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The persistence of the problem of freedom.

A CONCERN TO UNDERSTAND THE POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITS of human freedom is as old as philosophy. Yet the question whether and in what sense human beings are free agents still provokes heated debate. Even a century ago, as William James began his discussion of the issue, he wondered, with some bemusement, whether there could possibly be any "juice" left in it! (1) Happily, he concluded that there was still more to be said, but his eloquent defense of free will failed to convince; it became just another chapter in the ongoing and seemingly endless dispute. In the years since, many additional essays and books have been written, covering every aspect and espousing every possible view of the matter. The deep disagreements continue. It is this very phenomenon, the remarkable persistence--and resistance--of the problem of freedom, upon which I wish to reflect. Why is it that after such a long history the same vigorous differences endure? Is it more than mere philosophical partisanship that keeps the discussants talking past one another? I believe that there is more to it. I suspect, much as Kant thought, that there is here a sort of antinomy in which valid but seemingly incompatible intuitions are expressed over and over again. Perhaps by considering this possibility we can, even now, squeeze out a bit more juice.


Let me sketch the context of the debate as I see it. There is a kind of freedom that seems to everyone to be clear and uncontroversial: Political philosophers call it liberty, we can call it freedom of action. To be free in this sense is to be able to do what one wishes to do--within some acceptable range of actions, to be sure--without external (physical or social) interference. It means to be able to carry out one's intentions, to do what one chooses. Actualizing this freedom requires that one have, or develop, the appropriate abilities and resources and, as philosophers of all cultures remind us, it helps to be blessed by nature and to enjoy a benign social order. Politically, the force of this sort of freedom is largely negative--that one not be unwarrantedly prevented by others from acting as one chooses, or compelled to act contrary to what one chooses, that is, against one's will. Philosophers of every sort agree that this kind of freedom is crucially important for healthy political life, even though necessarily limited in certain respects. They agree that while human societies regularly repress appropriate expression of this freedom and may require reform or revolution, nothing in human nature, nothing in principle, prevents us human beings from exercising it as fully as desirable.

There is another, closely related dimension of the freedom of action which seems to be commonly understood and accepted as well--namely, that one be able to do as one chooses not only without external interference, but also without internal (bodily or mental) interference due, perhaps, to some impediment, injury, or illness. Insofar as something in our individual natures or personal histories prevents us from carrying out actions we choose to undertake, or fully to realize them, we know generally what to do. We treat such "unfreedom" as an empirical problem, and we call upon medical or psychological therapies to provide whatever measure of remediation is possible.

We easily recognize that freedom of action, in this twofold, external and internal sense, is necessary in order for a person to take or be assigned responsibility for his specific actions, and that the measure of one's responsibility is proportioned to the extent of one's freedom in these respects.

But there is another kind of freedom, we might call it freedom in action, upon which philosophers have never been able to agree. This is the freedom not only to do what one chooses without external or internal interference, but the freedom to choose in the first place, the freedom to form and resolve to pursue one's own purposes--what the tradition, at least since Augustine, has called the freedom of the will. Assignments of responsibility depend upon this sort of freedom as well. From the earliest theological questioning of the compatibility between God's omnipotence and human freedom to the philosophical debates, from the seventeenth century on, regarding the compatibility between nature's omnipotence and human freedom, the issues have been the same: What does human freedom in action--the freedom to choose--require, and to what extent, if at all, does our situation as human beings, vis-a-vis either God or nature, permit us to exercise it?

One can go a little way with this question by extending the features of freedom of action backward, so to say, into the process of choice in freedom in action. If to be free to act is to be able to act without external or internal interference, then surely one's choosing to act is free only in the absence of comparable interference with the process of choosing.

Aristotle points out the basic formula: An action is voluntary (freely chosen by us) unless (i) it is done under some form of compulsion so that the agent contributes nothing to it, or else (ii) it is done in ignorance. In this way, we tend to see freedom of choice compromised (if not rendered impossible) under a variety of conditions, including some of those we mentioned earlier, in which the process of choice itself is interfered with--for example, under conditions of extreme stress or which provoke great fear or passion; under hypnosis, or under the influence of certain neuroses, habits, or addictions (even though we may have had a part in acquiring them); in case of impaired affective or reasoning capacities; or when the agent lacks particular knowledge of the situation in which he is acting. In such cases, we believe, the agent has been unable to form and project what are (properly) his own purposes.

