Josef Seifert

The Argument from the Self-contradiction of denying freedom

Oct. 9, 2010, at 2:08am

4. The Argument from the Self-contradiction of denying freedom and pledging to defend determinism
A fourth kind of argument on behalf of our freedom is that everybody who denies freedom already presupposes it. Both in the act of denying freedom and in insisting that we and everyone else should recognize the truth that there is no freedom, we presuppose the evidence that we and other persons are free and only for that reason we can possibly have a moral responsibility towards ourselves and towards others of publicizing this alleged truth. Thus in all of these judgments in which we reject freedom we contradict our deterministic view and presuppose the evidence of freedom. An excellent form of this kind of “transcendental argument” for freedom and against determinism we owe to Hans Jonas.

In his book Macht oder Ohnmacht der Subjektivität, he refutes brilliantly the materialist ontology and the deterministic account of mind. Jonas opens his book by relating the historical fact that a group of young physiologists (students of the famous Johannes Müller) met regularly in the house of the physicist Gustav Magnus in Berlin. Two of them (Ernst Brücke and Emil du Bois-Reymond) made a formal pact to spread the truth ‘that no other forces are at work in the organism except chemical-physical ones.’ Soon also the young Helmholtz joined them in this solemn promise. Later all three men became famous in their fields and remained faithful to their agreement.

Jonas shows, however, that the very fact of this promise already contradicted, without them noticing it, the very content of their promise, or rather, the materialist theory and negation of freedom which they pledged to promote throughout their career. For they did not bind themselves, and could not have bound themselves, to leave to the molecules of their brain their respective course of action because the course of molecular events in their brains, according to their opinion, was wholly determined since the beginning of the world, nor did they bind themselves by means of their promise to allow these molecules to determine all their speaking and thinking in the future. (This would have been equally senseless for the same reasons.) Rather, they pledged fidelity to their present insight or better, their false opinion. They declared by their pact, at least for themselves, that their subjectivity was master over their action. In the very act of making this promise they trusted something entirely non-physical, namely their relationship to what they took to be the truth and their freedom to decide over their action. Moreover, they ascribed precisely to this factor a determining power over their brains and bodies – which power, however, had been denied by the content of their thesis. To promise something, with the essentially included conviction to be able to keep such a promise and to be likewise free to break it, this admits a force of freedom at work ‘in the organism’ of man. Faithfulness to one’s promise is such a force. Thus, precisely the very “act of vowing always to deny freedom and any non-physical force” solemnly confirmed the existence of the very sort of freedom and ‘non-physical forces’ which they denied!

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 9, 2010 - 8:09 pm

Thanks for publishing the next installment in your series.

I have a question about your saying that “we and other persons are free and only for that reason we can possibly have a moral responsibility towards ourselves.” I completely agree with the basic point I think you are making. Recently, however, I have been reading some authors who insist that a person is also answerable—indeed, answerable in a deeper sense—for acts that are precisely not free. They argue, for instance, that a person is answerable for his indifference, even though this indifference is not a free act. Another example: Katie and I just saw Verdi’s Otello. It seems to me that Otello is justly blamed for his gullibility toward Iago, and also for his lack of trust in Desdemona. But these faults are not exactly voluntary.

I think you will agree with these examples. But would you agree that it is therefore necessary to adjust the formulation: “responsibility presupposes freedom”?

Josef Seifert • Oct 10, 2010 - 12:21 am


Dear Jules,

As you rightly assume, I am of course in agreement with you that Othello is blameworthy for his gullibility and lack of trust in his wonderful and faithful wife Desdemona, and that we bear a heavy responsibility for our indifference towards poverty or other evils in the world. If you say that these are not free acts, however, I disagree. I would certainly agree that they are not free actions that bring about a change in the world such as pulling out a drowning man from the water and carrying him to a hospital. They are not even free actions in the same way in which a liar’s speaking false things are an action.

