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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 24a

Free Agency

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Free Agency.

The subject advertised by Mr. S——to be discussed on Sunday, the 21st of June, 1868, was Free Agency; and the writer hereof, having undertaken on the previous Sunday evening to show the absolute incompatibility of Free Agency with Moral Responsibility, read nearly the following words; almost double the usual time having been accorded to him for the purpose, by a stretch of courtesy on the part of Mr. S——and the meeting:—

"For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of hit good pleasure. [Phil. ii. 18]:—

A more emphatic and distinct contradiction than is expressed in this verse, of the whole theory of freewill, can scarcely be conveyed by words. The real responsibility for all human acts good and bad, is here clearly laid upon God. For if it be attempted to evade this conclusion by alleging that the words were addressed to a class or number of persons limited in number and exceptional in virtue;—it is still as obvious that it is thereby implied that others, wanting in that virtue, were so solely for want of the requisite operation of God in them in their original construction if not after. But as Paul, with ordinary theological inconsistency, flatly contradicts here the basis of the Christian and every other religion, and as he constantly furnishes authorities for various Christian sects mutually to refute and condemn each other, I shall turn to the logical aspect of the matter, and be satisfied with showing the radical inconsistency and absurdity of the freewill doctrine in itself.

I believe that to Mr. Buckle belongs the credit of having first indicated the intimate relationship that subsists between the doctrine of freewill, and the superficial notion of chance; and between the doctrine of predestination, and the empirical conviction of the necessary sequence of natural phenomena. Freewill is simply chance personified; and predestination is the personification and deification of causation. Chance and freewill both imply that some events are not the necessary results of their antecedents; that is that they are uncaused. This is of course utterly irreconcileable with the indisputable axiom that every thing must have a cause. Fatalism and predestination on the contrary, both imply that some future event, no matter how presumed or inferred, must happen, whatever may be done to prevent or avert it. This also clearly involves a glaring absurdity; namely, that the present is determined, not by the past, but by the future; the antecedent by its consequent; which is equivalent to reversing the relations of cause and effect as completely as the dogma of freewill ignores or denies them.

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The necessitarian doctrine, on the other hand, assumes no more than facts prove,—that under like conditions, like effects must follow; and that under any given conditions, alternatives are really impossible. It is as absolutely impossible under any given conditions that any other result can follow than that which actually does follow, as that both of two incompatible results can follow.* The necessitarian holds that the future results of present conditions, though necessitated, can only be inferred, in so far as those conditions resemble others previously experienced. Under new conditions, therefore, we cannot predict the results; and the supposed perfect foreknowledge of God which is not pretended to have been acquired by experience, has therefore no cause—no basis, and is merely something magical, and naturally impossible. Were it however real and absolutely certain, the course of events must obviously be so too; all man's actions and thoughts must necessarily be pre-determined also, and man of course could not be responsible for either. Any attempt to hold him responsible would be the depth of injustice. I am to shew that responsibility is as impossible under the freewill theory as under that of predestination.

To enable you to look at the question from a new standpoint, I will ask each of you to imagine himself for once in the position of a creator. This should give every advantage to the theological position, for as a creator you would be likely to exact more than as a creature you might like to concede. But there is also a natural diffidence or reserve experienced in judging of the relations of creatures to a creator when viewed from the standing of the former, which fetters, intimidates, and therefore incapacitates the reason more or less, for impartial judgment. We shall for every reason I think make a fairer estimate of those relations by regarding the subject from the supposed creator's level, or any other rather than from the more common one of the creature. But my arguments against freewill are as strong and valid with respect to any possible creator, and even viewed from the creature's standpoint. It is mere evasion to say we are not, and cannot place ourselves, in a position to judge of our Creator. In one important sense, certainly, we cannot, and do not. If the creator were producible, together with proof that we are his creatures, we should have something tangible to go upon and criticise, though there page 19 might then be really some presumption in doing so. But as it is we have absolutely nothing beyond human ideas of a creator and creations to deal with; and human ideas, are of all things, the most eligible and profitable for human criticism. For thus knowledge is best gained and corrected. It cannot be shewn that we have anything more—any farther basis for the argument—than human ideas; my argument is, in fact, a challenge for the production of anything farther; because, failing its production, the mere assertion upon no other evidence of a creator and a creation, is entirely gratuitous, baseless, and therefore in contempt of veracity.

