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Michael Arbib
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Eugene Wigner
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Fritz Zwicky


Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Shadsworth Hodgson

Shadsworth Hodgson was a 19th-century philosopher who exchanged important ideas with William James. In his 1891 Mind article, Free Will: An Analysis, he wrote:

"The question concerning the nature and reality of Free-will is one which will probably long retain its interest, notwithstanding that many look upon it rather as a speculative plaything, lending itself to the display of idle ingenuity, than as a problem possessing practical importance, due to its direct bearing on the theory of Conduct.

"The reality of duty, of the judgments of conscience, and of moral responsibility, depends upon the reality of freedom in acts of choosing. If that freedom is unreal, their whole ethical theory is unsound. Hence, so long as there are moralists of this type, so long will the question of Free-will retain its interest. This must serve as my apology for venturing once more to discuss the well-worn theme.

"Placing myself, then, at the point of view of the Ethic of Duty, as opposed to the Ethic of Happiness, I propose to take account of that theory of volition which denies its freedom, and which, if tenable, would rob the words duty, conscience, right, and wrong, of all distinctive meaning, and at the same time make of Ethic a positive, instead of a practical and philosophical science. I mean the theory which maintains, that immanent volitions are really not free but compelled actions, or which, in other words, denies the fact of Free-will.

"The real nature of volitional action is thus brought into question. And it is evident that, if we have indeed no power to choose otherwise than we choose actually, in any single instance of immanent volition, it is of little practical consequence what names we give to the different parts of the mechanism of choosing, or how we describe the rules by which we seem to strive to choose, as we call it, aright. Without real freedom of choice there could be no real moral responsibility, and the sense of it, if it were still felt, would have, like the sense of freedom, to be classed as an illusion." (Mind, Vol. 16, No. 62 (Apr., 1891), pp.161-2)

Hodgson cites the "negative freedom" of Hobbes that we have when we are not constrained externally:
We say, for instance, that a man is free to act and move, when his limbs are unfettered, and his motions unimpeded by external hindrances; or as Hobbes puts it, "Liberty is the absence of all the impediments to action that are not contained in the nature and intrinsical quality of the agent". The question is, whether freedom or liberty is also, and equally, and in the same sense, a reality, when regarded as belonging to immanent acts of choice, as it is when it belongs to overt bodily movements.

Hodgson describes "two opposite sophisms" that arise when a transcendental Mind or Ego is set up as the agent. These are the two horns in the standard argument against free will in terms of indeterminism vs. determinism.

"to set up an abstract or transcendental Mind or Ego as the Subject or real agent in all conscious action, is to set up as a reality something of which we have no positive knowledge, and which, so far as our knowledge goes, is an unreality. Upon which the result follows, that this unreal agent may be treated either (1) as pure activity, and thus as an absolute originator of action, which is the sophism of the Indeterminists, or (2) as pure passivity, that is, as an inert recipient of impulses, which is the sophism of the Compulsory Determinists.

"Of the Indeterminist sophism it is not necessary to speak at length. Its effect is to maintain the reality of Free-will as a fact, however fallacious may be the reasons alleged in support of it; and then, the fact being admitted, and the consequence of moral responsibility drawn, the real mechanism of action, and of self-conscious judgment of action, remains unimpaired, as the object-matter of ethical analysis. The errors involved in the original sophism are of a theoretical nature, the practical consequences of which are confined to the discredit which they cast on the fact of Free-will, when their fallacy is discovered. The empty and fictitious Ego of the Indeterminists is really a superfluous encumbrance of their ethical theory, from first to last; and at every stage of their ethical argument the real facts can be seen shining through, or at least can easily be read into, their fallacious language, without doing any violence to the facts themselves...Their Ego, taken literally, and as they mean it to be taken, is a non-entity, and involves the inconceivable idea of action originated ex nihilo. Such action would be strictly what we intend by the word chance; the idea of real chance itself being also inconceivable. No such action can possibly be the ground of moral responsibility, in which the idea and fact of Law are everywhere involved. An agent who was perpetually originating, actions ex nihilo, mero motu, without antecedent motives, would be wholly lawless as well as inconceivable. If free-will and moral responsibility could only be maintained on the footing of ideas of this stamp, they must of necessity be regarded as illusions. (pp.164-5)

