Mises on The Free-Will Controversy

From Chapter 5 of Mises’ Theory and History,

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. They are rather the display of man’s inmost disposition, the manifestation of his indelible moral freedom. This moral liberty is the essential characteristic of man, raising him to a unique position in the universe.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins on him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts.

This is quite close to my own position but with a very important qualification. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts provided he chooses to think. Mises denies that choice.

What the sciences of human action must reject is not determinism but the positivistic and panphysicalistic distortion of determinism. They stress the fact that ideas determine human action and that at least in the present state of human science it is impossible to reduce the emergence and the transformation of ideas to physical, chemical, or biological factors. It is this impossibility that constitutes the autonomy of the sciences of human action. Perhaps natural science will one day be in a position to describe the physical, chemical, and biological events. which in the body of the man Newton necessarily and inevitably produced the theory of gravitation. In the meantime, we must be content with the study of the history of ideas as a part of the sciences of human action.

The sciences of human action by no means reject determinism. The objective of history is to bring out in full relief the factors that were operative in producing a definite event. History is entirely guided by the category of cause and effect. In retrospect, there is no question of contingency. The notion of contingency as employed in dealing with human action always refers to man’s uncertainty about the future and the limitations of the specific historical understanding of future events. It refers to a limitation of the human search for knowledge, not to a condition of the universe or of some of its parts.

Having denied the choice to think, Mises treats determinism and causality as equivalent and rejects the notion of contingency for past actions. It will be interesting to see where this takes him in later chapters. One consequence is already apparant though – on his view of morality. A determinist cannot logically be a moralist and indeed Mises is not. Like Taleb, he denies the possibility of a normative science. In earlier chapters, Mises writes that the only possible judgement of human action is whether a particular means leads to a particular end. Ends cannot be judged. Adopting utilitarianism, he goes on to write about justice: “The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust.”

Just goes to show how important the foundational branches of philosophy are.


6 Responses

  1. “The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts.”

    “The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts provided he chooses to think.”

    Aren’t both these statements circular in nature?

    I think of Mises’ statement in this way :
    We are all determined by some deterministic process. The only true choice, if any, would have occurred during the first few moments after birth (the first idea adopted?). That could have been the only true random ‘seed’ to an otherwise deterministic process.

    Your statement has much more circular dependency (and I am not exactly sure how to parse it).

    Neither of the statement seems to resolve anything about determinism/free will, don’t you agree ?

  2. As I understand Mises, he is a complete determinist – no true choice – even immediately after birth. When he says “ideas that he adopts” he does not mean an undetermined adoption of ideas. He is just saying that “idea” is a good way to conceptualize / represent the mechanism that determines our “choices”; that if we want to understand history we should be tracing the origin and development of ideas. Understood this way, Mises’ statement is not circular at all.

    My (current) position is that there is only one fundamental continuous choice – the choice to focus one’s mind or not ranging from full focus to no focus. At any given instant when I am conscious, I can choose to focus or not. If I do choose to focus, my conscious mind thinks about anything that happens to be the object(s) of my focus. The object(s) of my focus are determined by sensory inputs and memories and I do not have conscious control over these objects. That is, I cannot choose to selectively ignore sensory input or my memories. I can only “globally” control the processing of that input.

    I don’t think my position is circular either (the one line statement of my position was definitely circular).

    The problem with Mises’s position is that it ignores – actually rejects – the introspective knowledge I have of my choice to focus. I know introspectively that I can choose to focus or not. For example, I choose to unfocus when I am trying to sleep. Or I can choose to remain focussed to stay awake even if I am tired. A denial of this choice – calling it an illusion – is unacceptable to me. If I do not accept the validity of introspection, I cannot accept the validity of anything at all. And that is a contradiction.

    As I understand it, “knowledge”, “understanding” etc are all conditional on the concept of free will. Free will to me seems to be the only reason I distinguish between a computer and my mind. If I were to accept determinism, I would have to reject / modify a number of very basic concepts – choice, action, individuality, responsibility, consciousness, entity etc. I don’t think that is possible.