Casuistry in law and ethics has helped to refine and extend these sorts of excusing conditions, although there are always hard cases. Because we continue to achieve new understanding of mental or social incapacitation, and because new and subtle strategies of (external and internal) control are constantly being discovered, further reflection upon such freedom-compromising conditions is always necessary. Still, the principle behind them seems clear and straightforward enough: A person is free to choose, and hence responsible for what he chooses to do, only insofar as he is in full possession of his powers to understand and assess critically the situation in which he is acting (and, of course, actually does understand and assess that situation), and insofar as he is able effectively to mobilize his understanding and assessment, his feelings and desires, so as to project--that is, to envision and make the effort to realize--some appropriate, specific action on the basis of them. Whatever conditions impair or prevent the exercise of these (several) powers would impair the freedom to choose and also, therefore, the freedom to act.

Thus far, most people--and most philosophers--seem to agree. The question arises when we ask whether, beyond the variety of specific conditions of impairment which we recognize, there might be some more systematic impairment, indeed a total absence, of freedom of choice (and thus of responsibility for action) by virtue of the power of God, or of nature, which constitutes us the way we are and completely determines our purposes and our pursuit of them. Here is the persistent problem of freedom.


To philosophers since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, faced vividly with the new science, the issue became sharply focused: If we grant that human beings are in all respects parts of the natural world and that their behavior is explicable in principle by natural laws (although not all of them are known), we seem to be driven to the conclusion that, even though human beings might have (or might acquire) freedom of action in the sense I have sketched, and even though they are (or could become) free from specific impairments to their freedom in action--to their rational and affective powers to choose--they would still not have genuine or full freedom of choice. This would follow because all the mental powers of human beings and the exercise of these powers, all their understandings and assessments of their situations, all their developed feelings and desires, all their imaginings and projectings and strivings--in short, everything that enters into their processes of choice and decision--would be lawfully determined by their given natures and particular experiential histories, and thus would not ultimately be under their personal control after all.

At this point, fundamental intuitions--certainly those of philosophers--have diverged and continue to diverge. Those philosophers whom we have come to call compatibilists see in such determinism no necessary loss of freedom of choice whatever. From Democritus to Hobbes to Hume to Mill and Schlick to Dennett, they insist that free choice need not be endangered by some ultimate determination of one's powers and their exercise, but rather that free choice actually depends upon such determination, if properly understood. Provided we see that the determination of our choices by natural law and human history involves no sort of compulsion upon us, and is thus fundamentally different from the particular sorts of unfreedom we have earlier recognized; provided further that we do not take this determination in some deflationary or reductionist, materialist sense which would remove the distinctive character of our mental powers entirely; we can then see that such determination precisely makes possible the possession and exercise of the powers which constitute free choice.

The compatibilist intuition is that no matter how these cognitive and affective powers come into our hands, or what it takes in our history and practice to acquire a developed capacity to exercise them, if we have them and actually exercise them--that is, if none of the specific disabling conditions obtain--then we actually have freedom of choice and, with it, free will.

For in this case, however we manage to carry these powers out, by whatever causal processes within us, we end up desiring and projecting what we ourselves believe is an appropriate action in a situation we ourselves have come to understand and assess. Irrespective of the fact that our process of choice is a causally determined process, so that our specific choices are determined to be as they are, this process is constitutive of who we are, and thus we ourselves will have determined what we shall choose. There is no alien causation at work here; there is no unacceptable constraint upon us; it is our nature and history which are being expressed in our powers of choice. Thus, what we choose to do is precisely up to us. We have chosen freely and we are responsible for what we choose.

On the other hand, respond the libertarians, if every step in the process of assessing one's situation, in working out an appropriate response, and in mobilizing oneself to act toward them is causally determined by one's individual nature (genetic capacities and tendencies) together with one's developed character and particular history (experience), then, in Kant's words, this appears to be "no better than the freedom of a turnspit." (2) At the moment of choice there are no alternatives, not even the minimal alternative of saying "No." What will be chosen is what the antecedent causes will have determined shall be chosen. It makes no difference that these causes are, in part, precisely our deliberative and affective processes and, thus, are in us. For since they and their outputs of thoughts and intentions at any moment are all in the past relative to the moment of choice, they are as much beyond our immediate, present control as any more ultimate causes are. Such causes, and indeed any causes, control us from the past. They control us, we do not control them. The choices which result from them are, thus, choices that pass through us, perhaps, but are not up to us in any adequate sense.

