Free will and creative reverie

Alan asked:

Is the essential freedom proposed by Sartre contradicted by all types of determinism?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a question about which I have changed my mind. I had a view — quite a strong view — about this, but I now realize I was wrong.

This is what I used to think: that everything that Sartre says about ‘free will’ and ‘bad faith’ can be fully taken on board by a ‘compatibilist’ — someone who believes that free will is compatible with determinism. What exactly is the debate over compatibilism?

The debate got going with a thought famously expressed by David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil.”

In unit 2 of The Possible World Machine, I offer the following gloss on Hume’s remark, put into the mouth of my fictional student ‘Derek’:

“What it means… is that if your idea of free will is not being determined to do whatever it is that you’re going to do next by your own unique character and innate dispositions, then you’re no better, in effect, than a roulette wheel. The action you ‘freely’ choose to do, according the this idea, is just the accidental result of whatever number in the roulette wheel in your head happens to come up. That’s not anything anyone would recognise as freedom.”

If Derek’s claim were true, then in order to have good Sartrean ‘free will’ we would want determinism to be true. The actions I do in good faith, or avoiding bad faith, proceed from my ‘unique character and dispositions’. They are caused by me, the kind of person, the agent that I am. Actions that are not the product of my character are actions that I can take no credit for. They are not ‘mine’ in any meaningful sense. Ergo, someone who believes in Sartrean free will ought to believe in determinism, or at least hope that determinism is true.

Schopenhauer makes a similar point when he argues against a conception of free will conceived as the ‘freedom of indifference’. If my free actions are only those that occur in cases where my character and motivations are not sufficient to decide one way or the other, then they are of no interest. What interests us, as moral agents, are those actions that we have a reason and a motivation to do, the actions we choose, for reasons.

This is just plain wrong!

If there is one thing we know about the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, absolutely and for sure, is that he is adamant that determinism cannot be true. He doesn’t merely express the hope that determinism is false. He knows that it is false. He knows that he is radically free. But, in that case, how does he escape Hume’s dilemma?

There is a way to avoid the dilemma. But in order to see it we have to rid our minds of the kinds of example that are normally put forward in discussions of free will. (It was Wittgenstein who remarked, ‘A main cause of philosophical disease — a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example’ Philosophical Investigations para. 593.) We imagine cases where there are reasons for doing A and also reasons for doing B. We balance the reasons for A and B against one another and decide that A is, all things considered, stronger than B. So we do A.

It is true that we do sometimes balance two incompatible courses of action against one another and decide which to opt for. But far more commonly, we find ourselves in a situation were we don’t know what to do. There are lots of possibilities, not just two. And thinking ahead, through the various things that could happen, more and more possibilities branch off.

I would argue that it is far closer to the human decision-making process to see it as a kind of creative reverie. We indulge in this kind of reverie even when we are not required to make any decision. The thought comes into my head, ‘Suppose that such-and-such were to happen.’ It might be extremely unlikely that such-and-such could ever happen in any possible world that I was remotely connected to, but such considerations are irrelevant in pure reverie. In reverie, I can travel the universe, or become Pope, or machine gun my enemies to death.

When creative reverie is put to use, on the other hand, we find ourselves at the apex of multiple story lines, any one of which could actually come to pass, but at most only one of them will. But here’s the thing: The story lines have to occur to me. I entertain them in my mind, let them in to my consciousness. They crowd round. Which one should I choose first? It is true that at this precise point my freedom is indeed the ‘freedom of indifference’ as Schopenhauer calls it. My thoughts go one way when they could just as well have gone another. Nevertheless, I take responsibility for that choice. The thoughts are indeed mine.

Though I could hardly see myself committing murder in the real world, the thought of what I would do to so-and-so with my machine gun really did happen, I cannot deny it. And now suppose that by some incredible sequence of events my enemy stands before me, and I just happen to have a fully-working machine gun in my hands…

It is in this sense, and for these reasons, that I can imagine that I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place, who ten minutes ago when I started composing this answer decided to watch the TV news instead. With the result that this answer was never written.