However, the range of free acts is much wider. It refers not only also to all omissions to act when actions are called for (such as when we do not feed the hungry or clothe the naked). It also includes the deeper sphere of free acts that we call virtues or vices, and certainly an attitude of indifference as well as a the unfaithfulness of Othello that shows itself in his gullibility and his injustice of not inquiring into the truth before withdrawing his trust from Desdemona, not to speak of his murdering her, are also free attitudes, i.e. general directions of our will and superactually existing stances in our soul for which we are responsible, partly because they themselves are free acts (attitudes), partly because they can be consequences of our attitudes of egoism or of many actions and omissions to act that may lead after a time to our total indifference towards the misery of others, for which we are fully responsible.  But this in no way overthrows he insight that without a person possessing free will it is impossible for her to be responsible or answerable for misdeeds that would be caused by chemical or electric events in her brain or even by God without her free cooperation.

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 12, 2010 - 9:25 pm

But if one extends the range of free acts so as to include virtues and vices, wouldn’t one then also have to expand the notion of freedom itself. Normally an act is said to be free if it is deliberately chosen and initiated by the agent. But virtues aren’t exactly like that. And certainly emotions like jealousy are not.

Josef Seifert • Oct 13, 2010 - 12:54 am

You raise at least two very interesting questions.
1.  The first one refers to the question in which sense virtues and vices can be said to be free, given that, as you say “an act is said to be free if it is deliberately chosen and initiated by the agent. But virtues aren’t exactly like that.” Now it is quite clear that we must here make some distinctions:
First, as you point out, there is a distinction between an instantaneous free action which I perform at a given time and in an actual conscious way and a virtue or vice. Both are not free acts in exactly the same way. Think first of an act in which a person realizes some state of affairs given into her power to realize, such as pushing in a few minutes the knob that sets the machine in motion that will move up, in a capsule, from a mine roughly half a mile under the ground, the first of 33 Chilean miners stuck for two months underground. This act is obviously distinct from the possible virtue of the person who pushes the button. It will happen in two minutes, the virtue of loving care of the person who will push the button not, but exists already. The action of pushing the button will pass after a few moments, the virtue not. Pushing the button is consciously chosen here and now, the virtue not. Now inasmuch as your expression that an act is free “if it is deliberately chosen and initiated by the agent” refers to this kind of free actions, it is not applicable to virtues or vices but this does not at all exclude that it be not free in a deeper sense that fully preserves the part of your affirmation the free act “is deliberately chosen and initiated by the agent.”
In the first place, the virtue springs from many actions and/or inner responses which are clearly free acts that as it were, receive a firmer ground when they grow roots in a person and live as it were on in her in form of a virtue.
Moreover, the virtue itself, for example loving kindness, has the character of an enduring free act in the person, an act which we call attitude. The fact that it lasts above and beyond the short time when it is actually experienced, does not make it less free than the action of pushing the rescue button but more so. Just as our love for our child or wife would not be true love if it ceased when we are eating or sleeping, so a kind and merciful response to an enemy who has wronged us would not be true mercy if it were to give room in the next moment to merciless cruelty and would not live on in us an attitude. It still continues to exist in a person when she does not actually experience her love or merciful, forgiving attitude. In a similar way, we continue to know something even when we do not actually think of it or experience our knowledge.
