Chapter 10

AND THUS our conception of free will and necessity is gradually diminished or increased according to the degree of connection with the external world, the degree of remoteness in time, and the degree of dependence on causes which we see in the phenomenon of man’s life that we examine. So that if we examine the case of a man in which the connection with the external world is better known, the interval of time between the examination and the act greater, and the causes of the action easier to comprehend, we form a conception of a greater element of necessity and less free will. If we examine a man in a less close dependence on external conditions, if his action is committed at a moment nearer the present, and the causes leading him to it are beyond our ken, we form a conception of a less element of necessity and a greater element of free will in his action.

But in neither case, however we shift our point of view, however clear we make to ourselves the connection in which the man is placed with the external world, or however fully comprehensible it may appear to us, however long or short a period of time we select, however explicable or unfathomable the causes of the act may be to us, we can never conceive of complete free will, nor of complete necessity in any action.

1. However carefully we imagine a man excluded from the influence of the external world, we can never form a conception of freedom in space. Every act of man’s is inevitably limited by what surrounds him and by his own body. I raise my arm and let it fall. My action seems to me free; but asking myself could I raise my arm in any direction, I see that I moved it in the direction in which there was least hindrance to the action arising from bodies around me or from the construction of my own body. I chose one out of all the possible directions, because in that direction I met with least hindrance. For my action to be entirely free, it would have to meet with no hindrance in any direction. To conceive a man quite free, we have to conceive him outside of space, which is obviously impossible.

2. However near we bring the time of criticism to the time of action, we can never form a conception of freedom in time. For if I examine an act committed a second ago, I must still recognise that it is not free, since the act is irrevocably linked to the moment at which it was committed. Can I lift my arm? I lift it; but I ask myself: Could I not have lifted my arm in that moment of time that has just passed? To convince myself of that, I do not lift my arm the next moment. But I am not abstaining from lifting it that first moment of which I asked myself the question. The time has gone by and to detain it was not in my power, and the hand which I then raised and the air in which I raised it are not the same as the hand I do not raise now or the air in which I do not now raise it. The moment in which the first movement took place is irrevocable, and in that moment I could only perform one action, and whatever movement I had made, that movement could have been the only one. The fact that the following moment I abstained from lifting my arm did not prove that I could have abstained from lifting it. And since my movement could only be one in one moment of time, it could have been no other. To conceive it to oneself as free, one must conceive it in the present on the boundary between the past and the future, that is, outside time, which is impossible.

3. However we increase the degree of difficulty of comprehending the causes of the act, we never reach a conception of complete free will, that is, absolute absence of cause. Though the cause of the expression of will in any act of our own or another’s may be beyond our ken, it is the first impulse of the intellect to presuppose and seek a cause, without which no phenomenon is conceivable. I raise my arm in order to perform an act independent of any cause, but the fact that I want to perform an act independent of any cause is the cause of my action.

But even if by conceiving a man entirely excluded from external influence, and exercising only a momentary act in the present, not called forth by any cause, we were to reduce the element of necessity to an infinitesimal minimum equivalent to nil, we should even then not have reached a conception of complete free will in a man; for a creature, uninfluenced by the external world, outside of time, and independent of cause, is no longer a man.

In the same way we can never conceive a human action subject only to necessity without any element of free will.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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