The libertarian intuition is that, in order to have genuine freedom of choice, a person must have the power to refuse all that has gone before (crucially, to refuse one's prior habits and desires), to confront an open alternative (perhaps many alternatives) not determined by anything in the past, that is, to initiate a causal series. To make one's own choices, to develop and express one's own character, and to be responsible for one's own actions, it must not only be true that one would have chosen differently at a given time if one had had different information, or had assessed differently in terms of different desires, or had developed different habits and tendencies at the time--all of which would be quite consistent with universal determinism. Beyond this conditional freedom, one must have a categorical freedom to start afresh, completely afresh. On the basis of the same information, assessments, or feelings, and given the same developed habits and tendencies, one must be able, at the moment of choice, to choose otherwise than one would normally (naturally, lawfully) have chosen. If this is to be possible, as the libertarian sees it, our power of free choice must involve some sort of break in the determination of nature and history.


But can this really be understood? It has not proved to be an easy task. Epicurus had to invoke a mysterious swerve of the atoms. Kant, the archetypal modern father of the view, could only understand the power to initiate events as an inexplicable, nontemporal causality of pure reason, completely transcending the determinism of phenomenal nature and history. While William James took a different course and, rejecting determinism in any form, resolutely espoused a chancy universe in which selves could indeed act in nondetermined ways, he too left the precise how of it unclear. Other philosophers, such as Karl Popper, have drawn on the new physics of indeterminacy and have construed the self/mind as a special, nonphysical cause acting on the brain (in some still unexplained manner) so as to modify the range of its physically permissible states. (3) Recently, in the most impressive effort to date, Robert Kane has developed a naturalistic, nondualist, libertarian account which ingeniously incorporates indeterministic elements within the brainy, neurophysical processes that underlie our generating and assessing alternatives, struggling to choose, and sustaining effort in the face of obstacles. (4)

Now the attempt to fashion an adequate articulation of the libertarian insight surely needs to continue as part of the search for a fully acceptable philosophy of mind and behavior. To me, however, the most interesting question is this: Would (could) a more generally adequate explication of the libertarian intuition decisively affect the great debate on freedom? One has to doubt it. For how could such a development possibly change the firm compatibilist conviction that the libertarian intuition is itself fundamentally misguided? Current discussion would suggest that it cannot.

Consider Daniel Dennett, for example, who insists that compatibilism is able to give "the only sort of freedom worth wanting." (5) He argues that compatibilism can well justify the sense of human dignity, rooted as it is in the capacities for self-control and for initiating and taking responsibility for our intentions and actions. In response, a libertarian like Robert Kane counters that human beings aspire to a yet greater dignity, an ultimate responsibility for their purposes and actions which only incompatibilism, one involving undetermined initiating causes, can sustain. (6) But it seems clear that on a Dennettesque view one will claim either to justify every bit as important, even ultimate, a sense of human responsibility in a compatibilist way as Kane might wish on his, or else that ultimate responsibility has been defined in an unreasonable way and the question simply begged. Each player will continue to defend his preferred intuition--which, unsurprisingly, coincides with his conviction about the freedom that is worth wanting. Both of the conflicting intuitions seem so compelling, indeed, that some other philosophers--John Searle, for instance--just confess that we cannot give up either one and that the problem remains as insoluble as ever. (7)

The impasse seems complete. Given the compatibilist's intuition, the possible existence of breaks in causal determinism is strictly beside the point. The compatibilist agrees that freedom and responsibility depend upon a person's being the initiating cause of his choices and actions. Yet, he argues, this does not require that there are no further causes in turn, both in the remoter past and, internally, in the process of choice. For the compatibilist the issue is not whether one's choices are causally determined as such, but rather how they are caused--whether or not they are caused by the person's own (normal and informed) processes of thoughtful assessment (or would have been, had time and occasion permitted) and, thus, whether or not they express (in some significant manner) the person's own developed character and values. On this view, what freedom requires is personal authorship of choice and action, identification with them. This is the requisite sense of a person's being their initiating cause. If there are natural and historical contingencies, or if there are undetermined elements in the processes of deliberation and choice, as perhaps there are, so be it. The existence of freedom need in no way be affected, although a choice which is largely the outcome of such factors would risk being no choice at all. The point is that whatever the chancy factors may be, whether one's choice is a free one depends entirely upon whether and how one (causally) affects these factors and makes them one's own.

The libertarian, of course, objects that this compatibilist intuition, in its turn, is misguided: So long as the human agent is simply a part of the chain of causes and effects, the agent cannot in the full and proper sense, be the initiating cause of his choices and actions. One's choices and actions cannot fully be one's own if one does not, in some respect or other, confront real (and rationally compelling) alternatives that require, in the process of choice and action, that one initiate a new causal sequence, with the result that one's choice has no further explanation beyond itself. Apart from this, one simply transmits effects. One does not choose or act at all; one undergoes. As a libertarian sees it, no matter how information is processed or one's desires are modified, unless a person has the power to evolve and incorporate fresh alternatives, to invent fresh values, at the limit to resist all of the natural and historical tendencies up to the moment of choice, a person is not fully the author of his actions.

