Chapter 9


[This topic is treated in Modes of the Finite, Part 3, Section 3, Chapter 6.]

9.1. Different senses of "freedom"

The question of whether human beings are really free or not has probably caused more controversy throughout the history of philosophy than any other issue. But everyone agrees that we are "free" in some senses of the term and not in others. The sense of "free" in dispute is whether our choices can actually pick any option we are aware of, or whether they are constrained to select the most attractive option.

But to clear the underbrush, here are some of the senses of "freedom" that we are not discussing in this chapter:

DEFINITION: Spontaneity is the kind of freedom a being has when no external physical force is making it act or restraining its activity.

Thus, a dog that is not tied up is "free" in this sense, and can act spontaneously: that is, the direction of the action comes from within and not from outside. But this does not imply that the dog has real alternatives that it can choose among; presumably, whatever is the strongest drive (the most powerful emotion) will make the dog act.

A paraplegic who has a machine strapped to his hand that makes the hand move is not "free" in this spontaneous sense. The machine forces his hand to move.

To put it another way, an act is "spontaneous" if it isn't a reaction to some energy from outside. In this sense, life involves (as we have seen from the beginning) spontaneity--which is why one of the definitions of life in Chapter 4 was "internal freedom."

No one denies that we are "free" in this sense, as long as we're not tied up or caged; and so in this chapter, we are not interested in this minimal sense of "freedom," but in whether our actions are free from internal as well as external compulsion.

Here is another sense of "freedom" which we are not interested in, but have to include to clear the air:

DEFINITION: Liberty is the kind of freedom a being has when it is not coerced by threats.

A threat, of course, is a promise (by the threatener) that he will inflict some kind of harm on the person if the person does not do what he wants.

These threats may be legitimate, as with the threat of punishment that accompanies just laws (park by a fire hydrant, and you are under the threat of a fine); they may also be illegitimate, as when the government passes unjust laws and threatens punishment for disobedience, or when a person without authority threatens punishment.

Again, there is no real disagreement among serious thinkers. Obviously, no human being has absolute liberty. We all exist in societies of some sort; and since members of societies have to be constrained to prevent their self-development from interfering with others' self-development, there must be laws and threats.

Laws and their punishments are supposed to be an argument that human beings are basically free to choose; but they don't make a very good one, since we train animals by punishing them, and they associate the undesired action with the punishment, and so act as if they were under a threat. It could be supposed that human beings understand the threat and its relation to their acts; but this does not mean that the threat doesn't make them act.

Finally, then, we come to the sense of "freedom" that we want to explore here: DEFINITION: Freedom of choice means that there is nothing from inside or outside the being that makes it impossible for the choice to be different from what it is.

That is, if you don't have freedom of choice, either the attraction is so strong that you can't avoid choosing the act, or the disincentive is so powerful that you can't choose the act.

DEFINITION: An action or choice is determined if it is impossible for it to be otherwise.

The act (or choice) might be determined by "positive reinforcers" which make it impossible to avoid it, or "negative reinforcers" like threats which make anything but the act impossible.


These "reinforcers" may be there, but they only determine if they are so strong as to make any other option impossible.

DEFINITION: An action or choice is influenced if something makes it likely.

This is the situation if a given act or choice is being affected by positive or negative reinforcers, but they are not so strong as to determine it.


No one denies that our choices are influenced.

In fact, as we saw just above, the threat attached to a law is supposed to influence the person to choose to obey. So whether our choices are "free" in the sense that nothing affects them is not the issue.

The issue: first formulation

Does the strongest influence (or set of influences) on our choice determine the choice?

Perhaps this could be more accurately put if I were to state the question this way: Does the choice necessarily follow the most heavily weighted alternative?

For example, you like ice cream, but are afraid of the dark. You know that there is ice cream in the refrigerator; but the light has burned out in the kitchen, and you have to cross the dark room to get to it. Is what you decide to do (i.e. what you choose to do, not what you actually do--the two are not necessarily the same) simply a battle between the desire to eat the ice cream and the fear of the dark, or can you actually "overcome" the stronger influence?

The issue: second formulation

Can we choose the less strongly motivated course of action?

Those of a scientific or empiricist turn of mind tend automatically to say, "Of course not. How could you do what you are less strongly inclined to do?" These people, whether they call themselves such or not, are determinists.

DEFINITION: Determinism is a theory of human choice and action which says that the strongest set of motives determines both our action and our choice.

DEFINITION: The free-choice theory of human choices says that our actions are determined (generally by choice but sometimes by various other influences) but our choices are always capable of opting for any of the known courses of action, whether they are the more or the less strongly motivated ones.

So the free-choice theory is complicated. It does not deny that sometimes we act on the basis of influences which overwhelm us; and in this case, we are "temporarily insane" (or, of course, permanently so), and "cannot help ourselves." But the free-choice theory holds that we can choose to do the action that not only seems but actually is the less strongly motivated course of action. It would also hold that, generally speaking, we can also carry out our choice-- that is, that it is rare for us to choose one act and find ourselves performing a different one.

