DR. BAIN ON FREE WILL, Mind, Vol. 5, No. 18 (Apr., 1880),
IN April, 1874 - during the course of a philosophical series with which I am still engaged in the Dublin Review
- I came upon the question of Free Will. My direct assault was upon Mr. Stuart Mill and Dr. Bain, who are far the ablest advocates of Determinism with whom I happen to be acquainted. Dr. Bain did me the honour of replying in the Third Edition of his very instructive work on The Emotions and the Will
. I rejoined in April and October of last year, aid he has rejoined on my rejoinder in the January number of MIND
. In April last - while cordially acknowledging that Dr. Bain had treated me with most abundant courtesy - I was nevertheless obliged to complain that throughout his criticism he did not so much as once refer to that central and fundamental argument on which I avowedly based my whole case. Yet, as I added, nothing could well have been more express and emphatic than my detailed exposition of that argument. On the present occasion I must repeat the same acknowledgment and the same complaint. No one can write more handsomely of an opponent than he writes of me. He even says that "I have bestowed more attention on the controversy concerning Free Will, than any one with whom he is acquainted". Moreover, the extracts he gives from my articles are evidently chosen with the view of exhibiting my position in the most fair and equitable light. And yet by some (as it were) fatality which I am quite unable to explain, he entirely ignores from first to last the precise point on which I lay stress. I have nothing left for it then, except to content myself with stating that point once more; nor shall I hesitate often to repeat the very words I have used in the Dublin Review. Indeed I shall be very glad to take this course; because my present audience is entirely different from that which I addressed in the Catholic periodical just named. On the other hand it is a considerable inconvenience to me that I am confined within somewhat narrow limits. It would have been unconscionable, however, to ask the Editor for a much longer space in defence than Dr. Bain has occupied in attack. And at last I shall not improbably have a future opportunity for supplying any defect which may be inevitable in my present Note.
I will observe preliminarily, that Dr. Bain takes up far less confident ground than I had always understood Determinists to assume. I had always understood Determinists to allege, that their doctrine is certain and impregnably established. To this I answered (as Dr. Bain now quotes me) that "no Determinist with whom I happen to be acquainted had even so much as attempted to prove this," though so many have asserted it. Dr. Bain, after citing my statement, does not profess to deny it. He merely, says that great presumption
in favour of Determinism arises from the fact that "uniformity is found to be the rule of nature "in all unambiguous cases. His "present argument," he afterwards adds, "merely requires that there should be a possible alternative
to the supposition that the will is not subject to the law of uniformity. So long as there is no unequivocal instance
on 'my' side, such an explanation," he says, "deserves to be listened to
For the opposite doctrine, however, I claim, not probability, but certainty. I maintain that there are many "unequivocal instances" which conclusively disprove Determinism.' Dr. Bain says that "if there be exceptions to the uniformity of nature, they ought ere now to have come into view in 'some unmistakable cases." I reply that there are not "some" only but very many "unmistakable cases," which peremptorily establish that certain actions of the human will are signal and conspicuous "exceptions" to that "law of uniformity" which prevails generally in nature. And I proceed to place before my present readers some of the arguments which I have elsewhere adduced in behalf of this conclusion.
Dr. Bain protests against the term "Free Will"; and "sees no chance of a reconciliation of the opposing views, until this term is abandoned." He ought then to look with more favour on my own controversial standpoint than on that of some other opponents; because - though I certainly cannot abandon the term "Free Will "- still I have gone through the more essential and fundamental part of my reasoning, before I arrive at that term. I begin by merely maintaining a doctrine called by me "Indeterminism "; which is neither more nor less than the negative doctrine, that the doctrine of Determinism is untrue.
Now what is the doctrine of Determinism? Dr. Bain quotes with entire assent my own virtual exposition thereof. According to Determinists - it holds quite universally that, "given certain physical and corporeal antecedents, one definite group of physical consequents infallibly and inevitably ensue". This is what Indeterminists deny, as regards certain movements of the human will. In order, however, more conveniently to discuss the question, let me take a particular case. Let me suppose that at some given moment two mutually different courses of action are open to you, and that you have to choose between them. Let me further put aside the more common case, that there is a complication of motives soliciting you on one side or on both. Let me suppose that there is one strong motive attracting you in one direction and another in the other, while all other motives on either side are so comparatively weak that they may be left out of account. I will first confine myself to such a particular case as this; because all controversalists will admit, that it is especially fitted for bringing the question to a definite issue.