Well, suppose you have created your creature and endowed him with perfect freewill. Then in whatever circumstances you place your free creature,—on what principle of justice can you possibly blame him for acting in any conceivable manner? The freedom you give him is his entire justification. Destroy That Freedom by ever so slight a tendency or inducement one way or another,—by precept, by command, by promise of reward or threat of punishment,—and however slight the influence so produced, it must necessarily operate and determine, in the absence, as supposed at first, of any counteracting tendency or power. For any power of resisting such influence must have a cause, which by the freedom from predisposition you conferred, you precluded from arising in himself. Every motive tends to determine. Freedom is the absence of determining motive; and therefore every motive, influencing or resisting, must destroy freedom. And every motive, influencing or resisting, must have a cause; and any obstacle to the operation of a good influence sufficient to prevent its dominance, must be a prior, stronger evil tendency; which must result either from a defect in the original constitution or in the materials of which it was formed. But in neither case can the defect be chargeable upon the creature, by any principle of justice; but obviously upon the ignorance, incompetence, or deliberate intention of yourself as creator, in selecting or manipulating your materials. Clearly as creator, you must be responsible for any original tendency in your creature towards good, or towards evil; as well as for the circumstances in which you place him, and also for any susceptibility in him to be influenced by them. If you give him an evil constitution and associations, you can easily predict a corresponding result. Make him good, and he cannot become bad; unless subjected to subsequent influences so bad as to overpower his goodness.

Observe,—that as regards your responsibility, it makes no difference whether you are an omniscient creator or not. If . you are, you are of course the absolute sole cause of the results whatever they may be. But if not, and you in ignorance of possible consequences, take upon yourself to create creatures, you are no less the sole cause of, and therefore quite as much responsible for, all the evil that may ensue.

Now as regards man. He is susceptible to innumerable influences, from, and even before his birth, as to which he has no control, or option whatever, but which absolutely determine his. fate. And observe—that any one of these influences Must Destroy his freedom; for each, when present, Must infallibly sway him entirely, unless counteracted by a stronger one, whencesoever derived.

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It has been, and may be contended, that man's freedom consists in the power of choosing by which of two equal influences he shall be swayed. Allow them to be equal; and if he then choose either, he must do so without any reason, or motive, or cause. If there be a reason, or cause in himself at all, it constitutes necessarily a predisposition, which was excluded by the premisses. But suppose such a power of choice to exist;—is it good or bad? Surely that must depend wholly on the badness or goodness of the being in which it exists; for power is but a latent quality, the activity of which constitutes the being in which it exists, good or bad, according to the results. If this power be indifferent, it can neither be good nor bad; therefore not moral, and responsibility is impossible. If responsibility is, or can be obligatory, freedom frem obligation of whatever kind, must be irresponsibility. A free will then means simply an irresponsible mill, and freedom, is essentially, irresponsibility. But say that the man or his will determines his choice to good or bad. If he be free, surely he is free to choose one as much as the other, and his freedom is his full justification. If not free, surely it must then be because he is subject to some influence either good or bad; but in either case he is only the subject; for anything which excites or influences him to act destroys his freedom. To call a man free, is then simply to call him—not only neither good nor bad, i.e, meritorious or the contrary—but incapable of being either, until he lose that freedom. But we feel and know that men are really and intrinsically good or bad—moral beings in fact; but they are and can be such, in so far only as they are freely susceptible to good or bad influences, and as they are not free to select them.

What does the strikingly pregnant word Character mean? If not the inherent moral constitution of a man which determines the quality of his actions, and in conformity with which he necessarily acts in a way absolutely incompatible with the supposition that he is free to act otherwise? The word character has absolutely no meaning or significance whatever, under any other theory. How could we ever distinguish, and what essential difference would there be, between a good and a bad man, if either were free to be the other? Free, not only to do as he liked, but to like to do good or bad acts, indiscriminately or by chance, or otherwise than as his natural constitution may determine? What is education, business, daily life, argument, but discerning the motives or influences which move other men, and furnishing fresh ones to induce them to act as we desire? And what is our desire? Can we choose our desires? If we could, action would be superfluous. Can we choose not to thirst, when dry? Not to hunger when fasting? Can we, by choosing, be rich or learned, when we are the contrary? Who would not be both, if choosing would do it? And who would not cease to desire, what when unattainable, makes the heart sick to yearn for,—if he could? Can we by choice or at will, Not desire to be rich or wise, when we are satisfied of the solid advantages of riches and wisdom? Can we by choice, be careless of the good opinion of others, and of the advantages of upright conduct, when experience has proved to us their superlative value? Then what merit is there in being virtuous? Can a poor wretch, ignorant of those advantages, choose to be page 21 so wise as to see what his experience never plainly taught him—that honesty is the best policy, and that lying and cheating are a most self-destructive policy? Then how can we justly blame him for dishonesty? Can Mr. S——at will believe in Atheism? He may say that he can, if he likes. But can he like, at will? No more than I can believe in the Bible, which I long tried hard to do. Can either of us, at mill, believe or like, otherwise than as we do believe and like? We can do whatever is is within our power, If We Like and Will; but we have clearly No Choice whatever as to What we shall will or like. Allow the strongest and most universal of reasons to exist—and no one can believe what appears to him, to be untrue, or disbelieve that which appears true. Were Mr. S—to get £10,000 a year for it, he could not believe that I am now standing on my head, nor for ten times that amount can I believe that any proposition which is self-contradictory can be true; or that to evade or shelve the difficulty by calling it a mystery, is not a miserable evasion, and a cowardly abdication of reason, in fact the rankest infidelity! For Consistency is the only means attainable among men whereby they may be saved—from falsehood and error; and nothing can be more radically inconsistent and contradictory than the dogma of freewill, or the best human conception of a Deity. But plainly it would be simply iniquitous to punish or to hold responsible any man for his belief; which must depend upon the amount and nature of the evidence, and the natural capacity for apprehending it, which no one has within his choice; and therefore no one can deserve the slightest credit or discredit, praise or blame, for believing or disbelieving anything whatever.