9.2. The controversy

I think you can see why there is a dispute here. The person who bases everything on reason holds that free-choice theories are absurd. "Why," he would say, "would a person choose what is less attractive? If he chooses this course of action, it must be because he prefers it; and if he prefers it, he either prefers it for some reason, or because of some emotion, or some combination of the two. But in either case, his preference indicates that it is more attractive, all things considered, not less. Hence, he is taking the more strongly motivated course of action. He may say or think he is choosing the less attractive alternative, but that is because he means by 'attractive' either what is emotionally attractive (but hasn't got reasons for it) or what has the most reasons in its favor (but not the strongest emotions). But if you take the two influences together, he isn't choosing the less attractive alternative, because it doesn't make sense to say this."

The free-choice theorist counters, "What you say sounds very reasonable. My answer is that it doesn't agree with the facts. We can and sometimes do choose what has both fewer reasons in its favor and is emotionally less attractive--and know that we are doing this."

The determinist then denies that this ever happens, and the free-choice theorist counters that it doesn't often happen, but if it happens just once, that disproves determinism.

Since I think the free-choice theorist is right, there is some pretty rugged reading ahead.

9.3. The evidence

The issue is not a minor one. If in fact our choices are determined by the combined weight of the influences on them, then human responsibility is a myth. None of us can "help" anything we do, and Stalin and Hitler deserve no blame for their acts, any more than Ghandi or Lincoln deserve praise for theirs. We are all like Fido out in the yard; we can be trained, but only by manipulating the influences on us; once the influences are there, operating, the case is closed; there is really only one course of action open to us, even though in theory there might seem to be many (the ones that in fact are less strongly motivated).

If we are determined, we are only "free" in the sense that the weather is "free"; it can't be predicted with certainty because we don't know all the factors that enter into a given weather pattern. Similarly, if we are determined, a given choice can't be predicted only because all the influences on it (and their relative strengths at the moment) are not known; but if they were known, then the choice and the action could be predicted with certainty. This is the position of B. F. Skinner, who in fact uses the weather example as his explanation of why individual choices can't be predicted.

On the other hand, if the free-choice theory is correct, then most of the time we are responsible for what we do, because we chose to do it, and could have chosen not to. We are only not responsible when we are like Fido, and do something either without choosing (as in sleepwalking), or when we do something in spite of and against the choice we made (as in neurotic or "insane" behavior).

Note that if the free-choice theory is true, then people should be left free; they should be presented with the evidence for the probable consequences of their acts, and left to make up their own minds. If the determinist theory is true, then people should be trained to be happy doing what is most beneficial for the greatest number, and shouldn't be left "free to choose" for themselves--because in fact they never are free to choose in this sense.

(Of course, if determinism is true, it is hard to see what "should" would mean above, because those who would do the training are themselves already determined, and there would be no changing them--except by someone else who would also be already determined. "Should" is a meaningless word if we have no freedom of choice. As you can see, the issue is complex, but important.)

Before presenting evidence that, I think, will lead to a solution of the controversy, let me point out that the "argument" above that seems to favor determinism is an invalid argument, because it begs the question. The argument, you will recall, says, "If you chose to do this act, then this was because you preferred it, which means that, taking emotions and reasons together, it was more attractive."

Now a person "begs the question" when he uses the conclusion as one of the steps necessary to prove the conclusion. This using the conclusion as a premise (part of the proof) is usually hidden, of course. No one would do it openly, because, as in the following example, it can be seen to prove nothing: "If you're reading this, then you're insane. Why? Because if you weren't insane, you wouldn't be reading this."

In the "argument" about freedom, the begging of the question comes in the second clause ("then this was because you preferred it"). The free-choice theorist holds that you chose the act in spite of the fact that you preferred some other one; the whole point at issue is whether we are capable of choosing the less strongly motivated course of action. The determinist assumes that since you actually chose this act, then it must have been the more strongly motivated.

Why does he assume this? Because "we always choose what we prefer." But then he uses this supposed "fact" to prove his point against the free-choice theorist; but the point he is trying to prove is "we always choose the more strongly motivated course of action"; or in other words, "we always choose what we prefer." He has assumed as true the "fact" he wanted to prove, and used this assumption to "prove" this very "fact."

That is, the (question-begging) argument for determinism goes this way: The "fact" that we are not free proves that we always do what we prefer; and the "fact" that we always do what we prefer proves that we are not free. When you bring the hidden presuppositions out into the open, you can see how silly the "argument" is; it keeps going round in a circle.

Conclusion 1

The fact that we do something does not of itself imply that we were incapable of not doing it.

Nevertheless, the free-choice theorist can't just assert freedom of choice, and say we do in fact sometimes do what is less strongly motivated, because this ignores the fact that we might be unaware of all the influences on our actions, and so the choice might only seem less strongly motivated and actually be the opposite.

So we've got to find some evidence somewhere.