Such a case then being supposed, Dr. Bain considers it to be experientially known which of these two motives is " the stronger, "by the very fact that it carries the day." Two powers are in conflict, and the result shows their relative force." The successful motive "exercises control, not by freedom of the will, but by the psychological power of the stronger". If antecedents were to recur in every respect precisely similar, the result would infallibly and inevitably be the same. According to Determinists, that motive which under present circumstances is the stronger, under precisely similar circumstances would again be the stronger. Moreover, according to Determinists, the stronger motive infallibly and inevitably prevails over the weaker. I am confident that all Determinists will endorse this statement of their thesis as undeniably fair and accurate. And it is against their thesis as so stated, that my reasoning has been directed.
Now many Libertarians deny that there is any intelligible sense in the affirmation, that one motive is "stronger" than another. For my own part, however, I submit that there may be a most intelligible meaning in the affirmation; and that the term, if so understood, is a very serviceable one. So far I am in agreement with Dr. Bain. I differ from him, however, in the sense which I give to this term. When he says that at this moment motive A is "stronger" with you than motive B, he merely means that as a matter of fact you give preference in action to the former over the latter. But when on my side I say that motive A is " stronger " at this moment with you than motive B, I mean that the spontaneous impulse - the direct tendency - of your will at this moment is towards acting on the former in preference to the latter. According to my terminology, then, it is not the will's action, but its spontaneous impulse, which evinces the relative "strength" of motives. And then, as an Indeterminist, I proceed to maintain a second proposition - viz., that by no means unfrequently you act in opposition to your spontaneous impulse, to your strongest motive. The. first of my two propositions, it will be seen, is purely verbal; but the second is most substantial. And I will proceed at once to adduce various correlated practical instances to illustrate both, these propositions. I will follow Dr. Bain's precedent, and take my examples from the sports of the field.
A long frost has at last broken up, and you are looking forward with keenest hope to your day's hunting. Your post, however, comes in early; and you receive a letter just as you have donned your red coat and are sitting down to breakfast. This letter announces that you must set off on this very morning for London, if you are to be present at some occasion on which your presence will be vitally important, for an end which you account of extreme public moment. Let me consider the different ways in which your conduct may imaginably be affected, and the light thus thrown on the relative strength of your motives.
Perhaps (1) the public end, for which your presence is so urgently needed, happens to be one in which you are so keenly interested, which so intimately affects your feelings, that your balance of emotion is intensely in favour of your going. This motive, then, is indefinitely " stronger " than its antagonist. You at once order your carriage, as the railway station is some four miles off; and you are delighted to start as soon as your carriage comes round. Perhaps (2) the balance of your emotion on the contrary is quite decidedly in favour of the day's hunting: because the public end-though intellectually you appreciate its exceptional importance is not one with which your character leads you emotionally to sympathise. Nevertheless, through a long course of public-spirited action, and through "stored up memories of the past" you have acquired the habit of postponing pleasure to the call of duty. Here, therefore, just as in the former case, there is not a moment's vacillation or hesitation: your spontaneous impulse is quite urgently in favour of going. Your balance of emotion, I repeat, is in favour of staying in the country to hunt. But good habit by its intrinsic strength spontaneously prevails over emotion; and (taking your nature and circumstances as a whole) the motive which prompts you to go is indefinitely stronger than that which prompts you to stay. Or (3) perhaps, when you have read the letter, your will is brought into a state of vacillation and vibration. Your emotional impulse is one moment in one. direction, and the next moment in another. Then - as you possess no firm habit of public spirit - you take a long time in making up your mind. As Dr. Bain would' say - and as I equally should say - the strength of your motives is very evenly balanced, whichever may happen finally to show itself stably the stronger. Lastly (4) you have perhaps very little public spirit, and are passionately fond of hunting. So you at once toss your letter into the fire: and do not even entertain the question whether you shall offer up your day's sport as a sacrifice to your country's welfare. In this case of course the motive which prompts you to stay is indefinitely stronger than that which prompts you to go.
