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!