Why Freedom matters – in Praise of William James

Philosophy is the art of asking old questions in a new way. Even if everyone is certain that the right solutions to existing problems have once and for all been found, there is always a rebel who discovers the hidden gap in the densely woven web of supposed certainties. He pulls and tears until, all of a sudden, a crack widely opens that tears those finished answers apart. This is no small endeavor. Thomas S. Kuhn has vividly demonstrated how difficult it may be even in the exact natural sciences to seriously shake ready-made theories once they coalesce into what he calls “paradigms”. A whole phalanx of academic Guardians of the Holy Grail is likely to fiercely attack – or more often simply ignore – any rebel.

This is most effectively done in the way described by William James more than a hundred years ago with regard to German academic life. There, he wrote, “the forms are so professionalized that anybody who has gained a teaching chair and written a book, however distorted and excentric, has the legal right to figure forever in the history of the subject like a fly in amber. All later comers have the duty of quoting him and measuring their opinions with his opinion. Such are the rules of the professorial game – they think and write from each other and for each other and at each other exclusively.”

What James said about Germany at the end of the nineteenth century may be applied to academic philosophers at the present time. If the “Grande Dame” has turned into a „Living Zombie“ of vanishing significance to the general public, then this is mainly due to professorial inbreeding complained of by James. Of course, it is very important for a history of philosophy to count all the flies, i.e. all those fleeting ideas, secondary thoughts, side blows or footnotes which experts from A to Z may have uttered at some time of their life. But it remains an open question whether this really serves the purpose of philosophy? After all, philosophy is much more than its own history. In its times of glory, it always endeavored to set itself abovehistory, namely to lift the curtain of petrified convictions or prejudices in order to gain a new view of a new reality.

The confusion of true philosophy with mere philosophical history, where people only write „about each other, for each other and against each other“, is of course essentially due to the fact that the humanities lack that basic yardstick, which so effectively prevents the sciences of nature, to conserve even the most „ludicrous and eccentric“ views like flies in amber. Whether acceleration occurs in free fall or not can be empirically examined, but how can one empirically refute or confirm the philosophical assertion that without any possible exception all events in nature are determined so that we must declare human freedom to be nothing more than a subjective illusion? It is well-known that this conviction is currently enjoying great popularity among neurologists.

This philosophical prejudice – this paradigm to use the term of Thomas S. Kuhn – has dominated the minds of philosophers and serious scientists for almost four hundred years. It continues to do so among neurologist even today, notwithstanding the findings of quantum physics. Those who protest, saying that so many events arise by sheer coincidence, as, for instance, the fact that I yawn while at the same moment the earth is shaken by quakes, are rebuked for their ignorance. They are lectured that once research has discovered and deciphered all laws of nature, chance would no longer exist.

William James commented on this point too in a remarkable way. „A widespread prejudice says that all the sap has long been squeezed out of the discussion about free will, so that today one can at best repeat stale arguments. But that is a glaring misjudgment… I do not know of any object that offers greater possibilities for new thinking.“

This statement was made more than a hundred years ago, but it seems to me that it has lost nothing of its relevance. I would like to illustrate this point by means of the following conversation between a neurologist and a physicist with regard to the problem of freedom.

The neurologist has a definite position. In view of the fact that brain research is already able to correlate measurable neurological processes with certain thought contents, he is convinced that man is a machine and as such has no claim to freedom. A stone falling to the ground can certainly not be described as free – it simply obeys the law of gravity. This would still be true if the stone had a kind of consciousness so that it imagines the fall to the ground to be caused by its own will (see the similar argument of Spinoza).

The physicist shakes his head unable to agree.

Since quantum physics has accepted chance alongside necessity as equal dimensions in nature, physics knows about the limits of human knowledge, as chance represents the absence of all discernible order. Notwithstanding Einstein maintaining the opposite conviction, we no longer doubt that God (or evolution for that matter) actually does play at dice. In addition to the recognizable orderly architecture of nature, he also created its exact opposite, namely chaos that we are unable to describe or define. As a physicist, he must therefore reject determinism as it postulates a world in which there is nothing but order. The neurologist’s claim that man alone should be an exception to this rule is unacceptable when seen from the vantage point of the natural sciences.

The neurologist disregards the physicist’s objection which he holds to be superficial. He says:

That’s right. On the one hand we are dealing with laws, on the other hand with blind chance. But please, you have all but overlooked the most important point. Natural law excludes freedom, but blind chance does so too! A human action cannot be called free if it follows its cause like any necessary effect, but neither can it be said to be free if it is the arbitrary result of blind chance. We, as neurologists, succeeded in probing into the deepest corners of human brains recognizing everywhere both law and chance, but nowhere did we find what people call human freedom. So, please understand, we have no choice but to regard it as an illusion. Every single thought is either the result of neuronal processes determined by natural laws or is subject to chance.

The physicist nods. Then he says with a barely noticeable smile.