Now all these four alternatives are contemplated by the Determinist, and square most easily with his theory. In each case your conduct is determined by your strongest present motive. But there is a fifth case which he does not - and consistently with his theory cannot - admit to be a possible one; but in regard to which I confidently maintain, by appeal to experience, that it is abundantly possible, and by no means indeed unfrequent. It is most possible, I say, that you put forth on the occasion what I have called in my articles " anti-impulsive effort"; that you act resolutely and consistently in opposition
to your spontaneous impulse; in opposition to that which at the moment is your strongest motive. Thus on one side the spontaneous impulse of your will is quite decidedly in favour of staying to hunt; and the motive therefore which prompts you to do so is quite decidedly stronger at the moment, than that which would draw you to London. On the other hand your reason recognises clearly how very important is the public interest at issue, and how plainly duty calls you in the latter direction. You clench your teeth, therefore, and resolutely set yourself to resist
the spontaneous impulse of your will. You resolutely doff your hunting dress; you resolutely order your carriage which shall take you to the station; you resolutely enter it when it comes round. And now let me follow your course during the four miles' transit which ensues. During the greater part - perhaps during the whole - of this transit, there proceeds what I have called in my articles " a compound phenomenon"; or, in other words, there co-exist in your mind two mutually distinct phenomena. First phenomenon. Your will's preponderating spontaneous impulse is stably set in one given direction. You remember that even now it is by no means too late to be present at the meet;; you are restless and ill at ease; you are most urgently solicited by inclination to order your coachman home again. So urgent, indeed, is this solicitation - so much stronger is the motive which prompts you to return than that which prompts you to continue your course - that, unless you exercised unintermitting self-resistance, self-government, self-control, you would quite infallibly give the coachman such an order. Here is the first phenomenon to which I call attention: your will's spontaneous impulse towards returning. A second, no less distinctly pronounced and strongly marked, phenomenon is that unintermitting self-resistance, self-governmnent, self-control, of which I have been speakng. On one side is that phenomenon, which I call your will's predominant spontaneous impulse
; on the other side that which I call your firm and sustained antagonistic resolve
. On one side is the strongest motive, the spontaneous impulse, the predominant desire; on the other side is that which I call anti-impulsive effort and effectual resolve.
Here, then, I come to the point of my argument. How has this spontaneous impulse or desire been generated? Dr. Bain must surely answer this question as I do. He must say that your spontaneous impulse of the moment is the inevitable and infallible outcome of your circumstances (external and internal) as they exist
at this moment. What other account of its genesis could possibly be given'? We may know then quite certainly what is the resultant at this moment of the motives which solicit your will, by knowing what is the spontaneous impulse
of your will at this moment. Yet in such a case as I have supposed, it is a plain matter of fact, that you are not
acting in accordance with your spontaneous impulse. Or (in other words) it is a plain matter of fact, that you are not doing that to which your circumstances of the moment dispose you. But Determinists say that you must always infallibly and inevitably do that to which your circumstances of the moment dispose you. Therefore Determinists are fundamentally mistaken.
It is this "compound phenomenon," as I have called it - the like of which are surely very far from unfrequent - on which I have throughout mainly rested my argument. And I have now described it almost in the very words used by me last October. Dr. Bain says that the phenomenon which I describe "is no new phenomenon in human experience," and so far of course I am zealously at one with him. But he adds that this phenomenon "is spoken of in every account of the constitution of the mind". Now Dr. Bain has himself written a most able "account of the constitution of the mind". I have read with great attention, and (I hope) with great instruction, that portion of his labours which treats "the Emotions and the Will". But I protest that I cannot find in any part of that volume any recognition whatever of such facts as that on which I have been laying stress. It would interest me extremely if he, or some one of his many sympathisers, would refer me to the page - say in the Third Edition - where I shall find such facts (1) recognised, and (2) explained in some way different from mine.
At this stage of my argument, I proceed from the general doctrine of Indeterminism to the special doctrine of Free Will. Once more I beg my readers' attention to those two phenomena on which I lay stress. I draw attention to them as they co-exist, e.g., in the country gentleman, who has left his day's hunting very much against the grain, from a motive of public duty, and who is in his carriage en route to the station. On one side is his greatly preponderating spontaneous impulse towards returning; on the other is anti-impulsive effort, successfully contending against that impulse. If we examine these two phenomena successively with due care, we shall see that they differ from each other in character not less than fundamentally. In experiencing the former of them, his will has been entirely passive: in eliciting the latter, it is intensely active. He is not only conscious (I say) that he elicits this act of resistance: he is no one whit less directly conscious, that he elicits it by his own active exertion. No doubt motives differ from each other indefinitely as regards their relative "strength"; that is, as regards the influence which they respectively exercise on the will's spontaneous impulse or passive tendency. Still the agent is not left at their mercy, if I may so express myself. His. will possesses intrinsic strength of its own, whereby on occasion it can choose to act on a motive which is for the moment weaker, rather than. on one which is for the moment stronger. This fact, I say, is impressed most unmistakably on his knowledge, by such an experience as I have described. His soul - such is the fact which he recognises - has on certain occasions the power of redressing the balance of motives, by throwing its own self-originated force into this or that scale. And this is precisely an exercise of Free Will.
