Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 1.Hume’s Problems with Induction

Chapter 6.Freewill

Next, let us consider Hume’s opinions regarding freewill. Given his opinions with regard to the self and to causation, we can with relative ease anticipate the way his thinking will go with regard to human volition and ethics.

Since Hume has denied the self, he cannot be expected to believe in volition in the ordinary sense, i.e. in freedom of the individual soul to will or not-will something irrespective of influences one way or the other. Therefore, one would expect him to opt for some sort of determinism[1]. Although he has denied causation, or our knowledge of it, in the physical realm, this does not logically exclude causation in the “mental” realm, so such determinism would be consistent for him.

Yet, he struggles to salvage for human beings some vestige of volition. We are not in his view mere rubber balls that react to events in wholly predictable ways. We are it seems somewhat free to do what we feel like doing. Our actions are related to our character, desires, passions; it is such distinctive attributes of ours that make these actions our own. We are thus determined by impulses, preferences and emotions – or rather, theyare‘us’, we are their sum total. This is consistent with his view of the self as an aggregate of passing mental phenomena.

This is of course not what we would call free will. It is rather slavery to random passions. Hume admits as much when he says: “Reason is, and ought only to be, slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”[2]. By this he means that, though induction and deduction provide us with information that may affect our actions, they cannot determine it. According to him, only the passions can truly move us; it is ultimately with them that we identify and go.

Now, this tells us a lot about the way Hume’s mind works, and even about the way many other people’s minds work, but it does not accurately reflect the full range of human nature. It may apply to some of the people some of the time, but does not apply to all of the people all of the time. For though it is true that reason does not necessarily affect our actions, it is also true that passions need not do so. Just as the information reason gives us can influence our actions but may well be ignored, i.e. is not determining – so it goes for the passions. We do not have to be slaves of our passions or identified with them; we are in fact distinct from them and able to transcend them.

It is true that many (maybe even most) people are not aware of this freedom of the will, and let their passions rule them. Some people, by the way, are similarly ruled by their reason, i.e. they are tormented by family, social, political or religious obligations, and unable to resist them. But such passivity or dependence is not normal or inevitable; it is a curable sickness of the soul. The passions, like reason, can only really ‘influence’ the soul, not ‘determine’ it – the soul still in all cases has the capacity and the responsibility to choose between them and decide which way to act. This is clear to anyone who practices self-control.

We can with effort learn to rule over our own minds, and indeed such policy is wisdom itself. But this demanding virtue depends on our making a clear distinction between causation (or deterministic causality) and volition (or personal causality), and on our understanding what ‘influence’ means.

A person is said to be influenced by something to act (or not act) in a certain way if the person’s perception or conception of the thing makes acting in that way easier (or harder). Suchfacilitation(or on the contrary, impedance) of the will is never determining: the person remains free not to will in the direction of (or against) the influence; he or she can still go the other way. The potentiality of the will is increased (or decreased), but the person still has the final choice.

Thus, influence is a special sort of conditioning of voluntary action. The action is not caused (in the sense of causation) directly by the event or thing influencing it – but rather, ourawarenessto some degree of that event or thing (be it concrete or abstract) affects us (the doer of the deed), by making such action more or less easy than it otherwise would be. The influential thought pushes us or slows us down, but we still (so long as we have freewill) have to make an effort to actualize anything.

Once we understand the causal relation called influence, we can distance ourselves from our passions and even from our reason, and view them all as mere influential information, to be taken into consideration in motivating or deciding action, but which should never be allowed to usurp the sovereignty of the soul, who ultimately alone commands the will and is responsible for its orientations. But Hume cannot see this, because he is himself still too unconscious and too involved in his passions. Having denied the very existence of a self or person, he naturally misconceives the will as subservient to the passions.

Thus, Hume confuses his personal opinions and behavior with general truths about human nature. Here again, we find him making inaccurate observations and over-generalizing. He does not always realize the hypothetical nature of his propositions, and the need to try to establish them with reference to precise inductive procedures. Since he has misconceived induction to begin with, he has incapacitated himself methodologically.

Philosophers do not have special powers of ‘insight’ into truth, independent of logical scrutiny and correction. They think like everyone else by inductive means, and they can make mistakes like everyone else if they are not careful.

[1]Parenthetically: to his credit, Hume realizes that freewill ought not be identified with mere spontaneous occurrence. Indeterminism, whether in the physical or mental realm, constitutes a determinism of sorts relative to human beings. If things happen to us at random, without any cause, we are subject to them as surely as if they were determinist causal factors. That is, their own lack of causes does not diminish their causal impact on us.

[2]Treatise, Book II, Part III, Sect. iii.

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