Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Free Will and Corruptible Reason

Music to accompany article: Concerto in D Minor, Vivace (J.S. Bach)

Much ink has been spilt in philosophical writings on the question of ‘free will’. Free will has often been confused with free reason, free choice and free action, and this has lead to an inevitable muddle in philo-speak.

     Schopenhauer has been famously associated with the will, and in his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, he conceptualised it thus:

“The will, which constitutes our being-in-itself, is of a simple nature; it merely wills and does not know. The subject of knowing, on the other hand, is a secondary phenomenon, arising out of the objectification of the will.”
     It didn’t take long before Freud translated this insight into the Id and claimed it as his own. According to Schopenhauer, man’s motivation passes through cognition and imagination, thus presenting him with a choice of action. This differentiates man from a plant whose ‘behaviour’ is determined by stimuli alone (however there is no shortage of men who react to stimuli in this plant-like fashion!).

     Schopenhauer’s belief in the unchangeability of the human character, established at birth, led him to think that our actions were determined by necessity, and he considered necessity incompatible with freedom. “Whoever steals once, remains a thief”, he says in his ‘Essay on the Freedom of the Will’. This seems to echo Aristotle’s dictum “Being virtuous or vicious is not a matter of our choice”. I strongly disagree with this as it denies us – human beings – the possibility of change. Also, ‘determined’ by our character or not, the will is ours, and nobody else’s, and in this sense it is free. Spinoza put it succinctly in his book Ethics: “That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its own nature and is determined to action by itself alone.”

     Nietzsche, Schopenhauer’s wayward disciple, initially opposed the idea of free will as a form of Christian entrapment designed by priests to make us feel sinful and guilty. Thinking that the willing is the cause of our action is like saying that “willing causes the sun to rise” — he argues (in Human All Too Human). By negating free will and the resultant moral responsibility for one’s actions, Nietzsche aimed to free humanity from the ‘burden of sin’, so that it could regain its lost ‘innocence’. Later, in an attempt to re-empower man, he advocated that we should become “poets and sculptors of our life”. His imperative to overcome one’s predispositions and allow only some to be ‘expressed’ could be interpreted as a Nietzschean brand of Darwinism. In a subsequent dalliance with the concept of free will, Nietzsche proposed amor fati, a paradoxical solution to the German existential term Angst. Loving one’s fate involves not only willing the future, but also willing the past: “We must learn to ‘will backwards’ so as to recreate all ‘it was’ as ‘thus I willed it” — thus spoke Zarathustra. If you feel baffled by the contradictoriness of his position, then you may have truly grasped ‘the Nietzsche method’!

     Surprisingly, hard science has joined the league of ‘unfree will’-determinists. In Libet’s famous experiment of the eighties, his subjects were asked to flex a finger whenever they felt like it. EEG (electroencephalogram) records showed that the mind became conscious of this freely taken action milliseconds after it had been taken (it was ‘the last to know’). Astonishingly, this experiment has often been used in neuroscience as an argument against free will. The action carried out by Libet’s subjects was very simple and did not require forethought or conscious deliberation. When a more complex choice and planning are involved, then (to paraphrase T.S Eliot) between the wilful impulse and the action falls – or should fall – a deliberation. Doubt, the ability to view potential choice from different perspectives, and to weigh ‘for and against’, are important ingredients of the process. And this must be governed by a reality principle, not by wishing. Herein lies the essence of Reason!

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

     By declaring that we are ‘condemned to freedom’, Sartre (hardly a priestly type!) cogently articulated that freedom could be a mixed blessing. Simply, there is no one to blame for our actions – neither gods nor monsters, not even the unconscious. Yet this existential loneliness is profoundly empowering, as life without the possibility of radical self-determination would not only be unbearable, it would not be worth living!

     Emboldened by the views of Spinoza and Sartre, I propose to rotate the point of reference: it is not the will (which I interpret as the unconscious, as the id) that is unfree, but the reason. It is reason that is susceptible to corruption at the expense of free, all-too-free will. And because reason is not only witty but also cunning, it gets away with it. Let me illustrate this argument with a few vignettes.

     A soldier dies rescuing a comrade on the battlefield, whilst an enraged lover kills his unfaithful beloved in the heat of the moment. Both acts bypass deliberation and censorship of reason, for better or for worse. Posthumous recognition of the soldier’s bravery might bestow the status of a hero onto him, and offer some solace to his family and friends. Predictably, no jury would acquit a murderer on account of his action being forced upon him by some disembodied will.

     A prime minister of a certain country, Albionia, decides to invade an independent state whose leader is alleged to have amassed weapons of mass destruction. Many in his cabinet, and in the parliament, support his decision. Some support him because they believe (or want to believe) the story, whilst others because they would have lost their position if they hadn’t. But there are still some honest and daring souls who resist the corruption of reason. They vote against the war, and in preserving their integrity they lose their position. Others make a public statement by marching against the war, thus unifying free will with incorrupt reason and free action, something that would have not gone unpunished in Siberania.

     Continuing on this Orwellian theme, I would like to recall The Captive Mind, in which Czesław Miłosz tells the harrowing tale of how the foremost Polish intellectuals ‘sold’ their minds to Stalinist propaganda. One of them ended in suicide, one in severe alcoholism, and another in self-denigration. They all had free will and an inner freedom of choice, but it was their reason which fell captive to the system and became corrupt. And the price for betraying one’s all-too-free will can be very high — moral or physical death, or both!

     To silence the will (especially a strong one) is hard; to silence the reason is only too easy. Where the stakes are high, reason has all the more reason to become corrupt by resorting to plausible justifications and abandoning its role as a rational and moral filter. In short, it can turn into a swindler. Although we have no control over the causes of our will (emotions, passions, sensations), we surely have control over our actions. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: between the will and the action falls the reason.