Hitherto I have so spoken as to embrace those instances only, in which (1) no more than two alternatives are presented; and in which (2) only one motive for either alternative needs to be considered. But I can easily express my argument in a much more general form. I can so express it as to include those far more frequent cases, in which (1) there are various courses of action from which a choice may be made; and in which (2) multifarious motives are at work, soliciting the agent in several different directions. Far oftener than not, he can know with absolute certainty what is the exact resultant of these various motives; what is the exact direction in which their combined influence solicits him. He can know this at once, I say, with certainty; because he can recognise quite unmistakably what at the moment is his will's spontaneous impulse or desire its passive tendency. This spontaneous impulse or passive tendency measures of course with infallible accuracy the preponderating influence exercised over his mind, by that complex of motives which for the moment is combinedly at work. But he knows also by actual experience, that on certain occasions he puts forth a vigorous self-originated effort, whereby he compels himself to act in some way entirely different from that prompted by his will's spontaneous impulse and passive tendency. On such occasions then he knows by experience that he compels himself, by a self-originated and vigorous effort, to act in some way entirely different from that, towards which his balance of motives at the moment prompts him. But Determinists will be the first to admit, that such self-originated resistance to the balance of motives - if it existed - would be an exercise of Free Will.
I am greatly disappointed that my limits do not permit me to continue further the exposition of my argument, as it is contained in the Dublin Review
. In particular, I should have wished to illustrate in some detail the broad phenomenal contrast which exists between two classes of acts, which I have called respectively acts of "anti-impulsive" and "congenial" efforts. By "effort" I meant " resistance to desire". By "congenial effort" I mean "resistance to some (at the moment) weaker desire or weaker motive; in order to the gratification of some (at the moment) stronger desire or stronger motive". By "anti- impulsive" effort I mean " resistance offered by self-originated exertion of the will to what (at the moment) is the agent's strongest desire or motive". Now, Determinists hold that a weaker desire indeed will be overcome by a stronger; but they add that the strongest present desire cannot possibly be overcome by the will's self-originated resolve. They must maintain therefore, of course, that no such acts are possible as those of "anti-impulsive " effort. They maintain that all effort of the will is really what I call "congenial," and consists merely in crushing a weaker desire under influence of a stronger. I have argued in the Dublin Review
that this affirmation is in direct contradiction to manifest mental facts; that what I call "anti-impulsive efforts" present the broadest possible phenomenal contrast to those efforts which I call "congenial". But I could not do any kind of justice to this argument, unless I exhibited various individual illustrations of my statement. And for this I have here no room.
As I have already implied, Dr. Bain really offers no reply whatever to the argument I have now set forth. He does not even exhibit it, much less reply to it. The nearest approach I can find to any recognition of it, is his reference to "stored up memories of the past"as influencing human action. No doubt they do so most importantly. But in what manner do they influence it? Dr. Bain himself must reply, by modifying the will's spontaneous impulse; by effecting that such impulse shall be in this direction rather than in that. Yet if this be so, how can these "stored up memories" tend ever so remotely to account for a man resisting his spontaneous impulse? I am here but repeating what has been said by an able and most kind critic in the Spectator of Jan. 10th. But I must add that the fact of Dr. Bain suggesting such an answer is the best of all possible proofs, how little he has given his mind to the point of my argument.
What he has really done is not to answer my reasoning at all but to allege various objections against the conclusion to which my argument points. These I will now briefly consider.
1. He complains " that he cannot grasp clearly what Free Will means". Well - I answered this question at some little length last April, and Dr. Bain has not yet explained which of my statements are to him unintelligible. Here, however, I may briefly give an answer which I think is substantially accurate, founded on my preceding remarks in this Note. If an agent at any given moment has a real power of successfully resisting his will's spontaneous impulse and passive tendency, at such moment his will is free. If he exercises the said power, he exercises Free Will. Nay, if he refuses to exercise it - nevertheless his will may at the moment be free; because he can exercise this power if he chooses, and he has full power (within certain limits) so to choose.
2. Dr. Bain "would like to have the region of failure of uniformity closely circumscribed". In other words (as I understand him) he wishes to know how often in the day, on what occasions, under what conditions, I maintain that a man's will is free. I briefly entered on this subject at the end of my article of last April, and expressed a hope of treating it fully hereafter. I fancy that Libertarians would considerably differ from each other in their answer to this question; which, however, has really no bearing on the essential point at issue between Theists and Antitheists. My own humble view is, that a man's will is free during pretty nearly the whole of his waking life.