9.3.1. The nature of goodness

The first piece of evidence comes from what was said in the preceding chapter about goodness. If goodness were something objective that automatically "attracted" the will, then it would be hard to see on what basis the will could resist the stronger attraction. The Scholastic philosophers, like St. Thomas, who held that we are free, had this problem.

But with my theory, there is no goodness "out there," and so it doesn't automatically attract our will at all. Goodness, as you recall, comes from your making up situation which you then use as a standard for judging the facts or go on to pick as a goal for your actions; hence, you precisely aren't reacting to some attraction from outside; the initiative is within you.

Granted, we do have emotional attractions and repulsions, but we actually define these as "pleasures" or "pains" not by their automatic tendency but by convention. For instance, we consider the sensation of getting drunk a "pleasure," when it is in fact the sensation of being poisoned; we find terror "fun" when we get into the roller coaster; and so on. So not even pleasures and pains are really objective.

The upshot of this is that, as far as the reasons for choosing something are concerned, it doesn't follow that any one course of action is "more attractive" than any other. True, one will lead to an in-itself higher goal (e.g. one job pays three times as much as the other); but whether this goal is a goal for you is up to your choice (you may not be interested in having a lot of money).

Thus, the determinist, who holds that the sum of reasons + emotions determines the course of action we choose, has got to hold that there is an "objective goodness" that is discoverable by understanding (the way "greenness" is); and so understanding will be able to know what act is "in fact better for me," and the will will be attracted in that direction, only to be deflected from it by the emotional factors that attract the senses.

But then if "goodness" is a property of things which can be objectively known (as G. E. Moore says, like "yellow," which you can recognize but not necessarily define), why do we disagree on what this property is, while almost no one disagrees on whether a given object is yellow or not?

The theory I am advancing, however, holds that, while you might say that a more spiritual act (like studying philosophy) is a less limited and therefore a "higher" act than, say, lifting weights, it does not follow that it is better for you to study philosophy than to lift weights. What is "better for you" in this sense depends on what your goals are (Do you want to be an intellectual or be in good physical shape?); and your goals are not built-in; so that it is possible for you to set as a goal being another Arnold Schwartzenegger, in which case lifting weights is better for you than studying philosophy.

The point is that if we are determined, then the "attractiveness" is something outside the choice that forces us to choose it. But this means that goodness is objective. But if it is objective, what is it?

Conclusion 2

The fact that goodness is subjective (created by the choice) shows that we cannot be determined by the "attractiveness" of what we choose.

9.3.2. The evidence from self-transparency

This, of course, doesn't settle the issue, because all that it says is that determinism contradicts my theory of the nature of goodness. But of course, this is just one theory disproving another; and so it could just as easily be that determinism (if it is a fact) disproves the theory of goodness as that the nature of goodness (if it expresses what the facts actually are) disproves determinism. We don't have any direct evidence one way or the other.

But there is actually a fact which both determinists and free-choicers admit, and so we can take it as a starting-point:

First psychological evidence

When we make choices they seem to us to be free.

B. F. Skinner says of this, "The illusion of freedom should fool no one." So he admits that we think our choices are free; he just believes that it's an illusion.

But notice that this feeling of freedom of the choice is not an awareness of some outside object, like the feeling of heat when you touch something. That can be fooled, as can be shown by putting one hand in hot water and the other in ice water, and then putting both in tepid water: one hand feels it as cold, and the other as hot.

But the choice is free is an awareness about the conscious act itself; and since the conscious act is present to itself directly, then there is nothing in the "causal chain" by which a mistake could be made. We can make mistakes, as we saw in the preceding chapter, when some intermediary between the act and its effect alters the sequence of causes so that the effect is different from what it would be under other conditions. But between the conscious act and itself there are no "conditions" which could alter our awareness of it--because our awareness of it is the act we are aware of.

Conclusion 3

A person cannot be mistaken about the conscious act he is having while he is having it.

That is, if the sky looks red to you, you can be mistaken about the color the sky is. But you can't be mistaken in how it looks to you. If it looks red, it looks red. It couldn't appear to you to be green and you think it appears to you to be red. This makes nonsense out of consciousness.

That seems to settle the issue, then. If the choice (which, of course is conscious--you know that you are choosing when you choose) appears free to itself, then it must be free. If it weren't free and appeared free, this would be like thinking the sky looked different to you from the way it looks to you.

But not so fast. That "fact" about consciousness is a theory about consciousness, if you will recall: that the act contains itself as part of itself. It is, I think, the only theory that makes sense; but it is possible that there is another explanation of consciousness which doesn't involve the act's containing itself inside itself--and in this case, the idea that the choice is free could be mistaken.

So once again we seem to be just in a conflict of theories.

Nevertheless, we can still say this: the determinist has to claim that the idea that the choice is free is mistaken, because otherwise he would have to admit that the choice is free.

The determinist theory

Determinists explain the feeling of freedom by saying that, though the choice is always determined, we feel free when we do not know what is determining us.

That is, what they say is this: According to them, both our choices and our acts are always determined. When we are aware of what is determining us, we realize we are compelled, and we think we "couldn't help it." When we don't know what is determining us, we think we could have chosen otherwise, and we feel free. When we choose what seems to us the less strongly motivated side, we are simply unaware of other factors that make it actually the stronger one.

