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Chapter 3: Necessity and Volition

4. Free Will

Man is not, like the animals, an obsequious puppet of instincts and sensual impulses. Man has the power to suppress instinctive desires, he has a will of his own, he chooses between incompatible ends. In this sense he is a moral person; in this sense he is free.

However, it is not permissible to interpret this freedom as independence of the universe and its laws. Man too is an element of the universe, descended from the original X out of which everything developed. He has inherited from the infinite line of his progenitors the physiological equipment of his self; in his postnatal life he was exposed to a variety of physical and mental experiences. He is at any instant of his life—his earthly pilgrimage—a product of the whole history of the universe. All his actions are the inevitable result of his individuality as shaped by all that preceded. An omniscient being may have correctly anticipated each of his choices. (However, we do not have to deal with the intricate theological problems that the concept of omniscience raises.)

Freedom of the will does not mean that the decisions that guide a man's action fall, as it were, from outside into the fabric of the universe and add to it something that had no relation to and was independent of the elements which had formed the universe before. Actions are directed by ideas, and ideas are products of the human mind, which is definitely a part of the universe and of which the power is strictly determined by the whole structure of the universe.

What the term "freedom of the will" refers to is the fact that the ideas that induce a man to make a decision (a choice) are, like all other ideas, not "produced" by external "facts," do not "mirror" the conditions of reality, and are not "uniquely determined" by any ascertainable external factor to which we could impute them in the way in which we impute in all other occurrences an effect to a definite cause. There is nothing else that could be said about a definite instance of a man's acting and choosing than to ascribe it to this man's individuality.

We do not know how out of the encounter of a human individuality, i.e., a man as he has been formed by all he has inherited and by all he has experienced, and a new experience definite ideas result and determine the individual's conduct. We do not even have any surmise how such knowledge could be acquired. More than that, we realize that if such knowledge were attainable for men, and if, consequently, the formation of ideas and thereby the will could be manipulated in the way machines are operated by the engineer, human conditions would be essentially altered. There would yawn a wide gulf between those who manipulate other people's ideas and will and those whose ideas and will are manipulated by others.

It is precisely the lack of such knowledge that generates the fundamental difference between the natural sciences and the sciences of human action.

In referring to the free will we are pointing out that in the production of events something can be instrumental about which the natural sciences cannot convey any information, something that the natural sciences cannot even notice. Yet our impotence to ascertain an absolute beginning out of nothing forces us to assume that also this invisible and intangible something—the human mind—is an inherent part of the universe, a product of its whole history.4

The traditional treatment of the problem of free will refers to the actor's vacillation before the final resolution. At this stage the actor wavers between different courses of action each of which seems to have some merits and demerits that the others lack. In comparing their pros and cons he is intent upon finding the decision that conforms to his personality and to the specific conditions of the instant as he sees them and thus upon satisfying best all his concerns. This means that his individuality—the product of all that he has inherited at birth from his ancestors and of all that he himself has experienced up to the critical moment—determines the final resolution. If later he reviews his past, he is aware of the fact that his comportment in any situation was fully determined by the kind of man he was at the instant of the action. It is immaterial whether in retrospect he himself or an unaffected observer can clearly describe all the factors that were instrumental in forming the past decision.

Nobody is in a position to predict with the same assurance with which the natural sciences make predictions how he himself and other people will act in the future. There is no method that would enable us to learn about a human personality all that would be needed to make such prognostications with the degree of certainty technology attains in its predictions.

The way in which historians and biographers proceed in analyzing and explaining the actions of the men with whom they are dealing reflects a more correct view of the problems involved than voluminous sophisticated treatises of moral philosophy. The historian refers to the spiritual milieu and the past experiences of the actor, to his knowledge or ignorance of all the data that could influence his decision, to his state of health, and to many other factors that could have played a role. But then, even after full attention has been paid to all these matters, something remains that defies any attempts at further interpretation, viz., the personality or individuality of the actor. When all is said about the case, there is finally no other answer to the question why Caesar crossed the Rubicon than: because he was Caesar. We cannot eliminate in dealing with human action reference to the actor's personality.

Men are unequal; individuals differ from one another. They differ because their prenatal as well as their postnatal history is never identical.

  • 4. About these problems, seeMises, , pp. 76-93.
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