William James – Free Will and Role of Chance
Published on Saturday, February 19th, 2011 at 12:27 pm and is filed under General Psychology
William James is one of the most prominent philosophers of America of 19-20th cc. He made a great contribution into the development of a philosophical thought of his time. He also widely uses his experience of psychologist in his works on philosophy. In his works he mainly speaks about thinking and knowledge which he treats as instruments in the struggle to live that may be the result of his psychological practice. Also one of the most important themes of his works is pragmatism. He generalized the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce by asserting that the meaning of any idea must be analyzed in terms of the succession of experiential consequences it leads to the idea that truth and error depend solely on these consequences. He applied pragmatism to the analysis of change and chance, freedom, variety, pluralism, and novelty. Pragmatism was also the basis for his polemic against monism, the “block universe,” the idealistic doctrine of internal relations, and all views that presented reality as a static whole. He was also a leader of the psychological movement of functionalism.
But I think that the most interesting part of his work is his views on free will and the role of chance in our life. In his famous essay “The Dilemma of Determinism” James rejects determinism on the ground that people do not have any free choices in the life. So James appeal to direct experience to provide evidence of existence of free choice. He estimates that feeling that all of us have such as regret or sorrow do not make any sense unless there is some free will. And James believes that people experience regret or sorrow only because they could have done otherwise. He thinks that if determinism were true, then people could never have done otherwise and, consequently, he comes to the conclusion that they wouldn’t have any reason to feel this regret or sorrow.
In the work “The Dilemma of Determinism” William James says the following about determinism: “What does determinism profess? It 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… the whole is in each and every part, and welds it with the rest into an absolute unity, an iron block, in which there can be no equivocation or shadow of turning.” So from these words we may judge about his views on the role of chance. This quotation makes obvious the fact that we and everything around us are predetermined, fated. Consequently, people do not have any independent choice in their life. Then the philosopher says that: “The only deterministic escape from pessimism is everywhere to abandon the judgment of regret… But does not this immediately bring us into a curious logical predicament? Our determinism leads us to call our judgments of regret wrong, because they are pessimistic in implying that what is impossible yet ought to be. But how then about the judgments of regret themselves? If they are wrong, other judgments, judgments of approval presumably, ought to be in their place. But as they are necessitated, nothing else can be in their place; and the universe is just what is was before,- namely, a place in which what ought to be appears impossible. We have got one foot out of the pessimistic bog, but the other one sinks all the deeper. We have rescued our actions from the bonds of evil, but our judgments are now held fast. When murders and treacheries cease to be sins, regrets are theoretic absurdities and errors. The theoretic and the active life thus play a kind of see-saw with each other on the ground of evil. The rise of either sends the other down. 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 means that the author wants to underline that in empiricism and pluralism he saw the only possible way out from our confinement in fatalistic universe that seems to be absurd.
Thus, William James defines truth as verification and in such a way he rejects the idea that any unverifiable theory or idea, such as determinism, for example, can be true. Despite the fact that he gives such a pragmatic definition of truth we shouldn’t consider that the distinction between truth and verification cannot be associated with the deliberate neglect of realist epistemology because traditionally he get used to be an epistemological realist. Moreover, he made it clear that he understood well and cordially supported the correspondence theory of truth. A bit later he told the following about the truth-building and reality: “The pragmatist calls satisfactions indispensable for truth-building, but I have everywhere called them insufficient unless reality also be incidentally led to. If the reality assumed were cancelled from the pragmatist’s universe of discourse, he would straightway give the name of falsehoods to the beliefs remaining in spite of all their satisfactoriness. For him, as for his critic, there can be no truth if there is nothing to be true about… I remain an epistemological realist… Realities are not true, they are; and beliefs are true of them.”
But at the same time a few years earlier William James told about the power of facts and the difference between verification and truth in his saying: “Truth supposes a standard outside of the thinker to which he must conform.”
His pragmatic theory of truth explains us why he is so insistent on the necessity of existence of free choices and freedom for people and I think that it is the most probable explanation of his eagerness in freedom because for him the quest of truth is of paramount importance and here he says that people have a definite choice or it’s better to say they have two ways: either we must know the truth or we must avoid errors. Judging by his works it is not difficult to guess that to know the truth is of primary importance for him and he thinks that normally people should chose this rather than the possibility to avoid errors.
On reflecting about the factors which influence our opinion or which even form it he comes to the idea that there are some options between our opinions and depending on different circumstances they may be either inevitable or they may be determined by our choice. That is, not only do our emotions affect our thoughts but also there are some options to our opinions where this emotional influence is to be seen as unavoidable and a determining factor in our choices. If one has any doubts as to this idea the only thing he needs is just recollect the facts that have been already mentioned in my work. I speak about two factors of our human nature which influence our opinions they are the intension to avoid errors and the quest to find the truth.
The ability to sacrifice one for the other is normal – since the option between acquiring and losing the truth is not temporary. This is the kind of thing that happens daily in science and in human everyday life in general. For, as James points out, the necessity to act is seldom so urgent that even a controversial or doubtful choice to act on is better than no choice at all. Here decisions are made for practical reasons allowing one to get onto the next order of business. In the situations in which a hypothesis is trivial and hardly ever living, the choice between believing a truth rather than a false is seldom forced. So again we see that the necessity of existence of fee choices is of paramount importance for people and they could really help them to avoid mistakes which are not ‘well accepted’ by William James.
Thus, we can see that as I have already said the existence of free choices is highly important for James despite the fact that the fate, the chance is one of the most influential factors in human’s life. But anyway even nowadays we cannot help from admiring the great work of the great philosopher.
At the end of my work I want to recite the words of this man which to my mind express one of the principal idea of his essay “The Dilemma of Determinism” and may be of his philosophy as well: “Our determinism leads us to call our judgments of regret wrong, because they are pessimistic in implying that what is impossible yet ought to be. But how then about the judgments of regret themselves? If they are wrong, other judgments, judgments of approval presumably, ought to be in their place. But as they are necessitated, nothing else can be in their place; and the universe is just what it was before – namely, a place in which what ought to be appears impossible.”