The determinist cites in support of his explanation that we sometimes do make choices which we feel we "couldn't help," as when a person on a diet is offered a piece of chocolate cake, and "can't resist." This person recognizes in this case what is making him eat the cake. The determinist then says that when the person "thinks he can take it or let it alone" (as when, after a struggle, he refuses the cake), he is simply not aware this time that the factors influencing him to stay on the diet are in fact stronger than the attraction of the cake, and so prevent him from eating it. He didn't "win against temptation" at all; he couldn't help refusing the cake. He only thinks he won because what was making him refuse it was unconscious.

This explanation seems to work. But note that it does so by assuming things that are actually not in evidence: these "unconscious motivators" that are active, overbalancing what the person is aware of. Obviously, the determinist can have no evidence that these factors are actually working, since (1) the person making the choice is unaware of them, and (2) no one else can get into his mind and know what is influencing him.

But since there is no way to test whether these factors are there or not, this is a bad scientific theory. It assumes, as crucial to the argument, a "fact" not in evidence, and one for which, in the nature of things, there can be no evidence. Once again we have, as so often in this matter, theory posing as a fact.

That is, the argument once more begs the question. The "argument" in this case goes this way: "If there are unconscious influences determining you, you think your choice is free while it isn't really free. But when you make apparently 'free' choices, the determiners are unconscious. Therefore, your choices aren't free but only seem so." But then one asks, "How do you know these 'unconscious determiners' are there and operating?" and the only possible answer is (since there is no way of observing them), "They must be there, otherwise the choice would be free."

Again, the logic is: The presence of unconscious motivators proves that we feel free when we really aren't. The fact that we feel free (when we really aren't) proves that unconscious motivators are present.

Note, however, that this particular theory further assumes that a conscious act can be mistaken about itself, based on something unconscious. This is a very large assumption; and since there is no way to prove the existence of these supposed "unconscious determiners," it must remain mere speculation, and not science.

On the other hand, by the same kind of reasoning above, the free-will theorist cannot prove the absence of determiners in the unconscious without also begging the question. You can't know from any possible observation whether they are there or not; and so the argument would be: "Choices are free because there are no determiners either conscious or unconscious." But how do you know that there are no determiners in the unconscious? "There can't be any, because then the choice would not be free."

The point, of course, is that the controversy can't be settled one way or the other by pointing to hypothetical "determiners" in the unconscious mind. It is to be noted, though, that the free-will theorist does not really have to prove the absence of these "unconscious determiners," because, absent proof to the contrary, a conscious act is to be taken as being aware of what it is; and in this case, it is aware of itself as not determined.

Conclusion 4

Since a conscious act is immediately aware of itself, then there is nothing that could cause it to be mistaken about itself; and since the choice is conscious of itself as free, it must be free.

"But this isn't always true," you say. "What about our mistaking a dream for waking life?" That isn't a mistake about the conscious act itself; it is a mistake about whether the information is coming from outside the brain or is already there. Certainly, your experience in the dream is your experience in the dream. You can't be dreaming about one thing and experience yourself as dreaming about something else. That is what I am talking about here.

9.3.3. Evidence from compulsion

Oddly enough, the strongest argument against the determinist position is one which looks at first glance to be an argument for it. I mentioned that the determinist explanation seems to handle those instances when we feel we "couldn't help ourselves." On the face of it, free choice doesn't seem to be able to do that. One would think, if the free choice theory were true, we would always feel free, because the choice would be aware of itself as free.

But of course, it's not that simple. So be prepared for some intricate reasoning.

Once again we start with something that both sides concede is a fact:

Second psychological evidence

People who are compulsive do what they claim they choose not to do, and so feel not free.

These are the people who used to be called "neurotics," but the term has dropped out of favor. They are people like alcoholics or addicts, nymphomaniacs (who can't refrain from sex), people with various phobias, and so on. They either do things that they say they don't want to do, but "can't help it," or (as the case with phobics) they can't do what they say they want to do. As I say, no one denies that these people exist.

Some, of course, say that they are just lying; they can actually stop drinking "if they put their minds to it"; or if they just "pull themselves together" they can go out and meet other people, and so on. People who have this attitude toward compulsives spend their time giving them reasons for not drinking or reasons why there's nothing to be afraid of--but the compulsives claim that they know all the reasons and they still can't do what is expected of them.

To me, what shows that these people are sincere in at least thinking that they can't help themselves is that they often spend thousands and thousands of dollars to get psychological help. Who would go week after week to a shrink at over a hundred dollars a session if he could just stop on his own?

But what we are interested in is that, given that there are such people, what this says about the question of whether determinism or freedom of choice explains human experience.

Remember what the determinist explanation of choice was: When we know what is making us do something, we feel not free; when we don't know what is making us do it, we feel free.

Third psychological evidence

In general, compulsives do not know what is making them do what they do.

