AND THUS our conception of free will and necessity is gradually diminished or increased according to the degree of connection with the external world, the degree of remoteness in time, and the degree of dependence on causes which we see in the phenomenon of man's life that we examine. So that if we examine the case of a man in which the connection with the external world is better known, the interval of time between the examination and the act greater, and the causes of the action easier to comprehend, we form a conception of a greater element of necessity and less free will. If we examine a man in a less close dependence on external conditions, if his action is committed at a moment nearer the present, and the causes leading him to it are beyond our ken, we form a conception of a less element of necessity and a greater element of free will in his action.
But in neither case, however we shift our point of view, however clear we make to ourselves the connection in which the man is placed with the external world, or however fully comprehensible it may appear to us, however long or short a period of time we select, however explicable or unfathomable the causes of the act may be to us, we can never conceive of complete free will, nor of complete necessity in any action.
1. However carefully we imagine a man excluded from the influence of the external world, we can never form a conception of freedom in space. Every act of man's is inevitably limited by what surrounds him and by his own body. I raise my arm and let it fall. My action seems to me free; but asking myself could I raise my arm in any direction, I see that I moved it in the direction in which there was least hindrance to the action arising from bodies around me or from the construction of my own body. I chose one out of all the possible directions, because in that direction I met with least hindrance. For my action to be entirely free, it would have to meet with no hindrance in any direction. To conceive a man quite free, we have to conceive him outside of space, which is obviously impossible.
2. However near we bring the time of criticism to the time of action, we can never form a conception of freedom in time. For if I examine an act committed a second ago, I must still recognise that it is not free, since the act is irrevocably linked to the moment at which it was committed. Can I lift my arm? I lift it; but I ask myself: Could I not have lifted my arm in that moment of time that has just passed? To convince myself of that, I do not lift my arm the next moment. But I am not abstaining from lifting it that first moment of which I asked myself the question. The time has gone by and to detain it was not in my power, and the hand which I then raised and the air in which I raised it are not the same as the hand I do not raise now or the air in which I do not now raise it. The moment in which the first movement took place is irrevocable, and in that moment I could only perform one action, and whatever movement I had made, that movement could have been the only one. The fact that the following moment I abstained from lifting my arm did not prove that I could have abstained from lifting it. And since my movement could only be one in one moment of time, it could have been no other. To conceive it to oneself as free, one must conceive it in the present on the boundary between the past and the future, that is, outside time, which is impossible.
3. However we increase the degree of difficulty of comprehending the causes of the act, we never reach a conception of complete free will, that is, absolute absence of cause. Though the cause of the expression of will in any act of our own or another's may be beyond our ken, it is the first impulse of the intellect to presuppose and seek a cause, without which no phenomenon is conceivable. I raise my arm in order to perform an act independent of any cause, but the fact that I want to perform an act independent of any cause is the cause of my action.
But even if by conceiving a man entirely excluded from external influence, and exercising only a momentary act in the present, not called forth by any cause, we were to reduce the element of necessity to an infinitesimal minimum equivalent to nil, we should even then not have reached a conception of complete free will in a man; for a creature, uninfluenced by the external world, outside of time, and independent of cause, is no longer a man.
In the same way we can never conceive a human action subject only to necessity without any element of free will.
1. However we increase our knowledge of the conditions of space in which a man is placed, that knowledge can never be complete since the number of these conditions is infinitely great, seeing that space is in finite. And so long as not all the conditions that may influence a man are defined, the circle of necessity is not complete, and there is still a loophole for free will.
2. Though we may make the period of time intervening between an act and our criticism of it as long as we choose, that period will be finite, and time is infinite, and so in this respect too the circle of necessity is not complete.
3. However easy the chain of causation of any act may be to grasp, we shall never know the whole chain, since it is endless, and so again we cannot attain absolute necessity.
But apart from that, even if, reducing the minimum of free will till it is equivalent to nil, we were to admit in some case—as, for instance, that of a dying man, an unborn babe, an idiot—a complete absence of free will, we should in so doing have destroyed the very conception of man, in the case we are examining; since as soon as there is no free will, there is no man. And therefore the conception of the action of a man subject only to the law of necessity, without the smallest element of free will, is as impossible as the conception of a completely free human action.
