Silly question: Are humans free?

No, the question is only stupid because it is thought to be so. Not long ago leading German neurologists like Roth and Singer considered their fellow men expressis verbis naive, if not downright stupid, if they did not want to recognize that from a scientific point of view – man does not possess freedom of will.*1* Their conviction is nothing new. The Babylonians thought that human destiny was completely determined by the stars. Church fathers like Augustin, Luther and Calvin justified their rejection of human freedom with the omniscience of God. To God, the entire future including the thoughts and intentions of men are known since the beginning of creation. Ergo, freedom cannot exist. Philosophers like Democritus, Spinoza, Voltaire, Schopenhauer up to Bertrand Russell also belong to the vocal deniers of freedom. They are opposed by thinkers such as Gottlieb Fichte and Martin Heidegger, who conversely pathetically proclaim freedom. In the middle between these two oppsing camps usually stands the unbiased layman, who has always known to be at the same time free and exposed to multiple constraints. Among the great philosophers who convincingly argued this point of view we find William James, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Popper.*2*

The opposition between these two positions

not only manifests itself in the history of religion and philosophy, it is inherent, as it were, in each of us. When observing other people, we intuitively ask about the motives of their behavior, i.e., about the limits of their freedom and arbitrariness, in order to respond to them in an appropriate way. This is the case with feared adversaries anyway, but even with people we love. The better we know their respective likes and dislikes, the more likely we are to anticipate their reactions, and the less danger there is that there will be friction in dealing with them. In the same way, this object perspective is assumed by a writer of novels who tries to make us understand why his protagonists act just the way they do (he describes the conscious or unconscious compulsions to which their actions obey).

In contrast, we adopt the subject perspective with equal naturalness as soon as we analyze our own personal actions. When spontaneously deciding to make a trip to the Kulm, a nearby mountain, on a beautiful autumn morning – and not, say, two weeks from now – I naturally evaluate this decision as free. It is not forced on me by anyone – not even by my own cherished habits, because I am aware that I can revoke them at any time. Yes, this awareness of one’s own freedom of thought and action goes so far that some people deliberately do the opposite of what others expect of them or even what they expect of themselves. 

This twofold perspective

has its reason in two opposing needs, which are fundamental for every single human being as well as for every society. We only gain security in dealing with nature and with other people if we explore their rules and laws ever deeper and further. With regard to nature, we have succeeded so well that we are now able to retrodict the history of the cosmos back to the Big Bang and to predict it until the sun will have burned its hydrogen fuel. But security has never been the only human need. For the child and every human being who has retained his natural curiosity into old age, the unexpected, the surprise, the mystery of existence constitute a constant challenge giving life its charm and its color in the first place. Complete security, i.e. predictability, would enclose us within a straitjacket that suffocates all spontaneity. As long as we live, we constantly look for the attraction of the not yet known, the emergence of things new.*3* A world, in which we would know everything, would be a mere machine, devoid of freedom. It would be dead and frozen.

I venture to say that the need for security on the one hand and for mystery on the other, i.e. for the challenge by the unknown and the new, dominated man from the very beginning of history. They are no more and no less than the two constituent features of the human condition.

The paradox of man’s condition is,

that we alternately strive – with a kind of inner necessity – for security (resulting from the discovery of order) and for freedom. So, these two elementary needs are closely connected with either the two alternatives of the object or the subject perspective. This contrast attains its extreme expression as soon as man appears as a researcher, i.e. when he questions nature and himself not only intuitively like any layman but systematically. Psychology as a science would be of no avail if all our emotional or intellectual reactions were the result of mere chance, so that the researcher would only come across chaos instead of recognizable regularities. The same observation applies to sociology. And, of course, it is only worthwhile for neurological science to investigate the biological foundations of human nature because an abundance of such regularities (partly of a law-like nature) do actually exist.