One of the agonies of this type of person, in fact, is precisely that, as far as he can tell, he ought to be able to do what he can't do; but he tries, and only rarely does he succeed in doing it. But he can't tell beforehand when he'll succeed and when he'll fail. Most of the time he tries and for reasons totally unknown to him, he fails to do what he wants to do.

No one, for instance, knows what really makes an alcoholic a compulsive drinker. Is it a genetic predisposition? Is it a difference in the brain? Is it just a very strong habit? Is it a chemical imbalance? Still less do people know what makes for phobias. Was it an early experience, and if so what one? Does it have to do with the brain's chemistry? Is it a question of faulty circuitry in the nerves? No one knows. There are various theories on the subject, but no direct evidence.

So we can take it (1) that the compulsive does not know what is making him fail at what he wants to do, and (2) he feels not free.

Conclusion 5

If determinism explains human choices, compulsives would feel free. But they don't.

If you look back at the determinist theory, you would predict from it that compulsives would be the people most likely to feel free, because they are the ones who are being determined by factors they are not aware of; and it is precisely this situation that the determinist says accounts for the feeling of freedom.

But you say to a person who has a phobia of the dark, "Look, I've turned the light on. There's nothing in the room. Now I turn the light out, and you've got nothing to be afraid of. Come on in." He will answer, "I can't." You say, "You know there's nothing to be afraid of," and he says, "I know." You say, "Then why can't you come in?" He answers, "I don't know; I just can't." He's being compelled by something he is totally unaware of; as far as he can see, there's nothing keeping him from going into the room. But he can't do it. This is precisely the kind of person the determinist theory would say feels free. But if there's anything he doesn't feel, it's free.

Here is a second fact about compulsives that argues against determinism:

Fourth psychological evidence

Compulsives sometimes choose to get help to overcome their compulsion.

This seems unremarkable enough, but look what it is saying. There is certainly some sense in which the compulsive is determined, because he is doing something in spite of himself. Something in him is making him do things he doesn't want to do. So he goes to get help.

But this choice to go get help is a choice to do the exact opposite of what the compulsion is making him do. Now if the compulsion were determining both his actions and his choice, how could he make such a choice? Here his choice is directly against the compulsion, and so clearly the compulsion can't be making him make such a choice. But then what is making him choose to get help? Another compulsion? But if that other compulsion is so strong as to make him choose to overcome the original one, why does he have to get help? His very choice to get help has conquered the compulsion with a stronger compulsion. Tell that to a compulsive.

Conclusion 6

If determinism were true, compulsives could not choose to get help to overcome the compulsion. But they do.

That is, this choice to get help implies that the person is drawn in two conflicting directions: he is drawn by the compulsion to do something "in spite of himself," and he is drawn by something else to get help so he can stop doing this. This second "drawing" isn't unconscious, however; the neurotic deliberately chooses to see the psychiatrist--and he feels free doing this. How could he be compelled against his compulsion? So the choice to get help must be a free one.

Note also that Whenever the compulsive tries to prevent the compulsive act (whenever he struggles against it), he feels that this choice is free, even though he can't carry it out into action. It is the act he feels not free about, because it isn't what he chose to do.

Fifth psychological evidence

Compulsives feel their choices are free; the compulsion consists in their not being able to carry out the choice.

That is, compulsives feel in control of their choices; the just can't carry them out. They try to do what they find they can't do and fail. But what does "try" mean? They make a choice. They have no problem making the choice; it's just putting it into practice that's the difficulty. The alcoholic resolves thousands of times to quit drinking; it's just that he keeps drinking anyway.

But if you are a determinist, your theory has to look like this, to take these facts into account: There is (1) the unconscious attraction to do the undesired act, which is forces the act in spite of the choice not to do it (the person can't carry out the choice); but (2) there is the unconscious repulsion against this act which forces the choice not to do it. This unconscious repulsion is (a) stronger than the attraction with respect to the choice (because it forces it, overcoming the attraction) but simultaneous (b) weaker than the attraction with respect to the act, because the attraction wins out against it in the act. Nevertheless, (c) the unconscious repulsion sometimes is strong enough to force both a choice and an act to seek help to get rid of the attraction.

These are very strange attractions and repulsions, to say the very least. How can each overcome the other and be overcome by it in the same context? How can each be simultaneously stronger and weaker than the other one? Remember, "unconscious motivators" were invented to make sense out of choices, supposing determinism.

Conclusion 7

If determinism is true, the fact that the compulsive's choice feels free and the action feels not free implies self-contradictory unconscious motivators in the same person at the same time.

The more you analyze what the determinists blithely call a "description" of compulsive behavior, the more bizarre and contradictory these invented "motivators" have to become, and the less sense the theory makes.

Sixth psychological evidence

Compulsives often feel free for a long time and only discover their compulsion by actually choosing to go against it.

It is a common experience for alcoholics to think, "I can take it or let it alone" for years and years when everyone else around them knows they have a drinking problem. Why is this? If you examine what they say, you find they think they are free because they just have no reason for "letting it alone."

