Humans Are Free
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
William James, from The Will to Believe
Kem Stone - 5 September 2007
The counter-argument to determinism that is offered by this text is not actually an argument attempting to prove
indeterminism.  In this selection, William James holds the opinion that that although the problem of free will is
insoluble, it makes more sense (and is better pragmatically) to believe that human beings are free agents, and that
our decisions do in fact determine which possible futures come into being.  I will examine the strengths and
weaknesses of James’s argument and then offer some thoughts of my own on other possible solutions to the free-
will debate.

James begins by making a few clarifications such as what exactly is meant by a
hypothesis, and what it means for
an option between two hypotheses to be 1- living or dead, 2- forced or avoidable, and 3- momentous or trivial.  
A hypothesis is anything proposed to belief, and an option is a choice between two hypotheses.  A live as
opposed to a dead option is when both hypotheses are real and make sense to the subject to whom they are  
proposed.  A forced option is when one must choose between either hypothesis, as opposed to an avoidable
option in which case there may be other alternatives.  Finally, a momentous as opposed to a trivial option is one in
which the decision you make can not be altered at a later time (e.g. whether you will join Dr. Nansen on his
expedition to the North Pole).

The thesis that James defends in this text is that the question of free-will, being a live and a forced option, yet not a
momentous one, is always decided by our passional, rather than our rational nature.  The question is insoluble, and
our position on the issue depends only upon what makes more sense to us.  James proceeds on two suppositions
which we must understand in order to give his arguments fair treatment: “First, when we make theories about the
world and discuss them with one another, we do so in order to attain a conception of things which shall give us
subjective satisfaction; and second, if there be two conceptions, and the one seems to us, on the whole, more
rational than the other, we are entitled to suppose that the more rational one is the truer of the two” (125).  Thus
we are made to understand that the purpose of this argument is not to convince but to
clarify some points about
the free-will debate, and that James will defend his position not with proofs but with arguments attempting to
convince us that his is the
more rational point of view.

James then offers us definitions of the opposing positions.  “[Determinism] professes that those parts of the
universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be.  The future has no
ambiguous possibilities hidden in its womb” (125).  According to determinism, there is only one fixed chain of
events in the totality of the universe and any idea that things may have happened differently than they already have
is false.  Simply put, the concept of a
possibility is an illusion.  Conversely, indeterminism “admits that possibilities
may be in excess of actualities, and that things not yet revealed to our knowledge may really in themselves be
ambiguous.  Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may be really possible, and the one become
impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself” (126).  We have now
structured the argument in terms of the existence of possibilities, and as James makes clear, this is a forced option;
both sides cannot be correct—if one is true the other
must be false.

The argument, however, is incapable of being resolved conclusively because (as James believes) science is the
only method capable of establishing conclusive knowledge, and the question of the existence of possibilities falls
outside the realm of science.  “Science professes to draw no conclusions but such as are based on matters of fact,
things that have actually happened; but how can any amount of assurance that something actually happened give
us the least grain of information as to whether another thing might or might not have happened in its place?”
(126).  Because science deals only with
facts and not possibilities, we must accept that science can never resolve
the debate, and that whether we believe in possibilities or not will depend purely on whether the world seems
more rational to us with or without them.

Now James considers the point of view that a world with possibilities is irrational—that if something
might have
happened a different way than did, this small bit of ambiguity would “ruin everything, and turn this goodly universe
into a sort of insane sand-heap or nulliverse, or no universe at all” (127).  In response to this, James offers a
thought experiment in which he must decide which road to take home after delivering a lecture—Divinity Avenue
or Oxford Street.  He asks the determinist to imagine that the ambiguity is real, and that the choice is actually
made twice over.  He takes Divinity Avenue, and then the powers governing the universe turn back the clock to
before he makes the decision, and this time he takes Oxford Street.  He challenges the determinist to consider the
two alternative universes and decide which is the accidental, and which is the rational and necessary.  Clearly,
there would be nothing with which to argue that one street or the other was the actually pre-ordained course he
might have taken.  And so if we eliminate the hypothetical and say that he took Divinity Avenue only, on what
grounds could the determinist argue that by the very nature of the universe this was necessary, and that he
have taken Oxford Street?  A determinist would have to make this argument, but had he taken Oxford and
not Divinity, they would formulate the exact same argument to show why
this circumstance was necessary and the
other impossible.