But morality means manners, not belief; and moral responsibility therefore relates to actions solely, and not opinions. Man is obviously not responsible for the amount of knowledge he possesses, which is the basis of his opinions; for notoriously every man would if he could, know everything. He may take greater or less pains to get knowledge according to the natural strength or weakness of his desire for it, (which he cannot choose); he may apply it to good or to bad purposes, according to the goodness or badness of his natural constitution, and of his education and experience; but nothing is more certain than that he would, if he could, know everything. Man is also morally responsible exactly in proportion to his knowledge, and physically responsible to the extent of his power of action, and of his liability to the consequences of his acts. But his responsibility extends no farther. Were he a free agent, as far as words have any meaning, he could not be responsible at all;—for his acts being on that theory uncaused, or the result of chance, reward and punishment could have no useful, uniform, or certain effect upon him; and responsibility, if nominally supposed, could not be enforced, and therefore could not practically exist. But though reward and punishment on the theory of freewill, are absolutely useless and absurd, on that of necessity their efficacy must be both proper and necessary; and greater or less according to circumstances. Every event being the necessary result of its antecedents, reward and punishment Must affect future events, as part of their antecedents. But if man were free, and his acts not necessary consequences page 22 of their antecedents, reward and punishment would no longer be such, as they would bear no relation to their antecedents or consequences; and for this reason while men believe in freewill, they are and must be deprived of the benefit of much of the salutary effect which reward and punishment would otherwise produce.

Whence then arose this senseless doctrine? Apparently it was an invention of pious intolerance, in order to, provide a reason for hating and persecuting people of a different opinion. Blame is simply the imputation of wickedness, and the expression of hatred and all uncharitableness, for it proceeds upon the gratuitous supposition that under the same conditions we can act otherwise than as we do; but it is entirely inapplicable on the necessitarian principle. Men's actions being necessary effects of causes which they cannot select, all blame and hate are improper, unjust, and pernicious. But the inconsistency, and therefore absurdity of the doctrine of freewill is obvious, as soon as it is perceived to be identical with that of chance; for with as good reason might a man blame a pair of dice, as his neighbour, for acts produced by an illimitable chain of occult causes. But no one is so foolish as to suppose that the sides of dice turn up without adequate causes, though we may be unable to trace the links of the chain; and the causes of man's acts are just so much more difficult to trace, as he is a more complex being than a die. Load the die—weight one side, no matter which, more than the other, and you give a tendency which makes it necessarily preponderate like a motive in a man, and you can foretell the result, as you can a man's act; but only by destroying the so-called freedom of each: which is obviously only imaginary and assumed for convenience in both cases. But theologians arbitrarily isolate man from nature, and gratuitously assert that he is the sole initial cause of his acts; endeavouring by this specious but contradictory device to relieve their imaginary creator from the imputation of causing the evil done by man, whom they still call the work of his hands. They are too blinded by piety and habit to see, that if God be omniscient as they assert, be must have foreknown the evil to be produced by his handiwork; and thus consciously caused it, though being omnipotent, he of course needed not to do so to accomplish any of his purposes. Their own success in governing man is ample proof that through man's ignorance and credulity he is easily influenced to suit their purposes, and that his asserted freedom is wholly powerless to resist.