What does this imply? They are choosing to do what they are in fact compelled to do, and feel free because their choice is carried out in action. So there's no conflict between the choice and the act, and that is what makes them feel free. But when some situation comes up that gives them a very good reason for not drinking and they actually choose not to drink and then find themselves drinking--then they realize they have a drinking problem.

The point here is that the compulsive doesn't discover his compulsion by looking inside himself and finding some attraction that he didn't know he had; he discovers it by finding out to his surprise that he can't carry out his choice. The choice still feels under the person's control; he just now realizes that his actions aren't.

Conclusion 8

If determinism is true, the compulsive's feeling of being in control of his choice is as much of an illusion as his feeling of being in control of his acts. But the moment of discovery then implies overwhelming impulses in opposite directions at the same time.

That is, at the moment of this choice, there is the overwhelming (unconscious) motivator that forces the choice (because it feels free) and the overwhelming (unconscious) motivator that forces the act (because he can't carry out the choice). We saw this above. All that this evidence adds is that the person himself becomes aware of the compulsion on his actions, but he never loses his sense of being able to choose whatever he wants.

One final nail in the coffin of determinism:

Seventh psychological evidence

Our ordinary experience is that the more we are aware of that is relevant to a choice, the freer that choice feels.

This is the experience of deliberation. When we have an important decision to make, we try to think of all the reasons for and against the action in question; and the more reasons we find, the more in control we feel. People who are forced into decisions before they have had time to think things through become nervous, because they are afraid that they are acting on impulse, for reasons they are not aware of.

So common experience is that the more you know about what's attracting you or repelling you, the freer you feel, and the less you know, the less in control you feel.

Conclusion 8

Determinism predicts that the less we know about what is inclining us to a certain action, the freer we would feel. This is directly counter to common experience.

The reason determinism predicts this is, of course, because it explains the feeling of freedom by ignorance of what is motivating you to act. But it is knowledge of what is motivating us that makes us feel in control.

General conclusion

Determinism cannot explain human experience. Our choices must be free, even though our acts are not.

That is, we can take it that the theory does not stand up to the facts. First, it goes counter to what we know about the reality of goodness and badness. Second, it goes counter to the immediate evidence of consciousness itself (and therefore, the burden of proof is on the determinist). Third, it is supposed to explain the sense of freedom by ignorance of what is determining us; but the neurotic doesn't know what is determining his acts, and yet feels not free. Fourth, it has to invent mutually overwhelming unconscious determiners to account for a neurotic's acting in spite of his choice. And fifth, it contradicts the common experience of deliberation.

It is just a bad theory all round.

9.4. Freedom of choice

So the only reasonable position is that our choices are free. Putting this together with what we learned about understanding earlier, as well as our discovery that we do not always do what we choose to do, we can construct the following theory about choice and its freedom:

1. Our choices are never determined. They are always under our control. A choice determines itself. As spiritual, it contains itself within itself, and so it itself makes itself to be the choice which it is.

And this is confirmed by our experience. When we choose, we also choose to choose--because we can come to the point of making a decision, and say, "No, I won't decide now; I'll sleep on it first"--which is, of course, to choose not to choose (now). Hence, the choice is in control over itself.

2. Our choices are influenced, but only by consciously known facts.

The reason for saying this is that the choice is a spiritual act on the level of understanding, as we can see from the fact that we have reasons for our choices. These "reasons" are not emotions, but facts we know--acts of understanding.

The choice, as conscious, contains within it the acts of understanding (the "reasons") on which it bases itself. Even when we choose something "because we are so attracted to it," it is the fact that we have the emotion that is the reason for the choice, not the emotion itself.

Be sure you understand this. When we say, "I like this sweater a lot, but this other one is more what I need, practically speaking," the attraction to the first sweater is being considered as a reason for buying it in spite of its lesser practicality; and hence, it becomes just one fact out of several that you are taking into account in making your choice. It itself does not enter into the choice; it indirectly enters by your recognition of the fact that you have it.

This implies that you can't choose options you are not aware of and you can't choose for reasons you are not aware of at the time you make the choice.

3. The choice has control over how much each known fact is going to influence it.

If this were not so, then we would be back to determinism. When you say, of the sweater, "I don't care if it's impractical; I like it and so I'll buy it anyway," you are discounting the practicality as of lesser importance than the emotional attraction. But you realize that you can just as easily say, "I don't care how much I like it; it's not practical, and I need a warm sweater; so I won't buy it." In this case, you discount the attraction as not important.

This is another reason why I say that there is no such thing as "objective levels of goodness." The choice itself creates the goodness by its control over the evaluative judgment.

This is why we can choose against what seems the more reasonable or attractive course of action.

4. Emotions and drives (instinct) influence the choice only indirectly.

They do this in two ways: either (1) by directing attention away from facts we would otherwise know (making them unconscious and therefore unavailable as influences), or (2) by creating illusions or hallucinations that make us mistakenly think that certain things are facts when they aren't.

