• Kitteridge on Ingersoll on Free Will

    Thanks to Julian Haydon for sending me this. Food for thought – enjoy.

    Ingersoll on Free Will (Condensed)

    By Herman Kitteridge (Friend and Biographer)

    In refutation of the argument for “free moral agency,” Ingersoll once used the following illustration, — itself an argument as clear as it is unanswerable: —

    “It is insisted that man is free, and is responsible, because he knows right from wrong. But the compass does not navigate the ship; neither does it in any way, of itself, determine the direction that is taken. When wind and waves are too powerful, the compass is of no importance. The pilot may read it correctly, and may know the direction the ship ought to take, but the compass is not a force. So men, blown by the tempests of passion, may have the intellectual conviction that they should go another way; but of what use, of what force, is the conviction?”

    He believed in nature — that this universe of substance and energy — indestructible, uncreated, eternal — infinite in both time and space — this universe of which humanity is a part — is all there is.

    . . . that by no possibility could even a single infinitesimal atom have been non-existent or otherwise than as it is; that, from this infinitesimal atom to the largest planet, every part of the universe, including, of course, all sentient beings, is in the grasp of immutable force; that every atom, itself a necessity, constantly and necessarily acts upon, and is constantly and necessarily acted upon by, every other atom.

    . . . that precisely the same is true of every aggregation of atoms — of every man — that it is true of the human brain. The fact that the brain was apparently distinguished from all other masses of matter, by the possession of what is called consciousness, did not alter the case.

    The circumstance that the brain could cognize its being acted upon, and its own action, was of no moment. The cognizing faculty was not itself a potency behind the phenomena cognized: it was an impotent, if deeply interested, witness on this side of the phenomena. It was not as the sunlight that made the coal, as the coal itself burning under the boiler, as the steam moving the pistons, nor even as the engineer in the cab, pulling the throttle: it was as the man who stands beside the track and watches the train go by.

    “All that has been possible has happened, all that is possible is happening, and all that will be possible will happen.”

    In his opinion, all alleged acts of “willing,” or volition, amount, on analysis, to no more than this: consciousness of agreeable action. The real cause of the “willing,” or volition, — the vis a tergo [a pushing force] of the action, — instead of being our servant, was our master; and “free will” and “free moral agency” were simply expressions of philosophical and theological ignorance.

    “We are beginning to find that there is no effect without a cause, and that the conduct of individuals is not an exception to this law. Every hope, every fear, every dream, every virtue, every crime, has behind it an efficient cause. Men do neither right nor wrong by chance. . .

    “. . . Believing as I do that all persons act as they must, it makes not the slightest difference whether the person so acting is what we call inebriated, or sane, or insane — he acts as he must.”

    It was perfectly plain to him that A, having a certain brain, and being placed in a certain environment, would necessarily act in a certain way; that B, in precisely the same environment, would necessarily act in another way; and that either A or B, in a different environment, would necessarily act in still other ways. Whether their acts might be good or bad, they would be as necessary as any other phenomena in nature — as absolutely necessary and inevitable as the reflection of light from an opaque body — the form of a snowflake — the motions of a planet.

    . . . contrary to the wholly assumptive teachings of philosophers and theologians, nature was without design, object, or purpose — because she was deaf, dumb, and blind with reference to man.

    Category: Free Will and Determinism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce