In the fall semester of 2002, as I do at the beginning of every class, I instructed students in World Literature to choose a topic for their term paper. About one fourth of them chose to research war literature. In the six years I had then taught these classes, I rarely had a student choose war literature. I asked them, one by one, “Why?” Most said they were motivated by interest in some variety of patriotic feeling: honor, freedom, love of country and democracy, all culturally conditioned motives. One said he wanted to explore how soldiers are affected by watching killing and killing in combat. One, already destined for ROTC, said he didn’t know why. When asked why he was in ROTC, he said, “For the education.” Not one said he was motivated by anxiety or other feelings about the coming war with
. I wondered, Are they freely, rationally, and consciously choosing their topics? Iraq
A lifelong pacifist, I was at that time an uneasy one for several reasons. I felt that I did not do enough to support my beliefs with action. I wondered what to do about leaders who unleash such terrible violence upon the world as suicide bombing, the holocaust, and the atomic bomb if we don’t fight such acts by force; and, most of all, I wasn’t then entirely persuaded that violence isn’t such a strong part of human nature that pacifism cannot be more than a fringe ideal of human culture. In short, I was uneasy because I thought my pacifist will was weak, mostly confined to my beliefs, a mere phenomenon of consciousness as insubstantial as dreams, all in my head.
That fall I read for the first time Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and was confronted with his extensive and persuasive argument that individual free will plays virtually no role in the fate or actions of human life. He believes that human fate, both personal and public, is predetermined by innumerable forces beyond individual human will and knowledge, such as unconscious human emotions and desires, family and social expectations, history and the pressure of culture. If he were to be writing in today’s scientific climate, he would also likely include genetics in that list.
The final pages of the philosophizing epilogue which follows the dramatic action of War and Peace contain a definitive argument for determinism of individual human destiny. In those pages, Tolstoy explains apparent contradictions in his argument for determinism:
The problem lies in the fact that if we regard man as a subject for observation from whatever point of view—theological, historical, ethical or philosophic—we find the universal law of necessity to which he (like everything else that exists) is subject. But looking upon man from within ourselves—man as the object of our own inner consciousness of self—we feel ourselves to be free.
The final words in the novel are, “It is [. . .] necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognize a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.”
If we do not have free will, how then can we be morally responsible as Tolstoy advocates? Wouldn’t morality itself be as illusory as free will? And if we do not have the free will to choose peaceful alternatives to violence and war in a world that teaches violence as a way of solving problems, how can peace be possible?
There are other perplexing problems that complicate the issue of free will. The evidence so far indicates that Jared Lee Loughner could and did act with a conscious and reasoning free will, made a decision, planned the attack, acquired the weapon. Yet he is held to be not responsible by reason of insanity. Paradoxically, many examples of people who do good things and act with impressive moral responsibility, such as those who attacked Loughner, seem to get there by something innate and wild, something beyond conscious thought and reasoning. Indeed, they often deny they are heroic because they did not think consciously about it. I have myself argued elsewhere that “a wild pulse drives civilization as surely as it drives our human heart and passions, a pulse that beats to the rhythms of weather, trees, the smallest animals, and spiraling galaxies.” At the time I wrote this, I didn’t think of this belief as determinist, but after reading Tolstoy I felt unsure and discovered one more belief to be uneasy about.
In denying free will any meaningful place in human fate—personal or historical—Tolstoy is a determinist in what he sees as an orderly chain of causation. The problem of free will and determinism is an old philosophical one that resists resolution. A variety of philosophers have argued just as persuasively as Tolstoy that free will does exist and can affect human behavior. In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah
gives an intriguing explanation of the contradictions inherent in Tolstoy’s world view: Berlin
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” [. . .] There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, [. . .] and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated, and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way [. . . .] Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second. [. . .] Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.
