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Human Agency and Natural Necessity

Antony Flew considers some varieties of movement.

Dr. Johnson once remarked, in his characteristically decisive way: “We know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” (1) Although this was much too short a way with dissent, he was nevertheless substantially right. For the truth is that the thesis of universal, necessitating determinism cannot even be understood except by creatures who must be in a position to know that it is false.

To appreciate this we have first to recognize that, properly, the dispute is concerned: not specifically with freewill or with free action; but more generally with the nature and occurrence of action as such. For not only those who act of their own freewill but also those who act only under compulsion, act. There is thus an absolutely crucial and fundamental difference: between, on the one hand, Luther at the Diet of Worms; and, on the other hand, someone who stands rooted to the spot, totally paralyzed. Luther famously protested: “Here I stand. I can no other. So help me God.” He was not, of course, thus claiming to be totally paralyzed; and hence totally incapable of retreating to his Saxon refuge. Instead, and obviously, what he was actually asserting was that not one of the various other courses of action open to him constituted, for him, a tolerable alternative.

So now let us consider three short passages from the great chapter ‘Of Power’ in Locke’s Essay.(2) It is to be regretted that in the third of these Locke mistakes it that he is explaining what is meant: not, generally, by ‘an agent’; but rather, specifically, by ‘a free agent’. The first passage runs:

This at least I think evident, that we find in ourselves a Power to begin or forbear, continue or end several actions of our minds, and motions of our Bodies….This Power…thus to order the consideration of any idea, or the forbearing to consider it; or to prefer the motion of any part of the body to its rest, and vice versa in any particular instance, is that which we call the Will.(3)

The second passage runs:

Everyone, I think, finds in himself a Power to begin or forbear, continue to put an end to several Actions in himself…actions of the Man, which everyone finds in himself, arise the Ideas of Liberty and Necessity(4)

The third passage, in which the Latin translates as St. Vitus’ dance, reads:

We have instances enough, and often more than enough, in our own bodies. A Man’s Heart beats, the Blood circulates, which t’is not in his power to stop; and therefore in respect of these Motions, where rest depends not on his choice…he is not a free agent. Convulsive Motions agitate his legs, so that though he will it never so much, he…cannot stop their motion (as in that odd disease called chorea Sancti Viti), but he is perpetually dancing: He is…under as much Necessity of moving as a Stone that falls or a Tennis-ball struck with a Racket.(5)

With the reminders of these three passages before us we become equipped to develop ostensive definitions of two kinds of bodily movements. Going deliberately with rather than against the grain of modern English usage, let those which can be either initiated or quashed at will be labelled ‘movings’ and those which cannot ‘motions’. Certainly it is obvious that there are plenty of marginal cases. Nevertheless, so long as there are – as there are – far, far more which fall unequivocally upon one side or the other, we must resolutely and stubbornly refuse to be prevented from labouring this absolutely fundamental and decisive distinction by any such diversionary appeals to the existence of marginal cases.

Contemplation of these and similar passages in Locke should be sufficient to show, first, that we all of us have the most direct, and the most expugnably certain experience: not only both of physical (as opposed to logical) necessity and of physical (as opposed to logical) impossibility; but also both, on some occasions, of being able to do other than we do do and, on other occasions, of being unable to behave in any other way than that in which we are behaving. So it is in terms of our fundamental distinction between movings and motions that we establish and explicate the even more fundamental concept of action. An agent is a creature who, precisely and only in so far as he or she is an agent, can and cannot but make choices: choices between alternative courses of action both or all of which are open; real choices, notwithstanding both that sometimes by choosing one or even any of these alternatives the agent will incur formidable costs. If, for instance, The Godfather should give instructions that you were to receive “an offer which he cannot refuse”, you could nevertheless refuse; but only at the presumably unacceptable cost of it being your brains rather than your signature on the document signing away your property to the Mafia.

Agents too qua agents – it is the price of privilege – inescapably must choose, and can in no way avoid choosing, one of the two or more options which on particular occasions are open and available. The nerve of the distinction between the movements involved in an action and those which constitute a no more than items or partial components of necessitated behaviour just is that such behaviour is necessitated, whereas the senses of actions not merely are not but necessarily cannot be.

Once we are seized of these insights, we should be ready to recognize that there is no way in which creatures neither enjoying nor suffering experiences of both these two contrasting kinds could either acquire for themselves, or explicate to others, any of the corresponding notions. The experiences in question, to repeat, are: on the one hand those of confronting physical necessities and physical impossibilities wholly beyond our control; and, on the other hand, those of agents able and having to choose between acting in one way or another and not being necessitated to act in this way rather than that.

Now, if none of the key and contrasting notions could be explained, acquired or understood by creatures neither enjoying nor suffering such experiences, then that fact must constitute an objection of overwhelming and decisive force against any doctrine of universal, physically necessitating, determinism.

Those still inclined to doubt this contention have a challenge to face. They must excogitate their own alternative accounts of how all these key notions are to be somehow explained, acquired and understood by creatures who were (are) not agents and who did (do) not have such experiences. Maybe this challenge can, after all, be met. Maybe. But, until and unless it is met, and met convincingly, the prudent philosopher is bound to adopt the archetypical attitude of the man from Missouri. Notoriously, if his reluctance to believe is to be overcome, he has to be shown.

Notes :
(1) Boswell’s Life of Johnson for 10/X/1769.
(2) John Locke “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” edited by P.H.Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), Bk. II Ch. 21.
(3) II (xxi) 5, p. 236
(4) II (xxi) 7, p. 237
(5) II (xxi) 11, p. 239

© Antony Flew 1991

Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Reading University. He is the author of numerous books and articles.


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