Writing this answer today was an act of free will, an event that could not have been predicted by a Laplacian Super-Mind on the basis of the way the Big Bang banged because a possible world not just similar to but exactly like the actual world, up to ten minutes ago exists, with someone exactly like me in it, who happened to wonder what Boris was up to today and decided to put on the TV news.

Transcendental wake-up call

Charles asked:

Why did Kant say Hume woke him up from his dogmatic slumber? How did he address the challenge Hume posed in respect of the problem of causality? In what sense does this response constitute a basis for Kant’s metaphysics?

Answer by Martin Jenkins


After his reading of David Hume, the problems raised by the latter’s Empiricism found a resonance in Kant.

Issues such as causality, necessary connection, personal identity were explored by Hume. In his ‘Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, Hume had concluded that Causality is not a definite, determinate event observed by the senses, it was the constant conjunction of two events enforced by custom and habit. The latter was found to be the basis of so called necessary connection. That a thrown stone may break glass, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that in the morning, the world will appear the same way it was on the previous night do not demonstrate any necessity. As such it is perfectly reasonable that what has always been in the past, may not be so in the future…

Regarding personal identity or the self, this too cannot be perceived. There are at most an association of ideas. Mustn’t there be some thing which associates the ideas, a ‘self’. Hume contends that the ‘self’ is itself, never encountered.

Transcendental Idealism

For Kant, the epistemological issues raised by Hume posed the question of the certainty of human knowledge. It seemed that Empiricism could not provide any certainty and left matters open to scepticism.

Kant’s response was to examine human experience and deduce that there were indeed, structures common to and which mediated human experience. As you mention, causality is one such structure. We do indeed perceive objects displaying succession in Time and in Space. The structures themselves are not experienced but are the very conditions of the possibility of human knowledge.

The structures or Transcendental Categories are a-priori inherent to the human intellect. They synthesise with intuitions gained through the senses to create synthetic a-priori judgements and consequently, knowledge. Accompanying this process is the Ego with its Synthetic Unity of Transcendental Apperception. Kant expounds how this happens in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/7). The Transcendental Categories furnish apodeictic certainty thereby giving human understanding an indubitable grounding.; this contrary to the fortuitous nature of empirical contingency.

So, for human beings, neither a-posterior empiricism nor the pure, a-priori reasoning characteristic of Metaphysics can provide knowledge nor, what this knowledge precisely is. Transcendental Idealism can – according to Kant.

Kant’s dogmatic slumbers

Charles asked:

Why did Kant say Hume woke him up from his dogmatic slumber? How did he address the challenge Hume posed in respect of the problem of causality? In what sense does this response constitute a basis for Kant’s metaphysics?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

To start with, ‘slumbers’ was a bit of an exaggeration; and today’s reader has to be made aware that the word ‘dogmatic’ did not then have the same pejorative connotations it has for us. Many if not most people were still comfortable with the idea that church dogma was simply the truth of their religious beliefs.

The difference here is the somewhat more shaky philosophical-cosmological dogma which rested on the Newtonian conception of science. Its doctrinal mainstay was that observation paired with logic would in principle suffice to achieve certainty of knowledge, given its rigorous methodology. But at the centre of this ‘dogma’ we find the theory of causality that came under fire in Hume’s skepticism. He claimed that observation of any event A triggering event B is by no means an incontestable chain of events; in fact the link between them (the ’cause’) is unobservable and in too many cases nothing other than a “constant conjunction” of those events. Hence it remains a logical possibility that this constancy will one day stop: Science cannot go beyond its inductive methodology and fasten its pronouncements on intrinsically contingent features of the world to its mast, as if they were pennants of eternal truths. Indeed, science cannot prove the necessary connection that must prevail in cause-and-effect scenarios, therefore the theory of causality is deficient in just this respect.