It seems that, in this way, our partisans legitimately can and indeed must remain faithful to their respective insights, and that the dispute between them is doomed to continue unabated.


Is there any way to move beyond this stalemate? I deeply hope so. If we are to find it, though, I believe we will need to begin by thinking our way back into its historical genesis. We have to meditate on the fact that the philosophical problem of freedom and determinism, as we now know it, did not arise within the Aristotelian worldview, but only after this metaphysical framework was displaced. No doubt this was in good measure because Aristotle understood natural laws to operate only generally and for the most part. The issue of universal causal determinism was not forced upon him. More important, however, was his understanding of causality itself, which he saw, not primarily as a power exerted from without, but one located within individual beings acting.

To be sure, for Aristotle beings are conditioned in their acting by certain factors (including chance factors)--by particular materials and processes within and by the actions of other beings from without--but never simply or directly so. Through their own self-activity, as they realize their own forms and ends, individual beings respond to these other factors in a time, place, and manner appropriate to being the sort of individual beings they are--and so, of course, do human beings.

In such a world, it is quite proper for a human being to deliberate, choose, and act under normal circumstances, without any fear of external or internal compulsion or control, and with the sense that his choices are self-initiated. A person's choices are seen to be conditioned by various factors in the external situation and within the person's process of choice itself--by the interplay of reason and desire, as Aristotle would have said. Yet precisely because these are factors within the person's acting as a whole, as an individual being, these choices would ultimately be understood to be determined by that person. Any rational choice (unless clearly compelled by someone else or done in ignorance) would be a free choice, up to the agent, properly caused, authored, and owned by him.

This entire framework becomes changed after the seventeenth century. The problem of freedom, in the modern sense, arose when we began to construe the natural world (and later, human history) in terms which flatten out the varied natures of beings, times, and causal conditions which Aristotle recognized, terms which abandon his view of causation as a process through which beings actualize themselves by appropriating varied conditions and responding to them. Taught by Hobbes, Hume, and Kant, we began to envision the natural world (and later, human history) as a system of interacting, typically microphysical entities, within a unitary and homogeneous time-space, in which causation means the lawful determination of factors in the state of such a system at one time by factors in a preceding state--simply a uniform, linear relation among events. On this sort of metaphysics, it now seems clear, the kind of dialectic we have been discussing between the compatibilist and the libertarian virtually has to arise.

For, barring Kant's extraordinary appeal to a view of causation which transcends the natural world, and holding that human choices are natural events like any others, one has only two alternatives: These choices are either themselves caused or they are not. If they are, one can still affirm that however one's choices are more ultimately caused, one has, precisely within one's normal (and causally determined) rational processes, the crucial proximate causes of those choices and, thus, that one has initiated them and is responsible for them in a crucially important sense (if not in every sense). This is the compatibilist position.

But, of course, as we saw, it is essentially unstable. In the new dispensation, proximate causes are not absolutely initiating causes; they are only transitional causes. Despite protestations, with the disappearance of any tenable notion of a being (a self) acting as a whole to make these conditioning causes his own, thus bringing the quest for a cause to an end, the compatibilist is caught trying to maintain the Aristotelian notion of self-causation without the conceptual resources to back it up. This is what Kant saw so clearly and saw to be a miserable subterfuge, and it is what motivates the libertarian alternative.

Libertarians, it turns out, are in no better shape. Again, barring Kant's own solution, libertarians must affirm some more ultimate initiating cause, also within the natural process of choice. This can only be interpreted, however, as occurring thanks to some sort of break in causal determinism which libertarians are not in a position to describe as an act of the self as a whole either. Such an initiating is necessarily a (partially) random one, a sportive internal event in the process of choice or action--what James called chance and those using the new physics an indeterminate quantum event. It has to depend for its relevance and effectiveness, for its being mine, upon other processes in the agent, virtually requiring to be saved by compatibilist considerations! It cannot constitute a genuine action of the agent either. Thus, the libertarian position is unstable too.


If this reflection rings true, it suggests the possibility that it is the framework concepts in our current metaphysics that are used to develop both the compatibilist and libertarian intuitions, and not necessarily the intuitions themselves, which force the impasse between them. As we might have supposed, the most fundamental issues of being, cause, temporality, and action are at stake. It is worth exploring the possibility that something resembling the earlier Aristotelian understanding of these matters might validly be restored.

