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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

(2) The facts of the case

page 45

(2) The facts of the case

What are the facts that lead the determinist to think our free acts are not free? Psychological explanations, the hypnotist's powers, and in general the understanding of natural laws that enables scientists to predict events have all in different ways influenced the determinist. Impressed by the fact that some apparently free acts are shown to be due to a hypnotist's suggestion or to a trauma in childhood, he thinks all our acts may be similarly explained. The scientists can accurately predict the movement of the planets so they will one day be able to predict my choices, and if a month ago they could foretell what I shall do today, then I don't decide today what I shall do.

But do any of these new discoveries show that we are more bound than we used to think we were? It is true that since we have learnt about a hypnotist's powers most of us would agree to withdraw our claim that a certain action was free if we learnt that it was done in obedience to a hypnotist's suggestion. I think that even a determinist would agree with us here if we could interest him in what must be to him the less important distinction between not free and very not free actions.

But how do we decide whether or not an act is done in response to the hypnotist's suggestion? For it is not enough that I have been in a hypnotic trance and that the suggestion has been made. If the act that has been suggested is one that is not wildly inconsistent with my usual behaviour and is one for which, if asked, I can give good reasons, then there are no grounds for supposing I did it in response to the hypnotist's suggestion. Even if the act is an unlikely one, I can by giving good reasons for doing it remove the suspicion that I was acting in obedience to the hypnotist. That the hypnotist has power over some people has been established simply because their subjects perform unlikely actions for the doing of which they can give no good reasons.

If then the past is somehow thought of as the great hypnotist, we could only show that we are acting in obedience to its suggestions by the same methods that we show we are acting in obedience to a human hypnotist, and by the test I outlined for this we see that since many of our actions are rational, many of our actions remain free. I think the same point can be made about psychological explanations — my action in buying a house with large rooms is not due to the fright I got at being locked in a tiny cupboard when I was a child unless my action in buying it doesn't fit into a rational pattern. Since we can only identify neurotic acts by contrast with rational acts all our acts can't be neurotic.

The story about feats of prediction seems to me much more complex, and I can here only suggest some approaches to it. First it is not simply the fact that someone can predict what I shall choose to do that shows I am not free. If I am a consistently moral person, or a consistently ambitious person, it may be easy to predict accurately my choices, but I choose freely for all that — or even the more freely for it. I am not as people say at the mercy of my whims'.

The idea that someone's knowing what will happen makes me powerless to alter what will happen, and all its attendant images of time unveiling a future that is already there, needs to be closely examined. The use of the word 'know' feeds this page 46 determinist illusion. No matter how successful a scientist has been in the past I will deny that he knows that x will propose to Mary tomorrow if when tomorrow comes x does not propose. This linguistic fact — ill understood — leads some to think that if the scientist knows that x will propose to Mary tomorrow x must propose tomorrow. This is true only in the sense that if x doesn't propose we will now deny that the scientist knew what we earlier said he knew.

The consequence of man understanding more and more accurately the connections between events at one time and events at a later time is just that man has by this knowledge been able to create his future and not just wait for time to unveil it. Indeed since the existence of causal connections can't be established without experiments we would not be able to predict the future did we not succeed in creating it.