"The case is very different with the opposite conclusion, drawn from the same hypothesis of an abstract and empty Ego, by using it as a pure passivity, which is the sophism of the Compulsory Determinists. The use which they make of the fiction is wholly different, though equally fallacious. They use it to deny, not to assert the fact of Free-will as a reality. With them, the pure passivity of the supposed agent secures its unreality as an agent, and consequently the unreality of its supposed acts. These so-called acts of the fictitious agent, the purely passive Ego, are resolved into a conflict of motives issuing in the emergence of one as victor over the rest, which emergence it would plainly be an illusion to call an act of choice on the part of the Ego, even supposing it to exist. Not the Ego, but whatever is from time to time the strongest motive, which imposes itself on the Ego, is the principal agent, which, by its victory over weaker motives, determines, in their view, what we fondly call the Ego's choice.

"The original fallacy is here precisely the same as in Indeterminism, namely, the assumption of a shadow-man, or abstract Ego. And if this were the only argument brought forward by Compulsory Determinists against the fact of Free-will, we might be content with applying the same brief criticism to both, and pass at once to consider the real mechanism of choice, in which freedom will be found an essential feature. But there is another notable confusion of ideas, used as an argument by Compulsory Determinists, against the reality of Free-will, sometimes alone, sometimes in connexion with the fallacy of the abstract Ego, which cannot be so briefly dismissed.

"This confusion consists in supposing that, when the will is said to be free, the freedom intended is a freedom from subjection to laws of Nature. Now it is only Indeterminists who can intend a freedom of this kind, when they speak of the will being free. They indeed must do so, if they are consistent; inasmuch as their abstract or transcendental Ego, which is Chance personified, is eo ipso imagined as free from Law, in the sense of law natural, or Uniformity of Nature and the Course of Nature. How otherwise could it originate action ex nihilo and mero motu? But Determinists, simply in virtue of their Determinism, hold and must hold the doctrine of the Uniformity of Nature, and in fact of the universal reign of Law throughout the whole range of existence. Existence is not conceivable apart from Law. The foundations of the conception of Law are laid in the most universal elements of all perception and all consciousness; I inean, in the form of all perception, Time, and in the forms of all visual and tactual perceptions, Time and Spatial Extension, together. To conceive anything whatever absolved or free from Law is to conceive its existence ceasing. Pure non-existence alone has no law."

"The fact of freedom in volition is the thing to be proved or disproved, not the agreement or disagreement of its conception with the conception of laws of nature. The simple truth is, that, of those who assert freedom in volition, none but Indeterminists understand thereby freedom or exemption from natural law." (pp.167-8)

"This fatal confusion is greatly aided, even where it is not originated, by introducing the ambiguous word Necessity into the question, and opposing it to Liberty, without carefully distinguishing between the two meanings which the word conveys.

"motives of conscious action, when restinig on physical brain processes, may be irresistible by counter motives, and thus act as compelling forces rendering the actions resulting from them compulsory. Laws of Nature, when truly known, are necessary in the first sense, as having taken their place among thoughts which we cannot avoid accepting. Some conscious actions, but by no means all, are necessary in the second sense. The motives which compel them, and indeed all motives, to the extent of the energy which they exert, seem to inaccurate reasoners to lend their efficiency to the laws of nature which are exemplified by their action, and thus, favoured by the ambiguous term necessity, invest the Laws of Nature universally, in their eyes, with compulsory power. Now among the motives which have compulsory power over actions are those which have been adopted by choice, and have thereby proved themselves the strongest of the motives in conflict at the moment of choice. Onwards from that moment of choice, in which they are adopted by volition, they exercise, for a time, a compelling power over the course of action. But what of their state, and degree of strength, before and up to the moment of choice, that is, during the period, long or short, of the deliberation which precedes it? Compulsory Determinists are apt, I think, to read back into the motives, as they were before and during the period of deliberation, the degree of strength which they possess after the moment of choice or volition which ends it, and imagine the motive which is proved to be strongest by the fact of its being chosen, and which then governs the action dictated by the choice, to have been the strongest from the beginning of the deliberation, and to have governed the process of choosing, as it subsequently governs the action chosen.

