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The Study of Man and the Problem of Free Will

In our proper condemnation of scientism in the study of man, we should not make the mistake of dismissing science as well. For if we do so, we credit scientism too highly and accept at face value its claim to be the one and only scientific method. If scientism is, as we believe it to be, an improper method, then it cannot be truly scientific. Science, after all, means scientia, correct knowledge; it is older and wiser than the positivist-pragmatist attempt to monopolize the term.

Scientism is the profoundly unscientific attempt to transfer uncritically the methodology of the physical sciences to the study of human action. Both fields of inquiry must, it is true, be studied by the use of reason—the mind’s identification of reality. But then it becomes crucially important, in reason, not to neglect the critical attribute of human action: that, alone in nature, human beings possess a rational consciousness. Stones, molecules, planets cannot choose their courses; their behavior is strictly and mechanically determined for them. Only human beings possess free will and consciousness: for they are conscious, and they can, and indeed must, choose their course of action. To ignore this primordial fact about the nature of man—to ignore his volition, his free will—is to misconstrue the facts of reality and therefore to be profoundly and radically unscientific.

Man’s necessity to choose means that, at any given time, he is acting to bring about some end in the immediate or distant future, that is, that he has purposes. The steps that he takes to achieve his ends are his means. Man is born with no innate knowledge of what ends to choose or how to use which means to attain them. Having no inborn knowledge of how to survive and prosper, he must learn what ends and means to adopt, and he is liable to make errors along the way. But only his reasoning mind can show him his goals and how to attain them.

We have already begun to build the first blocks of the many-storied edifice of the true sciences of man—and they are all grounded on the fact of man’s volition. On the formal fact that man uses means to attain ends we ground the science of praxeology, or economics; psychology is the study of how and why man chooses the contents of his ends; technology tells what concrete means will lead to various ends; and ethics employs all the data of the various sciences to guide man toward the ends he should seek to attain, and therefore, by imputation, toward his proper means. None of these disciplines can make any sense whatever on scientistic premises. If men are like stones, if they are not purposive beings and do not strive for ends, then there is no economics, no psychology, no ethics, no technology, no science of man whatever.

The Problem of Free Will

Before proceeding further, we must pause to consider the validity of free will, for it is curious that the determinist dogma has so often been accepted as the uniquely scientific position. And while many philosophers have demonstrated the existence of free will, the concept has all too rarely been applied to the “social sciences.” In the first place, each human being knows universally from introspection that he chooses. The positivists and behaviorists may scoff at introspection all they wish, but it remains true that the introspective knowledge of a conscious man that he is conscious and acts is a fact of reality. What, indeed, do the determinists have to offer to set against introspective fact? Only a poor and misleading analogy from the physical sciences. It is true that all mindless matter is determined and purposeless. But it is highly inappropriate, and moreover question-begging, simply and uncritically to apply the model of physics to man.

Why, indeed, should we accept determinism in nature? The reason we say that things are determined is that every existing thing must have a specific existence. Having a specific existence, it must have certain definite, definable, delimitable attributes, that is, every thing must have a specific nature. Every being, then, can act or behave only in accordance with its nature, and any two beings can interact only in accord with their respective natures. Therefore, the actions of every being are caused by, determined by, its nature.

But while most things have no consciousness and therefore pursue no goals, it is an essential attribute of man’s nature that he has consciousness, and therefore that his actions are self-determined by the choices his mind makes.

At very best, the application of determinism to man is just an agenda for the future. After several centuries of arrogant proclamations, no determinist has come up with anything like a theory determining all of men’s actions. Surely the burden of proof must rest on the one advancing a theory, particularly when the theory contradicts man’s primary impressions. Surely we can, at the very least, tell the determinists to keep quiet until they can offer their determinations — including, of course, their advance determinations of each of our reactions to their determining theory. But there is far more that can be said. For determinism, as applied to man, is a self-contradictory thesis, since the man who employs it relies implicitly on the existence of free will.

If we are determined in the ideas we accept, then X, the determinist, is determined to believe in determinism, while Y, the believer in free will, is also determined to believe in his own doctrine. Since man’s mind is, according to determinism, not free to think and come to conclusions about reality, it is absurd for X to try to convince Y or anyone else of the truth of determinism. In short, the determinist must rely, for the spread of his ideas, on the nondetermined, free-will choices of others, on their free will to adopt or reject ideas. In the same way, the various brands of determinists—behaviorists, positivists, Marxists, and so on—implicitly claim special exemption for themselves from their own determined systems. But if a man cannot affirm a proposition without employing its negation, he is not only caught in an inextricable self-contradiction; he is conceding to the negation the status of an axiom.

A corollary self-contradiction: the determinists profess to be able, some day, to determine what man’s choices and actions will be. But, on their own grounds, their own knowledge of this determining theory is itself determined. How then can they aspire to know all, if the extent of their own knowledge is itself determined, and therefore arbitrarily delimited? In fact, if our ideas are determined, then we have no way of freely revising our judgments and of learning truth — whether the truth of determinism or of anything else.