Both of our conflicting intuitions seem to draw upon a common, underlying quasi-Aristotelian principle: As we saw, both the compatibilist and libertarian hold that a person is fully free only insofar as he can, in some fundamental sense, be taken to be the initiator of what he does. In Aristotelian terms: He is free only if, through the exercise of his cognitive and affective powers, he chooses and acts as a self-causing and self-actualizing agent. The language of causal determinism in the modern sense makes it virtually impossible to express this common content, however. We no longer understand self or agent causation. (8) Instead, in order to account for freedom, we are asked to decide between a view that places some causally undetermined event or process somewhere within the self and one that refuses to do so. All the while, this is not the real issue.

The real issue for freedom is to understand what constitutes an individual, personal self--what developed capacities a person needs to have, and how a person has to learn, think, and act in interplay with the things and other persons that situate him, in order for us to consider that person a personal self. How does the psycho-physical organism that one is construct and actualize itself as a self developing over time, expressing and critically shaping its distinctive, identity-constituting values as it goes? How much coherence is possible or desirable? How do varying cultural expectations and the ways we talk about ourselves, together with given biological capacities, affect the formation (the shape and the content) of the self? How are personal selves nourished and endangered, how do they succeed and fail, how do we know about them and deceive ourselves about them too?

If we could make headway in understanding the personal self in such respects, we might then be able to understand how a person can both be part of a universal microcausal process, understood in the modern sense, and also be self-causing in something like Aristotle's sense--an initiating cause of its own choices and actions. We might then see how to bring both the libertarian and compatibilist intuitions about freedom together.


Of course, this is an immense order, needing long-term, elaborate, and self-critical philosophical and scientific development. From the very shape of the issue as we have construed it, however, certain prolegomena do seem to follow. In this spirit, let me describe some characteristic features which appear to be bound up with our shared experience of personal agency and which would be required for us to consider a person to be a personal self, a self-causing, self-actualizing agent, for whom some comprehensively adequate account of human freedom might be developed.

1. A person becomes a personal self insofar as he comes to be an independent and integral individual in action. Human beings are first psycho-physical organisms, and the human self is an embodied self in the midst of other bodily beings. To be a personal self, though, it must come to be able to act as a whole, expressing its individuating goals and values. To be such a self, acting out of itself as a whole, a personal self must be so organized internally, and so distinct from the other beings around it, that influences upon it from without do not (normally) elicit responses in a merely reactive way, a way which simply transmits the effects of those external influences without significantly affecting the outcome. This requirement of independence as an organized individual is critical for any notion of self-causation and, hence, for freedom.

Reflex response, for example, is not a response to external stimuli by a personal self functioning as an organized individual under normal circumstances--although reflexes are, indeed, highly useful mechanisms of behavior, embedded within the individual by nature or culture, and available to elicit responses under special (perhaps immediately threatening) conditions. Insofar as causality may be understood simply to be a linear relationship among factors in events, unaffected by the individuality of the beings involved, it is necessary to say that a person acting out of himself, as a self, is not involved in causal relations with its environment! This is true, even though, at the same time, it may be that this linear model applies under special circumstances--those consisting of part-reactions between selected external factors and certain of the individual person's (relatively) isolated subsystems--just the sort of circumstances, for example, under which behavior is studied and reflexes are elicited in the laboratory. One is not acting as a personal self to the extent that physical (or for that matter, social) causalities outside the self directly dominate what he does.

Similarly, acting as a personal self requires that isolated, internal causalities not dominate what one does either. Particular mental and physical conditions within an individual do not, in normal circumstances, elicit merely reactive, unmediated responses, but are processed through and express the developed values of the whole person. Without this integral response, instead of the actions of a self, we would have a sort of pathology--a fracturing of true action in which relatively independent mechanisms within the embodied self are called into play.

The normally functioning personal self, on the other hand, should be thought of as a psycho-physical whole, a (largely if never completely) unified process of activity, all of whose subprocesses modify one another in some measure--one in which all mental and physical states are interconnected, all mental states in some measure physically embodied, and all bodily states in some measure psychically significant and expressive. Thus, whatever physical or mental occurrences take place in one region of an embodied self would be expected to have resonances in, and would themselves be informed by, what takes place elsewhere. The values that come to constitute a personal self will be expressed in every word and gesture, and will in turn be modified by them.