And so James establishes that even without science the case for determinism or indeterminism cannot even be
made conclusively by strictly theorizing.  All we can do is examine the differences between a world with
possibilities and a deterministic world, and consider which world makes more sense.  To defend his position that a
world in which possibilities are real is more rational than a deterministic world, James calls our attention to
“judgments of regret.”

No one will argue that regret is not a real phenomenon.  We experience regrets every day about things we should
have done but did not do, or things we did that we would rather we had not done.  These regrets are trivial, and a
wise man would no doubt understand that it is no use dwelling on errors, particularly in a deterministic world in
which such errors were in fact inevitable.  “But still some regrets are pretty obstinate and hard to stifle,—regrets
for acts of wanton cruelty or treachery, for example, whether performed by others or by ourselves” (128).  James
describes the actual case of a murder at Brockton, in which a man bored with his wife drives her out to the desert,
shoots her four times and smashes her skull with a rock (after re-assuring her that he “didn’t do it on purpose”).  
Though we feel no personal responsibility for this terrible event, we can not help but experience a sense of regret
when we hear of it.  “We feel that, although a perfect mechanical fit to the rest of the universe, it is a bad moral fit,
and that something else would really have been better in its place” (129).

Now, if one is a strict determinist, he must admit that the Brockton murder was inevitable—that from the
beginning of the universe it was bound to happen at just that time, and that anything else would have been
inconsistent with the totality of existence.  Yet if a determinist experiences regret over the murder, is he not
thereby experiencing regret over the nature of the universe?  “The judgment of regret calls the murder bad.  
Calling a thing bad means…that the thing ought not to be, that something else ought to be in its stead.  
Determinism, in denying that anything else can be in its stead, virtually defines the universe as a place in which
what ought to be is impossible” (129).  Therefore by the judgment of regret a determinist is caught in this dilemma
of pessimism.

According to James, the only escape from this pessimism is to abandon all judgments of regret.  The determinist
must fully adopt an Augustinian view in the face of all evil, believing that all evil events bring about a greater good
in the total scheme of things.  It is not the murder that is wrong—it is the sense of regret itself that is wrong, as if
we were able to see the whole picture we would rejoice at the murder, understanding the good that it ultimately
brings to being.

Yet the determinist is now caught in a logical predicament, as not only is the murder pre-ordained and
unavoidable, but so is his erroneous judgment of regret.  If the murder is necessary for the greater good, than a
judgment of approval ought to be in the place of a judgment of regret, yet due to the principle of determinism
itself, there was no other possible reaction.  “Murder and treachery cannot be good without regret being bad:
regret cannot be good without treachery and murder being bad.  Both, however, are supposed to have been
foredoomed: so something must be fatally unreasonable, absurd, and wrong in the world.  It must be a place of
which either sin or error forms a necessary part” (130).  Thus it seems that a deterministic world is either
inherently evil or inherently irrational.

According to James, it is far more rational (and pragmatic) to believe that we live in a world in which possibilities
exist.  “What interest, zest, or excitement can there be in achieving the right way, unless we are enabled to feel that
the wrong way is also a possible and a natural way…and what sense can there be in condemning ourselves for
taking the wrong way, unless we need have done nothing of the sort, unless the right way was open to us as well?”
(130). James stresses that the important thing is to believe that possibilities really exist when we make decisions.  
If we are to decide the course of the future, we must believe that the decisions are made in the
here and now, and
have not been foredoomed since the beginning of time.

Although I agree with James’s essential position, I find his argument rather weak.  Though I believe he does an
excellent job of demonstrating why the problem of free-will is insoluble, and offers several powerful criticisms of
determinism, his own defence of indeterminism based on judgments of regret is hopelessly unconvincing.  I say this
for two reasons.  First, there is nothing to prevent the determinist from accepting the pessimism that this position
entails when it comes to judgments of regret.  I myself once thought in exactly this way—I believed that all things
were determined, that nothing could ever happen other than how it has happened, and that because so many
horrible things have occurred and continue to occur, the universe must be a substantially miserable place.  Though
I am no longer a determinist, I remain somewhat of a pessimist, and do not see any philosophical problem in
forming a judgment of regret that extends to the entire universe.