Thus, the determinist, to advocate his doctrine, must place himself and his theory outside the allegedly universally determined realm, that is, he must employ free will. This reliance of determinism on its negation is an instance of a wider truth: that it is self-contradictory to use reason in any attempt to deny the validity of reason as a means of attaining knowledge. Such self-contradiction is implicit in such currently fashionable sentiments as “reason shows us that reason is weak,” or “the more we know, the more we know how little we know.” 

Some may object that man is not really free because he must obey natural laws. To say that man is not free because he is not able to do anything he may possibly desire, however, confuses freedom and power. It is clearly absurd to employ as a definition of “freedom” the power of an entity to perform an impossible action, to violate its nature.

Determinists often imply that a man’s ideas are necessarily determined by the ideas of others, of “society.” Yet A and B can hear the same idea propounded; A can adopt it as valid while B will not. Each man, therefore, has the free choice of adopting or not adopting an idea or value. It is true that many men may uncritically adopt the ideas of others; yet this process cannot regress infinitely. At some point in time, the idea originated, that is, the idea was not taken from others, but was arrived at by some mind independently and creatively. This is logically necessary for any given idea. “Society,” therefore, cannot dictate ideas. If someone grows up in a world where people generally believe that “all redheads are demons,” he is free, as he grows up, to rethink the problem and arrive at a different conclusion. If this were not true, ideas, once adopted, could never have been changed.

We conclude, therefore, that true science decrees determinism for physical nature and free will for man, and for the same reason: that every thing must act in accordance with its specific nature. And since men are free to adopt ideas and to act upon them, it is never events or stimuli external to the mind that cause its ideas; rather the mind freely adopts ideas about external events. A savage, an infant, and a civilized man will each react in entirely different ways to the sight of the same stimulus—be it a fountain pen, an alarm clock, or a machine gun, for each mind has different ideas about the object’s meaning and qualities.11 Let us therefore never again say that the Great Depression of the 1930s cause men to adopt socialism or interventionism (or that poverty causes people to adopt Communism). The depression existed, and men were moved to think about this striking event; but that they adopted socialism or its equivalent as the way out was not determined by the event; they might just as well have chosen laissez-faire or Buddhism or any other attempted solution. The deciding factor was the idea that people chose to adopt.

What led the people to adopt particular ideas? Here the historian may enumerate and weigh various factors, but he must always stop short at the ultimate freedom of the will. Thus, in any given matter, a person may freely decide either to think about a problem independently or to accept uncritically the ideas offered by others. Certainly, the bulk of the people, especially in abstract matters, choose to follow the ideas offered by the intellectuals. At the time of the Great Depression, there was a host of intellectuals offering the nostrum of statism or socialism as a cure for the depression, while very few suggested laissez-faire or absolute monarchy. 

The realization that ideas, freely adopted, determine social institutions, and not vice versa, illuminates many critical areas of the study of man. Rousseau and his host of modern followers, who hold that man is good, but corrupted by his institutions, must finally wither under the query: And who but men created these institutions? The tendency of many modern intellectuals to worship the primitive (also the childlike—especially the child “progressively” educated— the “natural” life of the noble savage of the South Seas, and so on) has perhaps the same roots. We are also told repeatedly that differences between largely isolated tribes and ethnic groups are “culturally determined”: tribe X being intelligent or peaceful because of its X-culture; tribe Y, dull or warlike because of Y-culture. If we fully realize that the men of each tribe created its own culture (unless we are to assume its creation by some mystic deus ex machina), we see that this popular “explanation” is no better than explaining the sleep-inducing properties of opium by its “dormitive power.” Indeed, it is worse, because it adds the error of social determinism.

It will undoubtedly be charged that this discussion of free will and determinism is “one-sided” and that it leaves out the alleged fact that all of life is multicausal and interdependent. We must not forget, however, that the very goal of science is simpler explanations of wider phenomena. In this case, we are confronted with the fact that there can logically be only one ultimate sovereign over a man’s actions: either his own free will or some cause outside that will. There is no other alternative, there is no middle ground, and therefore the fashionable eclecticism of modern scholarship must in this case yield to the hard realities of the Law of the Excluded Middle.

If free will has been vindicated, how can we prove the existence of consciousness itself? The answer is simple: to prove means to make evident something not yet evident. Yet some propositions may be already evident to the self, that is, self-evident. A self-evident axiom, as we have indicated, will be a proposition which cannot be contradicted without employing the axiom itself in the attempt. And the existence of consciousness is not only evident to all of us through direct introspection, but is also a fundamental axiom, for the very act of doubting consciousness must itself be performed by a consciousness. Thus, the behaviorist who spurns consciousness for “objective” laboratory data must rely on the consciousness of his laboratory associates to report the data to him. 

The key to scientism is its denial of the existence of individual consciousness and will. This takes two main forms: applying mechanical analogies from the physical sciences to individual men, and applying organismic analogies to such fictional collective wholes as “society.” The latter course attributes consciousness and will, not to individuals, but to some collective organic whole of which the individual is merely a determined cell. Both methods are aspects of the rejection of individual consciousness.

[Originally appeared as a chapter in Scientism and Values, Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds. (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1960). Excerpted from Economic Controversies.]

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