2. A person constitutes himself as a personal self in interplay with other beings. The independence and individuality of the embodied self is a relational achievement, a precarious acquisition over time, not an absolute possession. There is necessarily a reciprocal interweaving between self and world. In this way, to be a personal self, to be an independent and integral individual self, is precisely not to be something in itself, fixed and changeless. Instead, as Heidegger shows, it is to be in concerned relations with other selves and other things. When we experience ourselves as embodied selves, as self-causing, personal beings among other beings, we neither experience ourselves as mere passive resultants of external activity upon us--although there is crucially a passivity in everything we do--nor as sheerly autonomous in our own activity with things--although there is an activity in everything we undergo as well. We experience ourselves, to use Merleau-Ponty's term, as "field beings," as constantly bringing out of our interplay with everything around us an individual and distinctive set of commitments, our personal way of orienting to the world.

We can see the personal self, then, as a structured constellation of thus far developed ways of dealing with other people and with things. It is rooted in given biological tendencies and capacities, further structured through linguistic and other cultural forms of interpretation, and instituted--through responses to situation after situation and through the stories we tell about ourselves--into a range of habits and skills, of formative beliefs and desires, of commitments and hopes and fears, all expressing some not-well-defined, but recognizable, individual style of thought and action. In short, one's personal self is not a thing, but a kind of evolving normative reality, a complex set of operative values, not necessarily explicit and certainly not finished, an individual character or personality out of which one encounters and responds to things.

Specific choices and actions take their significance from this context of developing self-constitution. We may be able to make sense of the typical compatibilist-libertarian debate in terms of it as well. For the intuitions of both parties have to be saved in some way: A choice (or action) is ours, one we have ourselves initiated in the proper sense, only if we confront real alternatives and, thus, as the libertarian urges, only if we bring into being something genuinely new. Yet it is also ours, as the compatibilist insists, only if this choice (action) is not simply a matter of chance, not arbitrary, but actually expresses who we are. We can see how both of these requirements hold if we reflect upon our experience of the process by which the self changes and grows in interplay with events. In this process, as one's individual character and personal style evolve, it turns out that both libertarian novelty and compatibilist continuity are essentially present.

Imagine a certain executive who has developed a strong need to achieve, to be seen as first in everything. If he confronts a situation in which he cannot satisfy this desire without hurting someone he loves, he will, explicitly or not, make a choice as to what to do. There are many ways to respond. He might ride roughshod over his friend, thus reinforcing his ambition and redefining his friendship; on the other hand, he might redefine his ambition and newly enhance his friendship; or he might avoid confrontation entirely, thus defining another feature of his personal style. The possibilities are legion, but as Sartre might say, nothing can conclusively tell him what to do or what he will do. Even should he be totally clear in his resolve, he might fail to follow through.

The libertarian is partially right here: Motives and reasons are always at hand, but they are in the past, they do nothing. They incline, but they do not compel. They conflict, they must be selectively taken up and given the power that they will have through the present choice the executive makes. He does confront real alternative possibilities; he must invent; his actual choice will make a difference. It will make a difference in what he does and who he is.

But the compatibilist is partially right too: No choice is unmotivated. The executive must take account of the values and commitments he has thus far developed; they orient his encounter with the situation and define the issues. He cannot abandon one motivating factor without drawing upon another. No matter what he chooses (and does), what he will have done is to define further those commitments and values in some way, refining some, modifying others, perhaps significantly altering or negating still others. The likelihood is very great that what he chooses to do will still be recognizably his choice, a choice in character. This is just the way one's orientation to the world evolves--by expressing antecedent, thus far developed possibilities, perhaps ones not hitherto prominent, yet always expressing them in new ways. We do change, but we do not, without long preparation, become persons very different from those we have been.

3. Thus, a personal self inhabits time in a distinctive way. This is perhaps the most fundamental condition under which a personal self can be a personal self: Not only must one be an integral individual in one's way of being independent of, yet necessarily in interplay with, other beings around one, but one must also be independent of one's past (and future), and yet necessarily in interplay with it (them). There must be a thickness in the temporality of a self. A self must bind time in such a way that both past and future are really related in it. This, as we just saw, is what the growth of one's distinctive character as a self involves--a temporal process in which, through one's present choices (and actions), one becomes oneself by rooting oneself in an accomplished but still effective past and projecting oneself toward a possible but realizable future. To be an individual self is necessarily to be temporal (as well as embodied), but a self is not simply carried along by time; it constitutes its time. It must actively live its time, it must temporalize itself. It is its temporality.