On the other hand, Kant saw the obvious too, that in the absence of a theory of causality, we would have to give up on our striving for certainty of knowledge. It was a difficult, thorny and contentious road, of which I can obviously give no more than a nutshell account. He began with his realisation that we humans are not passive recipients of messages from the world — we are participants in this information circuit, and this results immediately in a changed perspective on the matter. Namely., that our perceptions reveal phenomena bearing attributes that must conform to the structure of our perceptive capacities. This is a necessary precondition, for an object can only be an object for us; there are no ‘neutral’ objects, i.e. Dinge an sich, making their way into our consciousness. (I give you ultraviolet radiation as an example — we know of its existence only because we invented instruments which can penetrate more deeply into the colour spectrum than our eyes).

Now this one change, from being mere recipients to participants, changed all the rules. We are now in a position of examining our own ‘equipment’ and make deductions on all-important features of participation, namely (a) that we can know indubitably and before the event that objects must have a phenomenology that we are able to experience; (b) that all such objects and occurrences are compresent with us and situated in a location that is part of the 3D space we share; (c) that their causal interactions impinge on our understanding even in default of any theoretical scaffolding we might intellectually deduce. So these three points comprise the foundations of real knowledge on the basis of an intentional aspect of life that has a mandate to constitute it.

The upshot is, in the first instance, the rebuttal of our vain craving for empirical certainty and ‘eternal’ truths. It is not possible for finite creatures to take aim at the infinite. Hence the same criteria affect metaphysics as well — the latter understood as the theological partition of philosophy. The basic criterion is that the facts of the world are apperceived and then transformed into concepts by our faculties. Yet we can also form concepts about matters that are not derived from experience, but from teaching, stories, art and common beliefs. So there are two types of concepts, those which refer to phenomena and those which refer to other concepts. The latter, however, lacking an experiential component, must be noumena, “creatures of reason”. Which entails that they cannot be shown to exist and must accordingly be withdrawn from the list of items that are subjects of knowledge. Evidently this finding threw a spanner in the works of theology; even though Kant rebutted critics who accused him of destroying religion, whereas the opposite was the case: “I have delineated knowledge so as to make room for faith.” These words encapsulate what his readers did not wish to hear (including today): That religion is indeed one of those matters which (in Wittgenstein’s words) “we cannot speak about”, as it mere delusion to suppose that (if indeed there are gods, angels, original sin, salvation etc.), we can satisfy our longing for them by rational argumentation. These things are not transcendental, which is the basis of Kantian knowledge acquisition — they are transcendent, “beyond” our capacity for ratiocination.

I hope this will do for an initial orientation. For more information, including heaps of academic disputation, there is an abundant secondary literature, reported to amount to 17,000 items on a recent count!

‘Two souls, alas, in my breast’

Goran asked:

Hi, I wonder if the constant inner monologue I have in my self-conscious mind suggests that there is only one part of myself. When I ask myself if I should grab a beer in the fridge, and I hear one voice saying “yes, nice, you deserve it” and another “no, go to the gym and work on your belly instead”, and then there is a will inside me that decides to either close the fridge and go to gym, or open the beer, are these voices and this will just one single unit of myself, or are there two or even three parts of my self-conscious self? One reason I am asking is that I wonder if Plato’s tripartite soul may be at work here: the appetitive (have a beer), the rational (go to gym) and the spirited (will to decide either). Or is this just amateurish hairsplitting?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

That’s a good question, Göran; and the fact that you quote Plato highlights the historical fact that it has always bothered thinkers. But let me start on a ‘down-putting’ note, so that we can keep to level ground for a few moments. The symptoms you describe would also be familiar to handlers of animals, who know that dogs, horses, dolphins, apes etc. can have their moment of whimsy. So it’s not unique to mankind. I’m sure you also know the riddle of ‘Buridan’s Ass’, whose logic falters on the very spontaneity that characterises animal behaviour.

Spontaneity is indeed the key. It breaks the bicameral symmetry.