Just at this point the paradox

reveals itself with particular evidence. The same neurologist who regards man as an object revealing to him an abundance of regularities or even laws, holds the second role of a subject at the same time as he is their active observer and discoverer. In this role, however, he not only feels free – he even has to be so, because otherwise his approach would be subject to an insurmountable contradiction. If the human beings he studies as objects would be determined for him by laws throughout, if, in other words, they would be completely predictable – in popular diction bereft of free will -, then the same must, of course, be true for the observing researcher himself. In other words, he himself would condemn himself to be no more than an automaton controlled by impersonal laws. His own results and scientific statements, even the false ones, would be equally conditioned by impersonal laws. In this case, the distinction of scientifically true in contrast to false statements would, of course, make no sense.

As long as science assumes

that basically all human thinking and acting can be interpreted in a law-like way (provided we would only carry on our research for a long enough period), this paradox is unsolvable, because we are faced with an insurmountable logical contradiction. In our time it is fashionable to deny any credit to purely logical considerations. Scientists prefer to carry out physiological experiments according to Benjamin Libet or turn to quantum physics to clarify the problem in a very elaborate and costly way.  But the elementary rules of logic and scientific truth are at the base of all research, so the logical paradox remains crucial, even if its recognition costs us no more than a little more than average thinking ability

We therefore come to a clear conclusion: However numerous the rules or even laws we may still discover in the thinking and acting of human beings, it is nevertheless evident that these rules or laws will never determine them completely. Besides being to a certain degree governed by rules or laws, we act and think out of freedom – that is in an unpredictable way. If most laymen were not intuitively aware of this basic fact, they could derive it from the opposition between subject and object perspectives, both of which are inherent in each of us.

Significant, however, are the contrasts of temperament

and inclination that arise between researchers, especially when it comes to the interpretation of human behavior in history (historiography), politics (political science), society (sociology), and interpersonal relationships (psychology). Since the 19th century up to our days an opposition unfolds here, which manifests itself above all in the readiness (or else the reluctance) to transfer the methods of the exact natural sciences to the sphere of man. Even if the freedom of man or contrary view that he is subject to regularites and laws just like the rest of nature, is not explicitly mentioned, this opposition always remains perceptible in the background. It even leads to heated arguments about what should be considered serious science. I consider these argument as misleading as most of the cockfights between the representatives of freedom versus necessity.

Let us turn to a concrete example:

namely, the controversy about Joseph Henrich, a Harvard professor with much influence among present-day anthropologists. Like no other before him, Henrich tried to explain man and his history in terms of a few characteristics, especially in terms of the density of biological relationships. According to him, Europe owes its unique historical evolution above all to the fact that biological clans, which dominated social life everywhere else in the world, had been suppressed since the fourth century by the marriage and family policy of the catholic church.*4*

The reaction to the theses of the Harvard anthropologist consists in an „aha“ experience among those who consider them correct; on the other hand, his opponents consider them all but simplistic – the complex historical reality does not allow to explain the evolution of society and the resulting psychological traits in such a simple way.

In my opinion, this objection misses the purpose of science

All science seeks to explain reality – whether that of external nature or that of man – with as few principles and factors as possible. In his famous „world formula“, Albert Einstein only used three basic entities, namely energy, mass and the speed of light to explain matter. Jared Diamond has attributed to a single factor, namely the germ resistance of Europeans acquired through close cohabitation with domestic animals, a decisive influence on the victory of Europeans over the great empires of the Aztecs and Incas. Michael Mitterauer attributed to a single factor, namely the spread of rye (and oats for horses) in northwestern Europe, a major role in its emergence after the collapse of the Roman Empire.*5*

The fact that Joseph Henrichs regards the elimination of close kinship relations as a decisive factor explaining the uniqueness of European development must also be considered legitimate. It is not the question whether complex historical developments are explained by a multitude of factors, or by only one (monocausal explanation), that vouches for scientific respectability, but whether the explanation is right or wrong (also with regard to the scope attributed to it).