Aristotle understood this, but early modern philosophy, pursuing its mathematizing vision of things, repressed it, with predictable consequences. The antinomy of freedom depends, as Kant saw, upon a view of time which separates it from its variable contents (from the activities of particular, existing beings), deprives it of real thickness, and dissolves it into a series of externally related moments. On this view, actions become simply momentary events in time and initiating has either to be seen as taking place at a moment, through a break in the temporal order, or not at all.

Another alternative now seems more plausible: We could recognize the fact that, however useful the mathematical analysis of linear, momentary time may be, and however well it may fit the behavior of certain carefully circumscribed physical systems (where, of course, it is also limited), it is a severe abstraction from the way in which organized beings, and centrally human selves, actually exist through time. To the extent that they are organized individuals in active interplay with their environments over time, beings exist in the whole of their time. An individual being's past, as well as its future, are inseparable from, while being transformed in, its present activity. Because this is so for human beings, the causally effective meaning of what we have been and done--as well as what we will be and do--is, in this way, in some measure, always within our present control. This is what being a self-causing, self-actualizing, personal self ultimately requires. (9)

The idea that human beings--even most, and perhaps all beings--temporalize themselves in this integral way has been a theme of much of contemporary metaphysics, in Bergson, Whitehead, Dewey, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. On this view, humanly experienced temporality is a clue to temporality in general. On this view, individual beings, of whatever stripe, do not just last in time as in some container. They do not merely stay or persist. Instead, they are to be seen as historical activities, constantly at work reconstituting themselves in and through time. Temporality exists only in and through this field of interactive, historical individuals. These individuals exist only as they enact themselves in time, taking up their past while projecting their futures.

In this way, each individual being is seen to be under a kind of necessity--it must take up unfinished projects from its past; and it has a kind of freedom--it must transform them, at least in some way, however modestly, as it projects itself, in each flesh situation, toward future possibilities. As such, because of the very way individual beings are in time, causal necessity is contingent and, somewhat as Hume insisted, the lawfulness of beings is seen to be (simply) a matter of their persistent, empirical habits of activity. Their behavior, even when regular and reliable, is always going to be variable to some extent.

Now I do not presume that this metaphysical standpoint is uncontroversial; it faces difficulties of its own. Yet if it is as promising as it seems to be, then the problem of understanding the meaning of necessity and freedom in human life would fall nicely into place: Beings vary in their natures. Some, such as human beings, tend to have a much greater range of activity, of past projects and future possibilities, and have capacities for much more sensitive assessments and creative responses to their situations than do others. Human beings bind time more flexibly. They achieve far greater variety and individuality in their self-constitution than do maple trees or monkeys. In an obvious sense, human beings are fleer than they (and fleer to fail as well), and among human beings, freedom will also vary in character and extent. There are, in short, degrees and manners of freedom characteristic of differing beings and their differing circumstances.

From this perspective, then, freedom requires that determination in general be understood differently--as dependent for its behavioral import on the way individual beings take up the implications of their past and, in light of their present, situated projects, render those implications effective. Every being is subject to its past in this way. Human beings only differ from others in carrying out this process in an especially self-conscious, socially responsive, and innovative manner. The notion that human beings must be thought to be radically different from other beings, to transcend the natural world in some sense, or that freely initiated human choices require a moment in time in which there is a break in natural determination would, on this understanding of things, be as unnecessary as it is impossible.


There are, nonetheless, various ways in which human choices, as well as the careers of other beings, are affected that seem properly to be said to be undetermined. With our (all too brief) reflection on personal selfhood in mind, however, I believe we may now be able to assess the role, for human freedom, of the inclusion of such factors among the determinants of choice (or action). Many physical and biological processes involve indeterminate, statistically determinate, or chaotic factors. A number of scientists and philosophers have conjectured that some such processes--for example, statistically unlikely quantum events, possibly amplified by chaotic effects within the network of the nervous system--might function to make possible certain novelties in choice or action at the level of conscious, active life. Libertarians, of course, have hoped to make use of this possibility. It does seem that, as our understanding in the neurosciences grows, one might find such processes useful in explaining how an agent comes up with fresh associations of ideas, is suddenly struck by the force of an argument, shifts attention from one thing to another, imagines entirely new options for action, resolves a seemingly unresolvable conflict of values, exerts or sustains (or fails to sustain) an unexpected effort to attain a goal. (10)

At the same time, we should be clear about the limits of this sort of consideration. The compatibilist insight must have its relevance too: From the standpoint of freedom, any mental contents generated in this chancy way have exactly the same status as those generated in more predictable and lawful ways. If they are to play any role in a person's experience and action, they must be further processed so as to allow the person to make them his own. A new association or line of reasoning, an item freshly attended to, a new option entertained, a resolution of conflicting, incommensurable values, or a surprising burst of energy, all have to acquire a determinate meaning. This can happen only as they are further interpreted and, as one might put it, incorporated, by the agent. Such novelties must be evaluated in terms of the individual's developing self-understanding, his situation, abilities, and skills. They present conditions which must be taken up in freedom, they are problems or data for freedom, but they cannot be said to define freedom.