The primacy of [. . .] private experiences and relationships and virtues presupposes that vision of life, with its sense of personal responsibility, and belief in freedom and the possibility of spontaneous action, to which the best pages of War and Peace are devoted and which is the very illusion to be exorcised, if the truth is to be faced.
This terrible dilemma is never finally resolved. [. . .] Since we are not, in fact, free but could not live without the conviction that we are, what are we to do? Tolstoy arrives at no clear conclusion [. . . .]
In denying free will, Tolstoy is following his hedgehog vision. In insisting on moral responsibility, he is the unconscious fox, for choosing moral responsibility is an act of free will, and it yields a multiplicity of moral truths, beliefs, and faiths that drive actions as diverse as those of Mother Theresa’s or a Muslim suicide bomber’s.
Though Einstein insisted that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” quantum mechanics is discovering a strange universe where events are not ruled by deterministic laws. In “Free Will,” Sidney Calahan sees this brave new world as affirming the reality of mental phenomena:
Science [. . .] brings us face to face with a universe filled with randomness, variability, chaos theory, and odd quantum effects. At the same time, psychology has experienced its own postbehavioral revolutions, “the cognitive revolution” followed by the “consciousness revolution.” People think! People muse, imagine and plan. (Calahan)
And people weigh the pros and cons of alternative actions. They choose, decide, act on their decisions, and monitor consequences. So, in Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes his survival of the Holocaust by mental activity, his exercise of “spiritual freedom” (47) and “will to meaning”:
We watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
Tolstoy himself dramatizes one of the most memorable acts of freedom in all of literature in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A few hours before his death, Ivan questions the meaning his life, and then he grows quiet and listens and discovers the answer: that he has lived his whole life for all the wrong reasons, that love is the answer to the meaning of life. His final acts are mere gestures, but they are gestures of love he appears to freely choose after about the most intense moral and mental deliberation that we are likely ever to make. And Tolstoy justifies the civil disobedient act of refusing military service and payment of taxes for military service. Such a morally responsible act that violates the law must, it seems to me, come from free choice.
But not everyone is able to act on such consciously moral decision making processes as Frankl does, and not everyone who is able to do so does all the time. Ivan Illyich does not do so until he, too, has to face a challenge that his customary responses fail to prepare him for. Even someone as morally righteous as Job fails to become self reflective and self evaluative enough to be truly morally responsible until he is challenged by severe traumatic stress. But we cannot assume that challenge and stress always leads to freedom. We know now that many who are traumatically challenged end up with post traumatic stress syndrome and a weakened will rather than a strengthened one.
The long-standing debate testifies that the existence of free will is hard to prove by empirical methods which depend on experiment and observation of data from the senses or from logic. But as a mental phenomenon, freedom is as real as all the other abstractions that we find difficult to define precisely or locate in empirical reality, such as citizenship, patriotism, belief, faith, peace. We will believe by the evidence of common sense and introspection that such phenomena of consciousness are real and influential realities that affect the course of human life and destiny. Free will is an experience as real as love and rage and dreams.
I have something of a hedgehog in me, and in my hedgehog ideals I would sweep up all the young soldiers headed for
Iraq, Afganistan, or any other war-torn area and carry them away to some safe and remote , but that is just daydream. In my pacifist actions, I remain an uneasy and wary fox, my moral responsibility and free will continuously tested by experience of the world as it is, a reality more like a night dream, an unpredictable and scary place in which we must often navigate in the dark with senses beyond the five available to consciousness. Eden
Even so, I exercise my insubstantial free will, join the small band of peace paraders at the bridge every Sunday, work with the county and state Democratic Committees, write for peace, and teach from the perspective that we have free will—the mental faculty to choose from alternatives, to decide, and to act on a decision—and that, like muscles, that faculty must be exercised to be healthy. We can believe peace is possible because we can imagine the impossible, and we can act on that belief. We can attempt to influence others to believe and act. By that process, our free acts can enter the possibly determinist chain of causation and, possibly, change its direction.
© Alice Bolstridge, 2011.