Moreover, just as the same knowledge that exists superactually in a person, can be recalled and lived actually and consciously at any time, so also free acts cannot only exist superactually in us (in a similar way as our “knowing something even when we do not think of it”) but can likewise be lived at any time in a fully conscious and awakened way, and then they show fully their nature as freely performed acts of merciful forgiving or kindness. These concrete conscious acts, in which virtues are “exercised,” in some sense constitute each time new conscious acts and inner responses or virtuous actions but they also correspond to the underlying virtues and manifest and “contain” them in a sense. They are fruits of virtues, in another way they coincide with the underlying virtues inasmuch as they actualize and actually “exercise” or “live” the virtuous attitude, in still another way, each of these conscious free acts is a new entity that also contributes to the growth of virtue and becomes its partial “cause”. And while in some sense each virtuous act is only a small token of a much larger reality of the underlying superactual free virtuous attitude and possess a lesser reality than the virtue, in another sense, as concrete actions “actualize virtues” or “exercise” them and “put theminto practice,” they have a superior form of reality given the fact that the superactual existence of, for example mercy, in the person has some traits of potential being in contrast to the actually conscious merciful acts and inner stances taken by a person.
Thus while we do not live our love or attitudes such as justice or love of truth all the time, we can actually and consciously live them at any time. This actually taking a virtuous attitude is a much richer form of a free act than the pushing a button, not only because in the latter case the real action is as it were performed by a machine and our act very modestly and externally linked with it (which is not the case in the “untechnicized” “natural free action” of, for example, jumping into the water and rescuing a drowning child), but also because this action touches only what we might call a second and secondary dimension of free will: the initiating an action, the commanding freely certain physical movements through which we realize a given state of affairs, whereas in a virtue or inner act of searching the truth or of experiencing gratitude or thanking a person, we are faced with the deeper “first dimension” of freedom that unfolds between a subject and an object: it is a free response directed in a meaningful way at an object or person.
Moreover, in order that the action of the man who just has pushed the button that led to pulling out Florencio Ávalos, be a free act in a meaningful way and not just an arbitrary and senseless act, such as the arbitrary bodily movements Libet tested, there must be a free response, a free yes or no towards something endowed with a value or disvalue, that underlies the free action. Virtues constitute a profound part of this deeper sphere of free acts. A virtue of justice, honesty or mercy does not just come into and go out of being like the action of pushing the button and thereby sending the capsule up, but it exists at a deeper and more lasting level in the life of a person; it does not merely retain its validity but also preserves its real existence in the person, and is both itself free, grows out of many free actions and gives rise to consciously performed inner responses, to free words of ‘yes’ or of ‘no’ spoken to things and persons, which free acts in their turn strengthen and deepen the virtue.
2.  Your second question relates to feelings or passions such as jealousy or love which have more the character of affective experiences or feelings that do not stand in our power. Thus how would we say that Othello is responsible for his jealousy? Here we would have to consider many things: how there is an indirect influence of freedom on feelings of jealousy that leads to his jealousy, for example his lack of trust in his wife and his woefully uncritical trust in Jago and belief of his intrigues and lies. We would have to consider next how from jealousy many free actions flow for which (jealous actions) Othello has full and direct responsibility such as hitting and then murdering his wife, arranging the (failing) murder of Cassio, etc.  Most importantly, we would have to see how the deepest dimensions of human freedom lie in a kind of “cooperative freedom” with gifts such as emotions of gratitude, love or repentance. While these, analogous to graces, are not within our free power to realize, once they are given us they do not need to stay outside our free center but can be sanctioned and integrated in our free life. On the opposite side, such destructive passions as jealousy and hatred can and ought to be freely disavowed and if they are in this way “decapitated” by our free will, even if they continue to be felt, they will lose their full power over us and their silent connection with the our moral identity and with our selves.
But while measured with the infinite sea of intelligible truths and distinctions that would have to be pointed out, my response is all too brief, it is according to ordinary person’s feelings impressions far too long and thus has to be ended here.

Stay informed

Latest comments

  • Re: The Weary World Rejoices
  • By: Gary Gibson
  • Re: Assessment Run Amok
  • By: Devra Torres
  • Re: Assessment Run Amok
  • By: deb
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Gary Gibson
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Katie van Schaijik
  • Re: Some power struggles are good and necessary
  • By: Rhett Segall
  • Re: Cutting ties
  • By: Leonie
  • Re: Cutting ties
  • By: Leonie

Latest active posts

Reading circles