Human freedom, as we have had to insist, is not a matter of the occurrence or absence in us of some special sort of event; thinking of it in this way forces just the impasse we have sought to avoid. Rather, freedom is the way in which, as integral, individual beings, we live through and enact our temporality as such. It is found in the integral time of experience and action, in the interplay among factors which are given from the past (from our prior commitments and values), assessed in our presently perceived situation, and projected in our future possibilities, an interplay out of which we develop, refine, and redefine who we are. Freedom is not an occasional visitation, but a constitutive reality for us. It is a kind of space for this interplay, a distance or hollow within our space and time, from which we can take perspective on our space and time without being simply caught up in them, and which permits us to respond with sensitivity and care.

Somehow a remarkable complex of mental/physical processes (as well, of course, as some remarkable social and educational practices) makes all this possible, and it will be a long time, if ever, before we understand how this is so. We must be open to the combined philosophical, neurological, psychological, and sociological inquiry which will tell us how this comes about. It may well be that certain neural novelty generators, such as those we have mentioned, will turn out to be conditions without which individuals would not possess the cognitive and affective powers needed for the self-temporalizing interplay that is human freedom. Moreover, a better understanding of these unusual processes might enable us to explain how some persons can be enormously more creative and resourceful than others in exercising these powers and, thus, in realizing their freedom. This would constitute a remarkable advance, but it would not give the libertarian any more comfort than the compatibilist; for what we would have, if we got it, would be a lawful connection between the existence of such processes (and many others, more predictable, with them) and our possessing these powers, an outcome perfectly conformable to the compatibilist's as well as the libertarian's expectations.

We have to recognize that, whatever form it takes, this sort of microexplanation cannot, by itself, constitute an understanding of freedom, for it is the experience of freedom in choice and action that guides the very search for this sort of microexplanation and makes it understandable. My argument in this essay has been that, if we get our intuitions clear--if we can, as I have suggested, bring together the insights of both compatibilists and libertarians--then, however the further elaboration of conditions of possibility turns out, if we have remained faithful to the experience of freedom, we will not have a victory for one or the other, but a more comprehensive and comprehensible outcome than we could have expected from either standpoint by itself.

Vanderbilt University

(1) William James, "The Dilemma of Determinism," in Essays in Pragmatism (New York: Hafner Press, 1948), 37.

(2) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1956), 100-1.

(3) Karl Popper, "Of Clouds and Clocks," in Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972). See also, Arthur H. Compton, The Freedom of Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935).

(4) Robert Kane, Freedom and Values (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), and The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). These remarkable books have greatly influenced my thinking and have, in part, provoked the present analysis.

(5) Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984).

(6) Kane, Significance, chaps. 5 and 6. Toward the close of this discussion, Kane anticipates the inevitability of the dialectic I am concerned about.

(7) John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), chap. 6. Recently, Searle has concluded that the solution lies in pursuing the notion of a distinctive causality in human action that does not manifest causally sufficient conditions over time (Rationality in Action [Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001], chap. 9). Later in this essay, I suggest a similar view of human temporality in action.

(8) Roderick Chisholm sought valiantly to restore this concept, but he could not convince his readers that its meaning was either clear in itself or consistent with the need to be able to apply to our actions, or their subtending conditions, the more common concept of Humean or transeunt causation as well. See Roderick Chisholm, Person and Object (Lasalle, Ill.: Open Court Press, 1976). In the account that follows, I essentially take Chisholm's view, but try to elucidate the manner in which personal agents may be said to cause their own actions without appealing to "agent-causation" as a special concept.

(9) For an account of what this might mean for the sciences of human behavior, see my "Human Science, Human Action, and Human Nature," Tulane Studies in Philosophy: Studies in Action Theory 28 (1979): 39-61.

(10) As I noted earlier, Robert Kane makes very suggestive use of such indeterminist mechanisms in the brain in his naturalistic account of libertarian freedom.

Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy, Furman Hall Room 111, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37240-0001.
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Author:Compton, John J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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