One-dimensional explanations of complex relations are often quite wrong – this makes them suspicious from the outset, but if they turn out to be right, then they meet the ideal of scientific explanation (the demand for greatest possible simplicity) to a special degree. For example, Henrich claims to have come across the following statistical correlation: „The greater the rate of cousin marriage in a province, the higher the rates of corruption and Mafia activity.” This finding is rather challenging because it relates two apparently completely different cultural dimensions: the density of biological relationships on the one hand, crime on the other. After reviewing the figures in different parts of the world, anthropology will have to either accept Henrich’s thesis as accurate or reject it as false (or partially valid only). Even if it turns out to be correct, it does, of course, not tell us anything about the cause of this correlation. One of the two variables could be the cause of the other or a factor that lies outside of both. For Henrich himself, the cause lies in the special clan mentality that results from such close kinship relationships.

The freedom of man,

his complexity and multidimensionality, remains, even if the limits of freedom are sometimes determined by very simple factors. From a scientific point of view, the crucial question always remains one and the same: do the statements in question stand up to scrutiny, are they right or wrong? For example, throughout his history, man has put forward the most ludicrous theories about epidemics. Witchcraft and magic, the wrath of the gods or personal enemies have been blamed, and a myriad of innocent people have been persecuted for such imaginary causes. It was not until the 19th century that the existence of bacteria and even later that of viruses was discovered. This correct monocausal explanation immediately swept away all those wrong and highly complex multicausal explanations of earlier times. As a matter of fact, human freedom may sometimes be limited by a single cause such as bacteria or viruses.

*1* His colleague Lüder Deecke (2012, pos. 1458): „Gerhard Roth, who worked predominantly on salamanders, is trying to persuade us to give up responsibility…. Another neuroscientist, Wolf Singer, an expert of the visual system…. is of the opinion that the principle of responsibility of man is untenable, for in the brain there is no leadership… Wolf Singer draws extensive conclusions for our legal system from his dubious premises, he pleads for the abolition of responsibility.“

*2* In my book „Creative Reason“ I tried to extend these arguments in several directions.

*3* The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski expresses this very beautifully:

The unknown world can be a source of fear, but so can the overly familiar world with its well-known course planned by ourselves… In things we subdued thanks to centuries of dramatic effort, we are no longer able to discover a mythical organization, nor to believe in it seriously. Precisely because they are subdued, harnessed, as it were, before the cart which we know how to steer, the physical energies appear to our gaze a hundredfold more „dehumanized,“ more indifferent, in the fullness of futility, although we have just meaningfully integrated them into our projects. We long again for the abandoned unpredictability of things…, we have been longing for it since the 18th century, from the moment that mechanized industry began to transform the surface of the earth“.

And „… complete predictability /is/ a quality fundamentally different from what is familiar to us from relationships with other people…. In encounters with other people, in which we succeed in relaxing the rules of factual exchange and in allowing the spontaneity pulsating on both sides to have its say, the inability to predict, as well as its superfluity, constitutes a specifically human value for us; the predictability of the other person is a quality of the reified relations between us: all spontaneity is creative… “ (my translation of the German edition Kolakowsky1973; p. 97).

*4* In the preceding essay, I examined Henrich’s theses in more detail.

*5* The conversion to new cereal varieties then led to more integrated agriculture with large livestock, deeper plowing of the soil, the use of water mills, and many other consequences.

This is my cover letter to Prof. Mitterauer:

Dear Mr. Mitterauer,

I read your two essays – one on the special path of Europe, the other on endogamous kinship relations – not merely with intellectual profit but with emotional pleasure as well, because they embody that kind of historiography which combines meticulous care in dealing with concrete events with the endeavor to recognize more general connections existing between them. It struck me, of course, that your research on the influence of the catholic church on the development of kinship relations, provides much of the empirical foundation on which Henrich could then pile his lofty edifice (after all, he quotes you 35 times). However, little is left in his work of the numerous reservations and restrictions found in your pages.

 I understand your criticism of Joseph Henrich and can imagine your surprise that I respond to it with an essay that first speaks very generally of freedom and necessity. Let me justify this approach in this cover letter.