Whereas the idea that more than one voice impels us from time to time to take divergent paths cannot be taken literally. In a general sense, we can get away with emphasising the “two souls in my breast” of which Goethe spoke, i.e. that we exhibit a propensity for binary choices, which is confirmed every time we get confused by having more than two choices to consider. But unless you suffer from split personality, this is merely our self-reflectivity making it possible for us to toss an argument back and forth as if there were two selves tugging at our inner self (the latter therefore a third silent partner??).

But now consider that we humans are bundles of constantly conflicting emotions. Our psychology is more complex than that of animals, due to our self-reflecting intelligence. There is in us, as Schopenhauer revealed long before Freud, a ‘will’ striving against reason, and this will makes itself heard in all situations where our animal estate has cause for complaint. This is not perhaps the simple decision between a beer and a stint at the gym, although it can explain why your choice depends on circumstances like the weather, the degree of tiredness, laziness and innumerable other factors. In a word, the will frequently exerts itself against our better judgement, and especially often against our bad judgement. I guess I need not remind you that erotic desires are so powerful that a chance of fulfilling them can override the strongest moral reasoning against!

But I cannot go further with this topic, which is after all inexhaustible. Instead, let me suggest something a little off the beaten track in regard to two (or more) voices urging you to pursue or refrain from a course of action. We tend to think of an “I” as an all-controlling conscious faculty. This is more than dubious. It seems rather more likely that consciousness is a kind of mental bubble with only a tiny input into the brain in average, quotidian circumstances, though it may from time to time be upgraded in situations of emergency or heavy-going choice scenarios. Mostly however, the brain makes its own decisions, based on the ceaseless data flow from the whole organism. Our mistake re ‘being in charge’ is forgivable to the extent that neurophysiological education is not practised very widely. But let me say in a rough and ready way: by the time you make your 100th decision on any random day, your neuronal ensemble is likely to have made 100 million of which you know nothing. This is not even considering the many things we do by rote; e.g. you never have to stop and think, shall I go down the stairs with my right or left foot first?

Maybe it turns out one day, that conscious awareness is a cunningly contrived epiphenomenon to enable long-term plans and more general decisions about how we wish to live in our social environment. It wouldn’t surprise David Hume, who wrote over 200 years ago (quoting ad libitum): Whenever I introspect, I come upon thoughts, desires, feelings, plans, worries etc., but I never alight upon a self. There you have the result of his ‘duologue’; and I feel sure that if you were to examine your own, the result would be pretty much the same.

The inner voice

Goran Schill asked:

Hi, I wonder if the constant inner monologue I have in my self-conscious mind suggests that there is only one part of myself. When I ask myself if I should grab a beer in the fridge, and I hear one voice saying “yes, nice, you deserve it” and another “no, go to the gym and work on your belly instead”, and then there is a will inside me that decides to either close the fridge and go to gym, or open the beer, are these voices and this will just one single unit of myself, or are there two or even three parts of my self-conscious self? One reason I am asking is that I wonder if Plato’s tripartite soul may be at work here: the appetitive (have a beer), the rational (go to gym) and the spirited (will to decide either). Or is this just amateurish hairsplitting?

Answer by Graham Hackett

I often think that, in talking about consciousness, the only serious game in town is the argument between those who believe that human consciousness is a part of us which is separate from our material selves, and those who think we are just body. As human beings, some would say that we are not just our body, physical makeup, phenotype, etc. We also have a soul, a mind, a consciousness; however you wish to designate it. The consciousness is really us, much more so than our physical constitution. 

If you believe that we have a consciousness separate from our physical make-up, then you might get into a secondary discussion about how this works out in practice. Plato liked to think of a “soul” which had the parts you describe, which performed performed various functions such as providing direction (reason), sufficient vigour and vim (spirit) to proceed in this direction, and finally, appetite, (to make sure we are properly sustained our nourished). Freud, regarding himself as rather more scientific than Plato, parcelled us up into id, ego and super-ego. In your own case, you were wondering whether there were different voices, etc, which might decide you either have a beer, go to the gym, or ruminate a bit more about it.

