Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Freedom of Will by Cassius J. Keyser

Freedom of Will
by Cassius J. Keyser

[The following piece comes from Keyser's book Mole Philosophy and Other Essays, a review of which by Korzybski was published in his Collected Writings. Korzybski, who considered his great friend Keyser his chief mentor, gave his views the highest consideration. Given the current push against free will by fundamentalist materialists, Keyser's views seem worth a fresh look. 
—Bruce Kodish]

The literature of this old subject is vast. In respect of Dialectic skill, finesse, subtlety, penetration, verbosity, confusion and unconvincingness, it is probably unsurpassed. It fascinates and repels, quickens and fatigues, promises and disappoints—all at the same time. It is too important to ignore, too big and boring to wade through. As something better than a substitute for most of it I venture to recommend a little dialogue which I chanced to hear the other day. The speakers were three, a lawyer, an engineer and a mathematician. 

Apropos of something—I have forgotten what—the lawyer made a remark about somebody being "responsible" for something, whereupon the engineer said to him:
"You astonish me. Do you really believe, as you seem to, in that old dogma—the freedom of the human will, as it used to be called?"
"I do," said the lawyer, "of course I do; that dogma is one of the indispensible bases of Law. Municipal law takes it for granted that people are responsible for their decisions and deeds. Without that assumption Jurisprudence would collapse like a house of cards. Certainly I believe in freedom of the will."
"Well, I don't," the engineer replied. "I once did or thought I did but not now. I've thought the thing through and am a thorough-going determinist. Whatever happens happens when it does, where it does and as it does, of necessity. You know what is meant by the resultant of two or more forces. Well, every event, mental or physical, is the resultant of an infinite number of forces. If we knew thoroughly the state of the Universe at a single moment, we could predict in minutest detail the course of universal history for all time to come."
"That," responded the lawyer, "is a terrible thought, perfectly paralyzing—just think what it means—no initiative, no spontaneity, no chance, no freedom, no responsibility, every victory predestined, every defeat predestined, no merit, no demerit, even the very dream of freedom a predestined dream of a predestined lie." Then turning to the mathematician, he said: "What do you think about it? You have been silent. Tell us what you think. Don't you believe in the freedom of the will?"
"I do in a certain sense," the mathematician said, "but you must permit me to indicate the sense."
"Certainly," said the lawyer, "that is only fair."
"It is much more than fair," said the engineer, "it is absolutely necessary if we are to understand one another."
"Very well then," said the mathematician., "what I mean is this: Suppose you are confronted with alternatives, you are in doubt which to choose, you pause to consider, you deliberate; in deliberating you are exercising freedom or, if you prefer, freedom of will; deliberation is the essential ingredient, at once necessary and sufficient."
"Good," exclaimed the lawyer, "you and I agree. You have said just what I meant when I say I believe in freedom of will."
"You rejoice prematurely," rejoined the engineer; "the question is not yet settled for I contend that that deliberation, each and every step of it and the issue of it, in any given case, are all of them completely determined, as much so as the motion of your body if hurled from a precipice by a sudden gust of wind."
Thereupon the mathematician said to the engineer: "I begin to suspect that we three agree as to the essential facts and are disputing about nothing but different verbal accounts of them. For deliberation is a fact, is it not? I mean that people deliberate. I mean that deliberation does actually occur and is a very common and very familiar phenomenon. You do not dispute that, do you?"
"Of course, I don't," said the engineer, "none but a fool could deny so obvious a fact."
"Very well, then," the mathematicain replied, "behold what it is that we are doing. Our friend, the lawyer, and I point to an instance of deliberation and say: that is an example of the exercise of freedom. You cite the same instance and say: that is a specimen of things determined. But deliberation is deliberation, however we describe it. In your description you have not dragged our conception of freedom down, you have thrust the concept of determination up—you have mightily generalized and even transfigured it." 
"I fear I don't quite get you," said the engineer, "please explain what you mean."
"What I mean is this: You have so enlarged and elevated the usual significance of the word determination as to make it cover not only an inorganic thing's mechanical or chemical reactions to mechanical or chemical forces but also a thinking organism's reasoned selection of one from among competing alternatives; you make it cover not only the bitter ignominy of being buried alive but also the nobility of deliberately consenting to dwell in a colony of lepers to alleviate their suffering. You thus generalize if you like but you must not fancy that, in so doing, you have annulled or even diminished by so much as one jot the immeasurable difference between the things you have thereby huddled together under a single caption. For though you cry that all things are determined, you do not cease to know that in respect of dignity there is an infinite difference between being dictated to and being invited to consider. Since we agree that human beings have a capacity for deliberation we agree upon the essential matter. What is the use of disputing whether deliberation is an exercise of freedom or an infinitely refined specimen of things determined?"
"No use," said the engineer.
"Agreed," said the lawyer.