"But a close consideration of the phenomena seems rather to point the other way, and warrant the opposite conclusion, namely, that the victorious motive owes its superior strength at the moment of choice, to the act or process of deliberation, which terminates in choice, at least as much as to its own initial degree of strength compared to the initial degrees of strength of the other motives, with which it is said to have been in conflict. The kernel of the question of Free-will lies in the question thus opened, after divesting it of the logomachies built up round it by the various confusions of thought which have been previously noticed. These con- fusions attached to the idea and reality of freedom; we have now to do with those which attach to the idea and reality of volition, as a specifically distinct action, to which freedom belongs, and which, in virtue of its property of freedom, takes the name of Free-will. Thus volition now becomes our immediate object of enquiry, as freedom has been hitherto.

"Here then it is, that we enter upon the second part of our examination, which must finally decide for us the question of the reality of free-will, an examination into the mechanism of deliberation ending in choice. What is it to deliberate and choose? What are the essential characteristics of actions of this kind? I say of deliberation and choice, or of deliberation ending in choice, because choice involves deliberation however brief or cursory it may be, and is impossible without it, because it involves the representation of alternatives. In drawing out the whole act called choosing into two parts, deliberation and choice, a process and the moment of its termination, we are, as it were, magnifying it under the microscope of analysis, the first application of which yields this distinction. Two further steps remain to be taken, the first being, a somewhat more minute analysis of acts of deliberation ending in choice, and the second a separation or contradistinction of those acts from others which are liable to be confused with them. I begin with the first, and with the first division of it.

"Deliberation, prior to the act of choice which terminates it, plainly involves (1) a consciousness of incompatible or alternative desires, (2) a comparison of their relative degrees of desirability, and (3) a prior volition to compare the alternatives and to adopt, in the immediate future, that which shall appear the most desirable; which adoption is the act of choice which terminates the deliberation, and completes the volition as a whole.

"as to the act of choice which terminates the de-liberation. This is undistinguishable, in point of nature, from acts of selective attention in perception and thought, such as enter into the deliberative process, and with which I must here assume that we are already familiar. Its distinctive character as an act of choice consists in its standing as the outcome and termination of a deliberative process, the End at which the prior volition, above spoken of, aimed. It is immediately known by two features only, one of which gives it the character of an act, the other the character of an act of choice. The first of these consists in the sense of effort or tension, which may be great or small according as the alternative desire adopted is more or less distinctly felt either as disagreeable, or as difficult of retention or execution, in comparison with the desires which are rejected on the ground of their being less desirable on the whole. I need not stay here to prove what has been abundantly proved by others, Prof. W. James and Dr. Munsterberg for instance, that this element of conscious choice, namely, the sense of effort accompanying the experience of it, is not an immediate concomitant of any efferent innervation, and therefore cannot be said to be a sense or perception of neural or cerebral activity. At the same time, the distinction between action or activity on the one hand, and feeling, perception, and thought on the other, so far as it is an immediately perceived distinction within consciousness, seems to be given ultimately by the sense of effort only, which thus becomes the differentia of conscious action, the mark by which we distinguish in conscious processes their apparent character of activity or conation, from their character of feeling, and from their character of cognition. (p.170-1)

"The other feature in acts of choice, to which their selective character is due, consists in a consciousness of a decisive change in the relative desirabilities of the alternative desires represented in the deliberation, including the retention and intensifying of one, the weakening or disappearance of the others...This consciousness is the consciousness of what we call our selection of the most desirable alternative and dismissal of the rest; and otherwise than as so perceived we have no direct knowledge of our own act, any more than we have direct knowledge of physical objects and agencies, otherwise than as they are perceived in consciousness...This, in cases of choice, is perceived as an identity between what is anticipated before the moment of choice, namely, that a selection is about to be made between given alternatives, and what is remembered after the moment of choice, namely, that a selection has been made between those same alternatives...