How likely is this? It occurs to me from time to time, that we are making a lot of this up as we go along. We are so strongly sure of the sense of our own selves (think of Descartes “cogito”), that we may be giving ourselves special privileges when we compare ourselves with brute beasts, whom, we surmise, may not have this powerful feeling. I do not wish to be disrespectful to Plato, who has spent a great deal of his powerful intellect building a philosophical position to be admired. However, is there any reason to believe in attempts to divide our consciousness into supposedly functional parts, especially when we might want to query the very concept of consciousness itself?

When I read your amusing description of your soliloquy with your fridge, I was reminded of a famous observation by Hume.

“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of a demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity. …[But] from what impression could this idea be deriv’d? …For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

“…I may venture to affirm …that [persons] are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement.”

How can you go from your “particular perceptions” of fridge, bottle of beer, pleasure at the contemplation of the beer and guilt at the thoughts about the gym to a feeling that parts of your self are regimenting your responses?

My own particular view of consciousness is strongly influenced by scientific discoveries in neurology and brain function. I think that consciousness is a self-organised emergent property of property of billions of neurons firing in patterns in the brain. This leaves open the question as to whether self-consciousness really exists. Isn’t a property — even a self-organised emergent one — a real thing? It is certainly real enough to help me organise myself about whether I eventually take the beer or go to the gym. Or prevaricate.

What is a ‘thing’?

Himangsu asked:

What is a “thing”? Can we call a conscious being a “thing”?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The answer to the first question is, that this is one of those ‘household’ words that fits many contexts and situations. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “thing” has 18 different meanings, many of which have nothing to do with each other. So for a start, you should look this up yourself and be surprised by how many different uses a single English word can have in common parlance.

All the same, there is ‘chief meaning’ on top, which is that of an object belonging to the class of inanimate artefacts, i.e. all the physical objects naturally formed in the world as well as commodities, devices, implements, machines and so on made by humans.

Note now that the stress lies on ‘inanimate’. Organisms aren’t normally called ‘things’, least of all conscious organisms. At most, one might use the word as an insult. This goes so far as denying the legitimate use of ‘thing’ for the dead; instead we say ‘corpse’ for a deceased body, whether human or animal.

One puzzling issue that perhaps you had at the back of your mind, is the dream of humans “playing God” and creating a thing-like entity at some time in the future that exhibits an intentionality which resembles our own so much that we cannot distinguish it from conscious intentionality. If this were ever to happen, it would certainly affect our language use as well, because it would open a cleft on the line we presently draw between animate and inanimate. But for the moment these deliberations must be reserved to the Scifi industry (which has not, as far as I know, come to grips yet with the predicament it would pose to the way we speak about ‘things’!).

Would the world exist if I did not?

Cassandra asked:

When I was a child, I started asking myself: Why am I me? Why do I exist instead of not existing?

Now as an adult, this question started bothering me again as I started trying for a baby. With each cycle, I wondered, what if I conceive a baby today and not tomorrow? If a baby was to be conceived in any case, they would be a different person depending on if we have sex today or tomorrow.

What if my own parents had had sex on another day? They might have had another child that wouldn’t have been me, hence I would have never existed. Of course then I would not have been there to ask the question. But why am I there to ask? What if I didn’t exist at all? It’s like I’m feeling my own consciousness looking at itself in the mirror for the first time and realizing it exists!

Then it brings me to the idea that if I didn’t exist (or when I’ll cease to exist when I die), my entire perception of the world will cease to exist too. Then it will be as if the world didn’t exist at all, at least from my own point of view (which will be no more!). The/ my entire world will just cease to exist. The real world might as well cease to exist too. This really makes my brain hurt.

It just really freaks me out that I exist instead of not existing. I can’t imagine stopping to exist. This fills me with incredible anxiety.