Thus to conceive a human action subject only to the law of necessity without free will, we must assume a knowledge of an infinite number of conditions in space, an infinitely long period of time, and an infinite chain of causation.
To conceive a man perfectly free, not subject to the law of necessity, we must conceive a man outside of space, outside of time, and free from all dependence on cause.
In the first case, if necessity were possible without free will, we should be brought to a definition of the laws of necessity in the terms of the same necessity, that is, to mere form without content.
In the second case, if free will were possible without necessity, we should come to unconditioned free will outside of space, and time and cause, which by the fact of its being unconditioned and unlimited would be nothing else than content without form.
We should be brought in fact to these two fundamental elements, of which man's whole cosmic conception is made up—the incomprehensible essence of life and the laws that give form to that essence.
Reason says: 1. space with all the forms given it by its visibility—matter—is infinite, and is not thinkable otherwise.
2. Time is infinite movement without one moment of rest, and it is not otherwise thinkable.
3. The connection of cause and effect has no beginning, and can have no end.
Consciousness says: 1. I alone am, and all that exists is only I; consequently I include space.
2. I measure moving time by the unchanging moment of the present, in which alone I am conscious of myself living; consequently I am outside of time, and
3. I am outside of cause, since I feel myself the cause of every phenomenon of my life.
Reason gives expression to the laws of necessity. Consciousness gives expression to the reality of free will.
Freedom unlimited by anything is the essence of life in man's consciousness. Necessity without content is man's reason with its three forms of thought.
Free will is what is examined: Necessity is what examines. Free will is content: Necessity is form.
It is only by the analysis of the two sources of knowledge, standing to one another in the relation of form and content, that the mutually exclusive, and separately inconceivable ideas of free will and necessity are formed.
Only by their synthesis is a clear conception of the life of man gained.
Outside these two ideas—in their synthesis mutually definitive as form and content—no conception of life is possible.
All that we know of men's life is only a certain relation of free will to necessity, that is, of consciousness to the laws of reason.
All that we know of the external world of nature is only a certain relation of the forces of nature to necessity, or of the essence of life to the laws of reason.
The forces of the life of nature lie outside us, and not subject to our consciousness; and we call these forces gravity, inertia, electricity, vital force, and so on. But the force of the life of man is the subject of our consciousness, and we call it free will.
But just as the force of gravitation—in itself incomprehensible, though felt by every man—is only so far understood by us as we know the laws of necessity to which it is subject (from the first knowledge that all bodies are heavy down to Newton's law), so too the force of free will, unthinkable in itself, but recognised by the consciousness of every man, is only so far understood as we know the laws of necessity to which it is subject (from the fact that every man dies up to the knowledge of the most complex economic or historic laws).
All knowledge is simply bringing the essence of life under the laws of reason.
Man's free will is distinguished from every other force by the fact that it is the subject of man's consciousness. But in the eyes of reason it is not distinguished from any other force.
The forces of gravitation, of electricity, or of chemical affinity, are only distinguished from one another by being differently defined by reason. In the same way the force of man's free will is only distinguished by reason from the other forces of nature by the definition given it by reason. Free will apart from necessity, that is, apart from the laws of reason defining it, is in no way different from gravitation, or heat, or the force of vegetation; for reason, it is only a momentary, indefinite sensation of life.
And as the undefined essence of the force moving the heavenly bodies, the undefined essence of the force of heat, of electricity, or of chemical affinity, or of vital force, forms the subject of astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and so on, so the essence of the force of free will forms the subject matter of history. But even as the subject of every science is the manifestation of that unknown essence of life, yet that essence itself can only be the subject of metaphysics, so too the manifestation of the force of free will in space, and time, and dependence on cause, forms the subject of history, but free will itself is the subject of metaphysics.
In the experimental sciences, what is known to us we call the laws of necessity; what is unknown to us we call vital force. Vital force is simply an expression for what remains unexplained by what we know of the essence of life. So in history what is known to us we call the laws of necessity; what is unknown, we call free will. Free will is for history simply an expression for what remains unexplained by the laws of men's life that we know.