That is, emotions can either create misinformation or suppress information. Thus, a person in love "sees" all kinds of wonderful qualities in his beloved that no one else has ever been aware of, and does not notice even glaring faults that every dispassionate person can see. When he chooses to marry this (to him) paragon, he's making a perfectly rational choice based on the information as he understands it. The trouble is he has the wrong information, because of his emotions.

The emotion didn't make him choose; his choice was still free. But what the emotion did was prevent him from seeing any reasons against the choice and give him all sorts of phony reasons for it--and so, having all the reasons in favor and none against, the person naturally chooses.

--Unless, of course, he suspects what is going on (as he should), in which case, he refuses to choose until he seeks advice from someone not emotionally involved. This ability to refuse indicates that the choice is still free, in spite of the emotion.

5. Our acts themselves are always determined, and never free.

They are determined either by choices or by instinct, or by some combination of the two.

Most of the acts we perform are determined by instinct, in the form of habits we have got into; because in most cases, we don't weigh the pros and cons and then make a choice; we simply see the situation and react according to our habitual mode of reacting. You come into a classroom and automatically head for a seat at the back of the room, say. You didn't choose to take that seat; it sort of just happened without your thinking about it.

The more important acts of our lives, however, are governed by our choices. We deliberate about them, trying to find reasons for and against them, weighing the reasons, setting goals for ourselves, and choosing.

Occasionally, however, instinct can get out of control of consciousness, and take over. If a habit has become very strong, our choice not to do the act may not have the control over the energy-flow in the brain, and we keep doing the act in spite of our choice. Ask smokers how many times they have chosen not to take a cigarette and have been unable to keep themselves from doing it. Very strong emotions have the same effect.

If this lack of control over instinct by the choice is very marked and long-lasting, then the person is said to have an emotional problem, or be emotionally disturbed, or mentally "ill." Obviously, the natural state of a human being is to be able to control his instinct when he wants to--and only let it control his actions, as above, in trivial matters that he doesn't want to be bothered having to decide about.

9.5. The function of choice

Obviously, the "survival value" or function of choice in the human being is to allow consciousness (which contains itself within itself--and so controls itself) to control the whole being: the body. That is, consciousness as spiritual is self-determining (we will see in the next chapter that this is also true of understanding); but the self-determining act of choice not only determines itself, but determines the body; it is the act by which the living human body (a) determines goals for itself and (b) sets out to achieve those goals: by which the living human body creates itself unto its own image and likeness.

It sounds as if there are many implications and ramifications of this; and there are. But let us leave those until we have considered the relation of thinking and choosing to the human soul, together with the question of whether human life, as spiritual, ends with the death of the body, or whether it goes on--and if it does, what this afterlife must be like.


Plato (400 B.C.) was basically a determinist. He held that "knowledge is virtue," in this sense: if a person knows what is good, then, since what is good is also what is advantageous (and the person who really knows what is good would know this), then he can't do what is bad. Immoral actions, therefore, are the result of ignorance. This, of course, only works if it is impossible for a person deliberately to act against his advantage--which is the determinist position.

Aristotle (350 B.C.) is not so clear. He seems to have thought that it is possible to be deliberately bad; but he also held that "happiness"--what he supposed is our built-in final goal--cannot not be chosen by a human being. We don't deliberate about goals, but about the means for getting there, according to him. I think this is wrong, as we will see. I think there is no built-in final goal, and what we basically choose is a set of goals which we define as our final goal.

St. Augustine (400) Christianized a kind of Platonism, with Aristotelian overtones. But he recognized that we are free, and that we can deliberately sin. The way he reconciled this with the philosophical and Theological teachings was that (a) we are not free with respect to the absolutely final goal (the possession of God in heaven): this is given to us, and we cannot but choose it. But we can refuse to recognize it; and we can deliberately put lesser goods in a higher place than objectively greater goods (remember all these people thought that there was such a thing as "objective goodness"), and choose them. And this was the essence of sin.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1250) basically followed Augustine, but gave the theory a more Aristotelian flavor. The "will" (the faculty of choosing) is a "spiritual appetite" that seeks "the good as such," and therefore is only totally satisfiable by the Infinite Good (God), who therefore is our final goal. This is also in Augustine; but the approach and the tone are somewhat different.

During the Reformation, John Calvin (1550) held a divine kind of determinism: Since God knows and causes all our acts, then they are all "predestined," and we can't actually do anything about them. This sort of Divine determinism from then on went in and out of favor; and, oddly enough is back again in certain circles. Not too many years ago, I delivered a paper at a philosophy convention refuting a modern version of just this kind of determinism.

Baruch Spinoza (1650), who held that we are all "modes" of the one Substance which is God, held that "freedom" was freedom from external determination, but not from determination by one's own nature. And since God's nature is "necessary" (God has to exist and be infinite), then he is free; and we are "free" when we recognize that we are part of God (and so act by being determined by His nature within us) and are not free when we try to "free ourselves from God's control," because then external forces are actually determining us.