My question actually is: Are there any philosophers who wrote about this? I would very much like to read them and find a bit of comfort in knowing I am not alone with my existential anxiety. I would also like to know more about this kind of double-sided perception of the world, for instance the idea that popped into my head that if I stop existing then the world will stop too (because I won’t be there to be conscious of it). I know it’s not how reality works but now that I’ve seen it from this point of view I cannot un-see it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Cassandra, I know exactly what you mean. Just so that you can be reassured that you are not alone in your existential anxiety, here is a comment that was posted three weeks ago on my very first YouTube video from 2013 Why am I here?:

Why am I here?… How am I here? I have been asking myself these questions every single day since I was a child. I think about it very deeply. “Why me?” “Why not a world without me?” “How and why am I in and of this existence.” I just can’t get my head around it. But I feel very lucky to be here and I’m glad I’m here. I just don’t know how or why! The only thing I think I know is that we must be conscious and self aware on another level. Most people I know have never asked these questions to themselves. Makes me think everyone is an unconscious robot, running on DNA programming and there is only a few truly conscious beings in this world.

The author, ‘Gaming Junkie’, has a YouTube channel for video gaming — which just goes to show that you can never predict the kind of person who will be grasped by your question, which is also very much my question.

But why are you so sure that, ‘if my own parents had had sex on another day… they might have had another child that wouldn’t have been me, hence I would have never existed’? How do you know that? As I have stated more than once on these pages, I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place. Meaning: it isn’t even necessary to suppose that your parents might have had sex on a different day. Everything could have been the same, down to the very last subatomic particle, and you might not be here now, the entire universe remaining exactly as it is, unchanged.

What do I mean? I would still be here, answering Cassandra’s question. Cassandra would still have asked her question. But you would not be Cassandra, because you would not be, period.

Then what about the world? How can I be so sure that the world would still exist if I had not existed?

As I once argued (in my book Naive Metaphysics: A theory of subjective and objective worlds, 1994) the view that the world would not exist if I did not, or ‘solipsism’ to give its popular name, runs into serious difficulties with the concept of truth. I become the sole arbiter of what is true or false and my judgement always goes. If I change my mind about any topic I was right to change my mind, and if I change my mind again I was right to change my mind again. Without a world there is no external standard, nothing to relate my judgements to except my other judgements. The world becomes my private dream.

As an illustration of this point, imagine a variant of the game of archery, where each arrow has a little target attached to the arrow head. Then you can never fail to hit ‘the target’. Wherever the arrow lands, you score a bull’s-eye every time!

So what? What does that prove? Absolutely nothing. One of the fundamental errors made by academic philosophers is believing that logic, or ‘discursive reason’ can establish firm conclusions on the ultimate questions of philosophy. It would be perfectly possible to argue, on the basis of the theory of materialism — which is not a new theory but has been around for 2,500 years — that my statement, ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place’ is exactly what a material being would say and believe, on the basis of a ‘necessary illusion’ generated by the nature of consciousness. The only problem is that the theory of materialism is itself unproved and unprovable. And also, in my opinion, absurd.

In my latest YouTube video, Descartes and the soul I go so far as to describe materialists as ‘cretins’ and I stand by that judgement. Maybe, as Gaming Junkie suggests, they are in fact zombies. I could believe that. But a knock-down, conclusive proof I have not. If you look at the literature on philosophy in the analytic tradition you will find reams of articles on various thought experiments that philosophers have explored such as Frank Jackson’s ‘Mary the super-scientist’ or John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’, with utterly inconclusive results. Believe what you want to believe.

We don’t know what consciousness is. We think we do. We think we have the human mind more or less taped. As I argue in my video, knowing the functions of the mental isn’t knowing what it is any more than knowing that a car can turn right or left, or go 100 miles in one hour, or has lights that you can switch on in the dark, tells you what a car is.

Something that looks, talks and walks like a duck can still be a fake duck. When so much is uncertain, we have to hold fast to what we know to be undeniable. I know that I exist, or, at least, that I exist now, at this very moment. And you know the same about you. What follows from that, no-one can know for sure.