They have however only removed the difficulty, if at all, a single step; for if it be possible that man's acts are caused by himself, and not by antecedent circumstances entirely beyond his control, most assuredly he is not caused by himself, and (theologians insist, when it seems to suit them, that he was made by God; thus completing the chain of causation and responsibility, which they fancy they can break by merely disconnecting parts of the same proposition. They have thus gratuitously invented an unhappy pretext for introducing into the world all that intolerant hatred, which has deluged it with more spitefulness and blood than any other cause ever did. But on the principle, of the necessity of human actions, all hatred and uncharitable imputation of wickedness would page 23 be abolished. No room would be left for them, for each man being simply a medium for the transmission of communicated force, no one would be blameable. Punishments would still be necessary, and more useful; more effective, because better understood, introducing fresh circumstances to influence men for good; teaching practically to offenders the evil consequences of bad acts; deterring hesitating possible criminals from a career of vice; and protecting the good from the depredations of the bad; in the same way that nature, which never blames, never fails to punish for any disregard of her penalties.

Mr. S——often asserts with the Bible that God is a free being, and at other times, on the same authority, that he is not. He says that it is impossible for God to lie, or sin. If so—if he be incapable of evil, he deserves no credit, and cannot be called virtuous, for doing good. If he were necessarily and uniformly good, though he could not be called free, we should at least know what to expect from him, and what to do to please him. But the assertion of God's freedom is equivalent, as in the case of man, to a denial that he is a moral being, or capable of good or evil—that we can even guess what he might do or require at any moment. Thus, however derogatory to, or irreconcileable with the idea of a God some persons may deem the necessitarian system, the freewill theory is certainly as much, or more so, and destructive of it altogether. For if God be free, his acts must be uncaused, and it must be exactly an equal chance whether any act of his be good or bad. The utter irreconcileability of the doctrine of freewill in man, with that of fore-knowledge in God is so obvious in itself, and has been demonstrated so clearly by Hobbes, Jonathan Edwards, and Dr. Priestley, that it is unnecessary for me to do more here than refer those who fail to recognise it, to those writers.

From some confusion of ideas, or inattention to the subject, necessitarian principles are too commonly regarded as equivalent to fatalism. But they are really as distinct from fatalism as from freewill and chance, which are nearly synonymous. The necessitarian recognises the inevitable operation of every cause or force. The fatalist denies or ignores that of all but those which predominate in his diseased imagination. The necessitarian confesses his ignorance of the future result, but ceases not to endeavor to modify it, confident in the certain effect, more or less, of every attempt to do so. The fatalist on the contrary assumes an imagined future result to be as absolutely certain as the past, while ignorant that the slightest effort of himself or others to effect it, must be followed by necessary, though while future, unknown consequences. Thus while activity is the product of necessitarian principles, apathy or paralysis is the essential condition of the fatalist. The necessitarian finds by experience that like causes are always followed by like effects : that a consequent can have no causal influence over its antecedent; in fact, that causes are antecedent, and effects consequent. The fatalist asserts that the present is governed by the future—the antecedent by the consequent—the cause by the effect; which carried one step farther means that effects cause their causes, and that causes are consequences of their effects! Let not then my necessitarian doctrine be confounded with such a ridiculous absurdity, to which it is so page 24 entirely antagonistic. I may here say that it should be clear that pre-destination, or even only fore-knowledge on the part of God, is and can be nothing more nor less than blind fatalism personified; for both essentially imply that a merely assumed future event must inevitably take place, whatever be done to prevent it; the direct effect of the personification of fatalism as God, being to make it the conscious, and therefore malevolent author of all evil. The blasphemy thus essentially involved in Christian dogmas is commensurate with their inconsistency.

But I think that a little attentive study of physiology furnishes the most concentrated practical proof of the impossibility of freewill. It has been demonstrated by experiment that for every nerve of so-called voluntary motion, there is a distinct corresponding nerve of sensation; and these nerves of sensation form the sufficient media by which motor nerves are brought into a state of activity. External impressions thus form perfectly adequate causes of all nervous action; and to suppose that what is called man's will creates nervous force exclusive of that produced through his nerves of sensation, is to suppose two adequate causes of the same effect; than which nothing could be more absurd.

* For as Hobbes has well proved, any sufficient cause must be also a necessary cause. "I hold that to be a sufficient cause, to which nothing is wanting to the producing of the effect. The same also is a necessary cause. For if it be possible that a sufficient cause shall not bring forth the effect, then there wanteth somewhat which was needful to the producing of it, and so the cause was not sufficient; but if it be impossible that a sufficient cause should not produce the effect, then is a sufficient cause a necessary cause, for that is said to produce an effect necessarily that cannot but produce it. Hence it is manifest that whatsoever is produced, is produced necessarily; for whatsoever is produced hath had a sufficient cause to produce it, or else it had not been; and therefore also, voluntary actions are necessitated. Lastly, that ordinary definition of a free agent, namely, that a free agent is that, which, when all things are present which are needful to produce the effect, can nevertheless not produce it, implies a contradiction, and is nonsense; being as much as to say, the cause may be sufficient, that is to say necessary, and yet the effect shall not follow."—Hobbes' Works, vol. iv., p. 274.