"The psychological explanation of all phenomena, as they are apprehended by common sense, consists in turning them, by analysis, into neural processes together with their concomitant and dependent process-contents of consciousness; both elements of the explanation being of a verifiable nature, and together constituting a different mode of representing the phenomena which they are required to account for. This alone is true psychological analysis. Contrast this with the pretended explanation afforded by inventing an abstract or transcendental Mind or Ego, a shadow-man as I have called it above, and referring the phenomena to its agency, without any change in the common-sense mode of apprehending them. This is nothing but the explicanda repeated, plus an unverifiable hypothesis. (pp.172-3)

"We have...seen...that the power of deliberation ending in choice, which is volition, may be, on the one hand, weakened by some particular overmastering motive down to the point at which it ceases to be volition by the disappearance of deliberation altogether, and on the other hand strengthened by the habit of deliberating and choosing, up to the point at which, again in the case of particular motives, it likewise ceases to be volition, by a similar disappearance of deliberation from its action. Volition, therefore, holds a middle position between these two extremes, an action retaining its volitional character only so long as it contains a certain minimum of deliberation and consequent choice among its actual features or constituents. The results for the individual Subject, in point of general volitional power and strength of character, are of course widely different, stand indeed in the most trenchantly marked contrast, in the two cases. But both cases alike show, that action which was once volition may lose its volitional character, and become a fixed and indurated mode of action, which is habitually and spontaneously repeated, on every occurrence of the appropriate stimuli. (p.175)

"A question is thus raised which brings us at last to the root of the whole matter -- Where and how are we to draw the line between volition itself and desires or motives which are extraneous to it, and fetter its action from without? The aniswer must be drawn from what has been already said concerning the essential characteristics of volition. A desire or motive wholly undeliberated upon is extraneous to volitional action, but deliberating upon it incorporates it therewith; and it may be added, that the act of choice, which terminates the deliberation, incorporates the desire or motive adopted with the nature and habits of the agent. It is thus through deliberation that what is originally extraneous and pre-volitional becomes part and parcel of volition, by having its operation delayed until it has been brought into competition with other desires or motives, and modified by the already existing habits and powers of the cerebral organs concerned in deliberating; so that the result, which is the act of choice, is the result of this deliberative competition and modification, and not of any single desire or niotive which enters into it, taken alone.

The physical brain process or action, which supports a concomitant conscious process of deliberation and choice, is, taken alone, a process of organic and living mechanism, not teleological, that is, not guided by conscious purpose. But inasmuch as the consciousness which it supports includes anticipation, comparison, judgment, and purpose, the action taken as a whole, (physical process and conscious process together), has a teleologic or purposive character. And thus it is, both that in volition the living mechanism of action ceases to be a "blind" mechanism, and also that in volition we have the first origination of the idea of design and teleology. We know our own character by means of the consciousness which accompanies and depends upon the physical brain process, and whenever we think of ourselves as concrete agents, including both processes, we think of ourselves as acting for anticipated Ends, that is, by design or purpose. So far we think truly; but at the same time it is true, that the design or anticipated End, taken in abstraction from the physical half of the process, or as if it belonged to the conscious half only, is no real link in the train of our action, and has no real efficiency in producing its results. Final Causes, as they are called, are no real conditions in determining action.

"This, then, being the nature of Volition, we are brought face to face with our final question-Is volition free, and in what sense? Or in another shape - Is Free-will a reality? Now these are questions which, after the foregoing analysis and discrimination, almost answer themselves.