Immanuel Kant (1790) thought that it was impossible to prove that a human being is free or not without begging the question; and so there could be no theoretical solution to the controversy over freedom vs. determinism. But he said that, practically speaking, we had to assume that we had a spiritual "element" in ourselves which was free, or the moral command simply didn't make sense. Why command us to act if we either can't do what is commanded, or can't help doing what is commanded?

It was because, largely, of Kant that "scientific" circles simply assume that the question of human freedom is one of those "metaphysical" questions which just goes round and round in circles, for which there is and can be no real evidence one way or the other. Unfortunately for the "scientific" attitude, Kant was wrong.

Georg Hegel (1820) adopted a kind of Spinozism influenced by Kant. We are "moments" of the Absolute coming to be aware of Himself in his "otherness" (us); and He is free, in the sense that He acts by the necessity only of His own nature. Thus, every event in the world (including all our choices) is determined, and is part of the process of the Absolute gradually coming to knowledge of Himself; but this does not mean that we are not free--because, as part of the conscious process, we are aware that we are the Absolute, and that He is free, and hence so are we--in our unfreedom. If this sounds confusing, try reading Hegel. He is enormously profound. Wrong, I think, but profound.

Karl Marx (1850) also held that everything is determined by a dialectical process, but he wasn't having any of Hegel's "Absolute Spirit." No, the determining factor in Marx's dialectic is economics, and control over the forces of production. This leads to people owning other people and to rebellions and revolutions, according to a determined (and therefore in broad outline predictable) plan. Those who say that Marx's plan hasn't turned out as predicted are the people who haven't read Marx carefully. Where we are today is not so very far from where he said the world would be--except that his timetable was set back (the Marxist would say) fifty or a hundred years because of the introduction of capitalist trade unions.

Obviously, since I think there are aspects of human beings that are spiritual and that we are free, I am not a Marxist. What I am saying, however, is that Marxism is not to be cavalierly dismissed.

B. F Skinner, of the latter part of this century, is a foremost example of a scientist who is a psychological determinist. His real reason for saying that we are determined is that otherwise, a science of behavior (where statistical predictions are made) is not possible--and since it exists, it is possible. What he did not pay sufficient attention to is that people do tend to follow rational interests, even if they are free not to do so; and so statistically you can predict what people in the aggregate will do. Skinner went far beyond his evidence when he extrapolated from what pigeons do.


There are various senses of "freedom." Some which are not relevant to our investigation are "freedom" as spontaneity (not being tied up or forced from outside); "freedom" as liberty (not being "forced" by threat). Freedom of choice means not being determined from outside or from inside; determined means that the choice could not be otherwise; influenced means that the choice is made likely. The free-choice theory holds that our choices are influenced, but the influences do not determine them. We can choose what is in fact (and what also seems) the less strongly motivated act. The evidence in favor of this is first, that goodness is not something objective, and so there is no objective attraction that would compel the will. Second, that the choice is a conscious act, recognizing itself as free from determination; and there is no way by which a conscious act could be mistaken about itself, since there is nothing to blind it to itself. Thirdly, though we generally do what we choose to do (and so feel free also about our acts), we sometimes do things and feel that we were not free (or compelled to do them).

The determinists hold that the feeling of freedom is an illusion, based on the "fact" that you are not conscious of the influences that are determining you. But there is no way to observe such supposed "influences"; and therefore, they are to be assumed only if they make sense of human behavior.

But in fact, (a) if our feeling of freedom came from ignorance of what is determining us, then compulsives would feel free, since their acts are determined by what is unknown to them--but their acts feel not free to them. Further, (b) compulsives make choices (which feel free) not to do these acts, and can't carry them out, and even choose to seek help and carry out these choices, which would imply overwhelming influences in the same unconscious mind at the same time both in favor of and against the same act. But influences overwhelming in one direction cannot be overwhelming in the opposite direction at the same time.

Finally, the theory predicts that the more reasons you know for doing something, the less free you would feel, and vice versa. But this is the opposite of experience in deliberation.

Hence, the theory does not account for human behavior.

The free-choice theory, therefore, says that (1) our choices are never determined; (2) they are influenced, but only by facts we are conscious of at the time; we cannot choose options we are not aware of, nor for reasons we are not aware of; (3) the choice controls how much these facts will influence it; (4) emotions can exert influence--but only indirect influence--on choices by creating misinformation; and (6) our overt acts are determined, and never free.

The reason we have choice is to let the self-determining spiritual act "spill over" and determine the whole body by creating (choosing) goals and creating instabilities leading to achieving them.

Exercises and questions for discussion

1. How does the "freedom of choice" the "pro-choice" people are talking about relate to our notion of freedom of choice?

2. But aren't there some times when our choice is really out of our control? Do you mean to say that psychotics can freely choose?

3. Shouldn't we really take a middle ground between not being free at all and saying that our choice is always free? We're free sometimes and under some conditions, but not always.

4. Don't compulsions in fact prove that our choices are not always free? The compulsive says, "I couldn't help it."

5. If our actions are never free, then why do we sometimes refer to them as free? We say, "He freely got into that car; no one made him do it."