self alone will lay claim to its paternity.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 172 (Fr. p. 132). It is interesting to compare with this the remark by Nietzsche in Also sprach Zarathustra, Thus Spake Zarathustra,–“Let your Ego be in relation to your acts that which the mother is in relation to the child.”] The secret of the solution lies surely here, and in the words given above: “Liberty consists in being entirely oneself.” If we act rightly we shall act freely, and yet be determined. Yet here there will be no contradiction, for we shall be self-determined. It is only the man who is self-determined that can in any sense be said to know the meaning of “human” Freedom. “We call free,” said Spinoza, “that which exists in virtue of the necessities of its own nature, and which is determined by itself alone.” Liberty is not absolute, for then we ourselves would be at the beck and call of every external excitation, desire, passion, or temptation. Our salvation consists in self-determination, so we shall avoid licence but preserve Freedom. We can only repeat the Socratic maxim–“Know thyself”–and resolve to take to heart the appeal of our own Shakespeare:
“To thine own self be true!”