3. Dr. Bain implies a wish to understand how such a science as psychology can possibly exist, if so many psychical phenomena are external to the sphere of uniform phenomenal sequence. I admit heartily that this is an inquiry which Libertarians are bound expressly and intelligibly to confront. For my own part I did confront it, in an article on " Science, Prayer, Free Will, and Miracles," published by me in the Dublin Review
as far back as 1867. I shall have great pleasure in forwarding Dr. Bain a copy of that article. At the same time it may be as well here to point out one obvious fact. The "spontaneous impulse" or "passive tendency" of any given man's will, at any given moment, is a matter open to scientific calculation in the strictest sense. This particular phenomenon at all events is infallibly and inevitably determined by phenomenal antecedents. In fact (as I said last October) I think that psychologians have been unduly remiss in not labouring more actively towards the exploration of this phenomenon. Consider - as one instance out of many - the mutual relations of emotion and habit. Under what circumstances does emotion spontaneously prevail over habit? Conversely, under what circumstances does habit spontaneously prevail over emotion? How very little has yet been done (so far as I happen to be aware) towards elucidating this question!
4. Dr. Bain especially desires to know, how Libertarians stand with regard to the doctrine of causation. He asks, e.g., whether, according to Libertarians, "from the occurrence of a given antecedent, we can conclude what the consequent will be". Surely he must be well aware, that every Libertarian answers this question emphatically in the negative. In any given instance of free action, the elicited act of will is not infallibly determined by its phenomenal antecedents, but on the contrary is elicited by the agent according to his own unfettered choice. This is just what we mean when we say that the action is free. "Can there then be such a phenomenon" - Determinists ask - "as a causeless volition?" In my article of last April I treated this matter in detail. The difficulty raised I understand to be this, though I am expressing it in my own words. "It is a truth accepted by the common sense of mankind, that every event has a cause. In fact this is the very truth which we call the 'doctrine of causation'. But by a 'cause' is meant a phenomenal antecedent, from which the 'effect' ensues in the way of uniform phenomenal sequence. Now there are certain acts of the will, in regard to which Libertarians deny that such acts do proceed from phenomenal antecedents in the way of uniform phenomenal sequence. Therefore Libertarians deny that 'doctrine of causation,' which is accepted by the common sense of mankind." It has always amazed me that Determinists can see any force in this objection. I am the last to deny that many of their arguments are extremely plausible, and demand most careful consideration. But this particular argument has its origin in a perfectly marvellous confusion of thought. Intuitionists entirely deny - as is surely quite notorious - that the word 'cause' has (in the accepted doctrine of causation) the sense which a Determinist supposes. They entirely deny that the common sense of mankind accepts the 'doctrine of causation' in the sense in which a Determinist understands it. They entirely deny that in that sense the doctrine is true. They confidently affirm that in that sense the doctrine is false. Yet even so unusually able and thoughtful a writer as Mr. Leslie Stephen, has fallen a victim to the fallacy of which I am speaking. He represents Libertarian Theists as holding that "we are bound by a necessary law of thought to believe in universal causation"; and so far he represents them truly. But he proceeds to represent them as "saying that another necessary law of thought tells us that causation is not universal," because that man's will is free.' On the contrary, Libertarians are removed in the furthest possible degree from admitting that a free human act involves a "causeless volition". They say that such an act exemplifies the doctrine of causation more expressly, more emphatically, more clamourously, than does any other phenomenon in the world. All this I set forth to the best of my power last April; and Dr. Bain - according to his wont - has referred to my argument without attempting to answer it.
5. At last, I think that Dr. Bain lays his chief stress on the fact, that all other phenomena proceed by uniformity of sequence. He regards it as in the very highest degree improbable that one particular class of phenomena - viz., human volitions - should be an exception to this otherwise universal rule. But he makes no way whatever in controversy, by merely pointing out that according to his own theory of life, such exceptionality is most improbable: he has to show (if he can) that it is improbable according to his opponent's theory of life. Now, according to his opponent's theory of life, such an exceptionality is not only not an improbability, it is an absolute necessity. There can be no such thing as Theistic morality without Free Will. On the other hand, if you deny Theistic morality - then (I quite admit) Free Will would be an uncouth, unmeaning, portentous exception to the otherwise universal course of nature. In fact, I may turn the tables on Dr. Bain. Unless Theistic morality be sound doctrine, Free Will is a portentous and unintelligible anomaly. But (as I trust I have shown) Free Will indubitably exists. Dr. Bain, therefore, either must admit that there exists what he himself would describe as a portentous and unintelligible anomaly, or else he must admit that Theistic morality is sound doctrine.
W. G. WARD.