In our time, I see two tendencies at work which fundamentally change the way history has been understood up to now. While the classical way consisted in taking great, wise, venerable people as models (above all men) and regarding them as the actual demiurges of historical transformations, an altogether different tendency has established itself at the latest with Marx. Now impersonal mechanisms of a social, psychological, political kind were held responsible for historic change. This substitution of the personal by the impersonal was accompanied by what we may call democratic pathos that finds the idea unacceptable that men or women of the past should be considered more credible than the normal man of our time (since we are all basically the same). Such democratic pathos logically culminates in Henrich’s proceedings: People living today are questioned about every imaginable item and their answers then statistically evaluated in order to interpret even past history. 

I deal with what I believe to be a second modern tendency in dealing with history when – via the detour of freedom and necessity – I respond to your objection that you cannot accept Henrich’s approach as scientifically serious. Here I do not quite agree. Certainly, his approach would not be scientifically serious if his peers can prove that his generalizations are not empirically justified – that is, false. But there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se – even the most daring ones – from a scientific point of view. More precisely, nothing except that little remains of previous historiography. For what Henrich presents to us is a most alarming assimilation of the human sciences to the natural sciences. The latter may allow themselves to summarize the whole order of nature in one single formula like E = m*c2, because the regularities of nature are laws which from the human perspective are eternally. But this obviously does not apply to the sphere of man and human institutions.

Now, the endeavor to transfer the methods of the natural sciences to those of the mind as well exists since the 17th century – German Romanticism merely repelled it for some time. It is precisely this endeavor which manifests itself in full strength in Henrich’s work. So, it is no surprise that his work too (difficult to read due to constant repetitions) may be summarized in a single formula: Progress = destruction of close relations + psychic factors A, B, C….

As I said before, this endeavor in itself should not be called unscientific. It only becomes so, if one believes to be able to apply such formulas just like those of the natural sciences. What these are meant to achieve, is obvious. Einstein’s world formula gives us immense power. With its help we have tamed the nuclear forces of nature.

But let’s assume that Henrich’s formula is empirically correct. Would it then be possible to use it in the same way in order to exercise power over people and society? For instance, could we provide government with a recipe of the kind: Be careful not to allow marriages between cousins. If you do so, you can be sure that society will develop in the direction of democracy, innovation, etc.?

Just like you, dear Mr. Mitterauer, I harbor the strongest reservations against this new way of using history (which in fact amounts to its abolition). Until recently, people used to look up to great role models for guidance. With immense pleasure I followed Will Durant, a master of this empathetic way of presenting history. But I know a professorial philistine who, to speak with Nietzsche, never discovered more than one or two philological earthworms, but nevertheless allows himself to disparage this encyclopedically educated man as a mere popularizer. He is doubly wrong since Durant is no longer popular at all, nobody reads him anymore, although his time is separated from ours by only one generation.

Now, let me express my real reservation against Henrich, which I omitted in my first essay. Even if his generalizations are not invalidated as empirically wrong, the formulas based on them can never be used for practical purposes like those of the natural sciences. For it is here once more that human freedom comes powerfully into play. If man suffocates under too much order, he longs for chaos (see my quotation from Kolakowski), if around him the world disintegrates in chaos, he longs for nothing so much as for order. To put it in the words of Paul Valéry, two things constantly threaten the world: order and disorder. In this way, he lives with and in opposites – and both condition each other.

A formula of the kind „progress = destruction of close relations“ therefore leads us completely astray. At the beginning of the 21st century we are aware that America is no longer a melting pot but threatens to disintegrate into independent ethnic groups. But not only in the US, everywhere in the world ethnic nationalism seems to be on the rise. Moreover, the consequences of progressively loosening all close interpersonal ties become more and more visible as it now even threatens to disintegrate the oldest institution of mankind, namely marriage. Couldn’t we even argue that the dissolution of endogamous ties posed no problem for the very reason that the closest of all, namely marriage, still provided the individual with a sufficient emotional anchorage?

Henrich knows nothing about the dialectics of interdependent opposites, Henrich does not know anything about the conditionality of opposites, and neither do those of his successors who destroy humanities by wanting to transform them into a natural science (because it only partially overlaps with them).

Kind regards

Gero Jenner