I completely agree to your proposition. The thought you have just expressed is the result of law-bound physiological processes. For this reason, you should regard yourself as an unfree automaton that at this very place and moment cannot possibly put forward any other thought than the one you just uttered. But wait, there is, of course, still one more alternative. Your brain may have worked like a roulette spitting that thought out as a product of blind chance. I accept that too, but please, beware of the consequences! In one case as in the other, your claim is worth nothing as it cannot be held to be either true or false being the product of necessity or chance. However, if I remember right, dear colleague, you insisted that I should regard your assertion as perfectly true?

The neurologist takes a breath, his face reddens. You can tell he’s not only aroused, he’s definitely angry.

Dear sir, sir…, he stammers. Then, finally, he exclaims: Dear Mr. Heisenstein. How dare you confuse the proof of truth with the problem of freedom! These two things have nothing in common, they are fundamentally different, belonging to two separate disciplines! Mixing them wantonly up, you make fun of our whole western world view!

But the physicist remains unmoved and insists on his point of view. Consistent thinking, he says stressing every word, includes the readiness to apply a general theory to all individual cases – that is, also to the neurologist himself. And he concludes with a certain aloofness.

If you really insist on determinism, you are undermining the very truth of your science. We are not allowed to stick to logic only in so far as it corroborates our thesis, we cannot send it to hell as soon as it stops to do so!

He then adds a further remark. The view that man may regard himself determined like a machine suffers from a logical self-contradiction, which the mathematician Kurt Gödel had already demonstrated in an alternative but no less cogent manner. No system, Gödel had proved by purely logical means, can fully explain its own premises. This is only possible from a metasystem on a higher-level.

As you may see, dear colleague, we physicists have quietly abandoned the claim to godlike omniscience. It seems to me you neurologists need a little more time, you’re not yet ready.

The neurologist looks contrite, but obviously he’s not prepared to give up yet.

You will not insinuate, he replies, that a person may think or act freely, if all processes we observe in his brain strictly obey the laws of causality?

Of course not, the physicist answers, the real mystery is and remains chance which we will never explain, because every explanation is based on discernible order. However, our brain is not designed to explain chance: the lack of all discernable order. It is there that we have to look for the mystery of freedom.


This conversation proves, how a paradigm hinders thinking to such an extent that it is quite unable to discern its hidden assumptions and prejudices. In order to maintain his conviction, the determinist is forced to impose a strict prohibition on himself and all others: determinism must not be applied to himself, more precisely, to the truthfulness of his own statements as soon as these too are subjected to the deterministic credo. In such a way, prejudices based on faith rather than knowledge are shielded from objections by means of taboos. In this case, the taboo consists in a strict ban on dealing with the question of truth and the problem of freedom in one and the same breath. They are treated as if belonging to two different spheres of reality.

One is reminded of those gone-by times when highly respectable scholars could argue in all seriousness about the question of how many angels could find a place on the tip of a needle. Rebellious thinkers had to enter the scene and question the very existence of angels before the problem finally disappeared to where it belonged: in the curiosity cabinet of collective mental aberrations. A similar fate awaits the determinism of neurologists, even if the paradigm in question is still defended or half-heartedly avoided – for instance by resorting to so-called “soft determinism”. Like in the above example, this may consist in postulating strict determinism for all physiological processes within the brain, while miraculously liberating the scientist who presents the postulate from its strictures so as to save the truth content of his statement. These are, of course, futile maneuvers much like the attempted rescue of the Ptolemaic world view through the invention of ever new epicycles. In its hard as well as in its soft presentation, determinism is logically untenable – irrespective of whether it refers to non-human nature or to man himself. In the above discussion, the physicist demonstrated this point by means of a proof which I call „contradictory“ in chapter IV of my book “Creative Reason – a Synthetic Philosophy of freedom in Nature and Man”, but he could have adduced three more proofs that are equally compelling.

It should be noted that when arguing against the denial of freedom the physicist remained a physicist all the time. In other words, he does not insist on subjective intuition, nor does he refer himself to any higher authority but exclusively relies on the insights of reason. He tries to show that the problem of freedom versus determinism is solvable in a completely rational way, provided that reason does not take refuge behind veils of taboos and dogmas indignantly rejecting basic questions, as did the neurologist.


How do humans guard themselves against their own kind?

The German original „Wie schützt der Mensch sich vor sich selbst“ will be published by Meinhard Miegel.

The question is of actual relevance and it is timeless as well, because it applies to man alone; no other biological species needs to guard itself against its own kind. The survival of species was endangered by predators or by a hostile environment. Man alone among all species has evolved to such an uncanny degree that he now threatens his own survival. How do humans guard themselves against their own kind? weiterlesen

Bertrand Russell’s Fatal Error – how Analytic Philosophy distorts Human Reason

Love for Wisdom (Philosophy) took by no means a bad advice as it embraced the demand of science for truth. Its opposition to religion in the pre-Socratic era, and again at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, emerged from a deep insight. The search for truth is indeed one of the foundations of human knowledge. Bertrand Russell’s Fatal Error – how Analytic Philosophy distorts Human Reason weiterlesen