Second, there is no logical error in a belief that that the universe is a place where error is necessarily a part.  If we
accept James’s argument that there is something inherently absurd about the universe if we can experience
judgments of regret over events that are determined, we must also believe that there is something inherently absurd
about a universe in which one can mistakenly believe that 4 is the square root of 12.  To ask, “how can a universe
exist in which rational beings make rational errors?” is a ridiculous question, and is hardly a problem for

Though I have no arguments of my own for either determinism or indeterminism, I do have some ideas about
possible ways the problem of free-will can be resolved by modifying certain metaphysical prejudices we hold from
which the problem arises.  I believe that we see the question of free-will as a problem for two reasons: The first
reason is that we experience a world in which certain things—such as human beings and animals of higher
intelligence—appear to have the capability of making decisions that influence the course of the future, while most
things—such as celestial bodies or elementary particles—lack the property of volition and are moved about only
according to natural laws, incapable of influencing the future.  Thus it seems we have a universe in which
everything is determined
except the animal world, and this strikes us as absurd.

To eliminate this absurdity, most philosophers (such as Holbach) have turned to determinism, removing the
property of volition from humans and animals and insisting that they also behave as dead matter moved by
unalterable laws, with only the
appearance of free will.  I find this difficult to accept only because of the property
of consciousness—it seems to me that
I am in fact making the decisions that determine what I do.  Therefore I
would suggest we take the completely opposite position, and grant the property of volition to
all things, including
celestial bodies and elementary particles.  This is called
pansychism, and while most call it absurd I find that the
idea at least has merit and ought to be taken more seriously.

The immediate objection to the idea of pansychism is only the apparent absurdity of the proposition that atoms are
conscious, supported by the proposition that if atoms really were conscious they would not behave so regularly.  I
would say this objection can easily be defeated because atoms exist on such a radically different scale than we do,
and while we may be afflicted with all sorts of stimuli pulling us in radically different directions that result in our
erratic and unpredictable behaviour, atoms may be subject to no such forces, and simply have no reason not to
choose to behave as they do: combining with certain other atoms to produce certain reactions.  When we study
subatomic particles we have always attributed their behaviour to physical laws built into the universe, but it may be
that what we are actually studying is their
behaviour—the way they choose to act.  Therefore I see nothing
absurd about the idea of a completely indeterministic world in which
all things are decided by free will and not
merely the actions of humans and animals.

The second metaphysical prejudice from with the free-will problem arises is that there is only one universe.  If we
have epistemic access to all of these ideas of
possibilities, whether they be of things that might occur in the future
or things that might have occurred in the past, the fact that we only perceive events unfolding in
one way leads us
to believe that this is the only way events unfold, and for determinists the only way they
could have unfolded.  Yet
existence may be such that every possible universe is an actual universe—i.e. for every choice we make, another
universe exists in which a different choice is made—though of course we only exist in one universe at a time.  This
theory has been around for awhile, and if it could somehow be proven true would radically alter our conception of
the free-will issue.  For now it seems that every universe is determined, but what is undetermined is merely which
universes we will experience—this is decided by us with every decision we make.  The events of this universe in
which I woke up at 9:00
have been foredoomed since the beginning of time, but so have the events of the
universe in which I woke up at 8:00—events which millions of years from now may have radical effects.  I have
changed absolutely nothing in either universe by sleeping in for that extra hour, but my decision has resulted in my
awareness taking the course of the universe in which I woke up at 9:00 rather than that in which I woke up at 8:
00.  Thus we have none of the absurdities of a determined universe capable of volitional alteration, but are merely
left with the uncomfortable idea that our universe is not unique but merely an infinity among infinities.

Of course, neither of these theories can be conclusively proven, and I do not necessarily believe either of them to
be true.  I merely wish to illustrate how closely the problem is related not just to ethics but metaphysics, and that
the problem of free-will has far more solutions than the typical dichotomy of determinism vs. indeterminism.  If a
solution is ever to be found, I suppose then we will know whether it was bound to be discovered or if we were
just lucky to find it.