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Josef Seifert

The first three evidences for human freedom

Sep. 6, 2009, at 8:32pm

1. The Immediate Evidence of Freedom in the Cogito
A first answer to our question imposes itself on us: The god-like attribute of the free human person: „for if we will, it is; if we will not, it is not…,” as Augustine says, is given just as immediately as our own existence in the experience of consciously living our being and performing free acts. (After ending this series on freedom, I will send to the Personalist project my whole text that underlies these blogs, namely a more extensive article with all the quotes.)

We can reach the knowledge of the real existence of our freedom in actually experiencing it from within – as part of the indubitable evidence of the cogito; it can be known with the same immediacy as our own existence, or in a sense even more immediately; because, as Augustine says, even if we were mistaken, per impossibile (which is impossible), about our own existence, it would still be evident to us that we would not want to be deceived, and in this will not to be deceived we experience our freedom with evidence.

Thus we may say that nothing is more evident to us than our freedom: Our very existence and conscious life are not more indubitably given, though perhaps more easily understood, than our freedom. And indeed we know of our freedom with the same type of immediate and thereupon reflective evidence with which we know of our own existence.

[Investigating this matter more closely, we could distinguish between the evident givenness of freedom on different levels: a) in the immediate inner conscious living of our acts, b) in what Karol Wojtyìa calls „reflective consciousness” (which precedes the fully conscious self-knowledge), and c) in explicit reflection and self-knowledge properly speaking in which we make our personal freedom the explicit object of reflection, d) in the insight into the nature of freedom, an insight which grasps the necessary and intelligible essence of personhood, which is realized in each and every person, and e) in the clear and indubitable recognition of our personal individual freedom, an evident knowledge which depends, on the one hand, on the immediate and reflected experience of our being and freedom, and, on the other hand, on the essential insight into the eternal and evident truth of the connection between freedom and personhood.]

The awareness of our own free will – a knowledge which is so evident that it cannot be deception – is in fact part of the evidence of the famous Cogito in René Descartes and even more in its richer and more adequate Augustinian version.

And the existence of free will in us is so evident that its evidence in a certain sense is more primary and indubitable than that of all other evident truths given in the knowledge: I think, I experience, I am.
And the existence of free will in us is even so evident that its evidence in a certain sense is more primary and indubitable than that of all other evident truths given in this knowledge (the Cogito).
Of course, this priority is not to be understood absolutely: for without the evidence of our existence and thinking activity also our freedom and will could not be given. Nevertheless, Augustine’s remark is valid in the following sense: even if we assumed, per impossibile, that all other truths given to us would be doubtful, we could still be certain that we would freely want and wish to avoid error and to reach the truth. For even if we could be in error about all things, it would still remain true that we do not want to be in error and of this free will we can have certain knowledge, as Augustine states:

Likewise if someone were to say: ‘I do not will to err,’ will it not be true that whether he errs or does not err, yet he does not will to err? Would it not be the height of impudence of anyone to say to this man: ‘Perhaps you are deceived,’ since no matter in what he may be deceived, he is certainly not deceived in not willing to be deceived? And if he says that he knows this, he adds as many known things as he pleases, and perceives it to be an infinite number. For he who says, ‘I do not will to be deceived, and I know that I do not will this, and I know that I know this,’ can also continue from here towards an infinite number, however awkward this manner of expressing it may be.

And again Augustine says:

On the other hand who would doubt that he … wills…? For even if he doubts, he … wants (wills) to be certain….

René Descartes gains the same insight as Augustine that we possess freedom of choice and know this from within our own experience of the free dominion over our acts, and expresses it in the following way:

[Descartes says that our freedom of choice] “is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us.”

Thus, starting from the immediate self-experience of our conscious life, we gain the evidence that we possess the freedom to will not to err, and in a similar manner proceed to the more general evident knowledge of our freedom expressed by Saint Augustine thus:

for we do many things which, if we were not willing, we should certainly not do. This is primarily true of the act of willing itself - for if we will, it is; if we will not, it is not…

Augustine continues a little further down:

…Our wills, therefore, exist as wills, and do themselves whatever we do by willing, and which would not be done if we were unwilling.

The evidence of this knowledge cannot even be refuted by any and all possible forms of self-deception because these imply or presuppose already the evidence of free will, particularly the evidence that we can will “not to be deceived,” as Augustine says.

2. The Evidence of Our Own Freedom in the Light of the “Eternal Truths” or “Necessary and Supremely Intelligible Essences and Wesensgesetze”
An extremely important advantage of the Augustinian over the Cartesian Cogito lies in Augustine‘s clear grasp that the unique inner perception or grasp that we really exist through our intimate conscious contact with our being and life “from within” is connected with the light of eternal truths, an insight into necessary essences and states of affairs that are quite independent from our individual person but without knowledge of which we could also not understand the existence of anything: for example, we do not only immediately perceive from within that we live and are conscious but we understand at the same time the universal truth of the principle of contradiction “nothing can exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense” or: “Deception and error requires the real existence of the person who errs or is deceived; therefore, nobody who errs and is deceived can fail to exist”. And as we perceive the concrete fact of our own existence in the light of these eternal truths, so we can also perceive our own freedom in the light of the eternal truths about the essence of freedom we discussed above. Thus we could formulate: in understanding what freedom is, we at the same time perceive in ourselves the actually existing power to act freely. As it were the light of the insights into the universal facts we discussed above about the nature of freedom at the same time allows us to understand clearly the instantiation of freedom in our own being and conscious life.

3. The Knowledge of Freedom through the Mediation of the Experience of Moral Calls and Oughts
There is another way to know that we are free: we all experience that we ought to do and not to do certain things. But an ought would not only lose any sense without freedom but in its experience freedom is co-given with the same evidence as the ought itself. In a similar way, the call issued from all objective values to give them their due response, explained so well in Hildebrand’s Ethics, which is, as a matter of fact, the main rational reason for an ought, cannot be perceived without at the same time knowing our freedom, without which we could never respond to the call for a due value response. For while we can also give an affective response, that is not within our free power to engender and still is due to a great work of art or to a beloved person, this due response as well calls for a free sanction without which our response as it were does not enter fully in relation with due-ness. Therefore in the experience of any “ought” or call to give a due response we are given with the same evidence with which we know that we ought to do or to omit something, or to perform an inner act due to a beautiful or good object or person, also our freedom, which is the only conceivable addressee of an ought or call for a due response. No conceivable totally unfree reaction can ever properly respond to an ought or to a call from a value per se. We can say: nobody can know of an ought or call to give an adequate response to a good without knowing that he is free; hence as we do know of many such oughts and calls for a due response, we know that we are free.


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