Hodgson sees an element of futurity in a potential choice not yet made, not yet self determined
Since volition is deliberation and choice in a real agent, its freedom must consist in the absence of impediments to deliberating and choosing. And since it is clear that as real agents we do deliberate and choose, the freedom to do so must be commensurate with and inseparable from the act of so doing, that is, the act of volition. Will means and implies Free-will; and unless free has no existence. Volition and Freedom of volition begin and end together. Freedom in willing is merely the power to will. Consider it thus. Volition is completed in out of several represented alternative desires, an adoption which is still future, still to be made, during the period of deliberation and up to the moment of choice. This element of futurity in the action is that which makes us characterise it as free. The freedom of the action of choosing is the action itself characterised by its relation to the future, its termination in the actual moment of choice. But this is only saying in other words, that it is not the action as completed but the action as having the power of being completed - the action in potentia not in actu - that we call free.
Free will is self-determination, choosing from competing alternative motives
Up to the moment of completion, the moment of choice, i.e., during deliberation, comparison, and weighing of alternative motives or desires, the volition is not an act of choice, but a power of choosing. That power in the volition is its freedom. - Now the agent in volition is a self-determining agent. And what volition is freedom is, since freedom is the power of doing what volition does. Free-will is therefore the power of self-determination in conscious acts of choice, volition being the self-determination in its entirety. Volition is the name for the whole action, of which Freedom is the potential state, and Choice or Resolve the completing act. When we have chosen we are no longer free to choose, but we are free until we have chosen. Those fetters of the will which depend on prior acts of choice are all self-forged. (p.178)

"One more remark I would make, before quitting the subject of Free-will. It is, that the kind or quality of the desires or motives, adopted or rejected in deliberation and choice, is wholly irrelevant to the question of freedom. That question concerns, not what we choose, but whether we choose at all, in any real sense of the word. Yet no doctrine is more common, especially among nominal upholders of free-will, than to represent true freedom of the will as consisting in a man's following his best impulses, obeying the dictates of his conscience, or going on to attain ever higher degrees of moral excellence or self-perfection. A great confusion of thought is here involved. Goodness of will is not the same thing as freedom of will. Its freedom is the condition of its goodness and badness alike.

Hodgson is well aware of the ethical fallacy
"A power to choose only the good is a contradiction in terms; and were such a power (per impossibile) to be attained, it would be at once the highest perfection of the character, and the euthanasia of Free-will. The will would then no longer choose at all; it would have done with choosing; and the brain mechanism would thenceforward work spontaneously and habitually, no longer volitionally. The will in its new shape would indeed be free; - but free from what? From the influence of evil desires and motives, not from impediments to its power of choosing between bad motives and good ones.

"It will perhaps be said, that every advance made by the will in moral perfection opens a further vista of alternatives, no longer, perhaps, between the bad and the good, but between the good and the better; and that the absolute best lies at an unattainable, and in fact infinite distance. The more the power of choosing is strengthened, the more new alternatives will arise for choice. And this is perfectly true. But it does not touch the question as to what the essentials of free choice are. These are the same, whatever be the quality of the alternatives between which we have to choose, whatever the stage or degree of moral perfection, which we may have reached in our onward progress. It is as the basis of moral action, the ground in actual fact of moral responsibility for our actions, that it concerns us to establish the reality of Free-will, the reality of the power to choose between alternative desires or motives. The results which may be reached by a consistent course of choosing rightly are another matter, and so also, it must be added, are the results which will follow from pursuing an opposite line of choice. The will may be strengthened in pursuit of evil, as well as in pursuit of good. The results of either course are equally certain, the character of the individual Subject equally dependent upon the course of action which he chooses to pursue. It is in deciding upon the particular course to be pursued that the question of Free-will has its connexion with the question of Conscience. But the question of what we ought to choose is not the question whether we can choose at all. Unless the power of choosing is first established as a reality, the question, what kinds of choice are best, is left unconnected with the character of any real and self-determining agent. (pp.179-80)

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