    In a comment on an earlier post Burgess Laughlin provided a reference to the following article.
    “Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation” in “Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (1991)” by Harry Binswanger. I suppose you would be able to access it online through your univ account.

    As for resolving the controversy, I don’t think there is much to resolve philosophically. You can never convince a determinist of the existence of free will based on deductive logical arguments and external evidence. His position implies that any such attempts including his acceptance or rejection of those attempts is also determined. There is nothing you can say to that. Deductive logic has limited utility after all.
    Similarly, no one can ever convince me that free will does not exist because I know introspectively without any deductions that I do choose to focus or not. What needs to be resolved (not sure if it is possible to do so) is the physics of the working of the mind, ideas, memories, consciousness etc.

  3. Krishnamurthy wrote (in an email to me)

    I agree that the free will/determinism issue cannot be resolved just from inferences from observations of the universe. We will have to appeal to some basic principle to resolve this. The principle you appeal to is

    “We have free will.”

    This is all fine and good. But isn’t it begging the question? I mean the principle here is so specific to this issue. Won’t a more basic principle which leads to the same conclusion be more attractive and desirable ? I am not sure if this can be done.

  4. You are right. It is begging the question. But it is a question that has the same epistemological status of “Do I exist?”. A question to which my mind simply does not admit “no” as an answer. As such, I disagree that we need to appeal to a more basic principle. There can be nothing more basic than the self-evident. Instead we have to look at derived or dependent ideas and realize that we could not have reached them if did not accept volition. An axiom or an axiomatic concept cannot be derived, deduced or proved from anything more basic. It has to be grasped and induced from a number of less basic things. I will provide an example below.

    The fact that I cannot accept determinism does not mean that I haven’t struggled with the issue. But the root of the struggle lies in the seeming conflict between volition and causality. It is a scientific puzzle and not a doubt about whether I really have volition or not. All current scientific knowledge seems to say that volition is not possible. But that does not mean we can reject volition. That would be twisting fact to suit existing theory. We need to find new theories that can account for volition.

    You should read “The Emporer’s New Mind” and “Shadows of the Mind” by Roger Penrose. The first book attempts a refutation of artificial intelligence. The second book completes it by mathematically demonstrating that human understanding is not algorithmic – it is qualitatively different from anything a Universal Turing Machine can do. Penrose uses a variant of Godel’s incompleteness proof to demonstrate this. In the second half of the book, Penrose argues that we need a new breakthrough in physics to understand the working of the human mind. I read it about an year back but haven’t yet been able to digest all of it.

    Although Penrose does not directly address the question of free will, concepts as basic as truth are meaningless without free will. Consider a tape recorder reciting some statement. Is the statement true? The truth of the statement depends on the existence of an entity which can understand the meaning of the statement. Suppose the statement is in Chinese. And I am hearing it. To me the statement is neither true nor false. In fact it is not a statement at all until I can figure out which language the statement is in. Truth is inseparable from meaning. A word (or statement) has meaning when it describes some existent. But in a purely deterministic or random world, nothing could be said to describe anything else. Would you say that an effect describes a cause or vice versa? Or that an effect describes another effect?

    Can you do without the concept of truth? Obviously not. If you rejected the concept of truth you wouldn’t even be able to ask “Is the doctrine that humans have free-will true?” But truth depends on free will. As I wrote above in a purely deterministic world, this question has no meaning. Since I already have a number of concepts that I cannot reject all of which depend on the existence of free – will, I induce the existence of free – will from them.

  5. Krishnamurthy wrote:
    I do not understand why a statement by a tape recorder cannot be true.

    I can surely visualise an isolated tape recorder which is making statements about itself, some of which are in accordance with reality, and some of which are not. The former ones I call true statements, and the latter false.

    I guess the issue is whether the truth label is an inherent property of the statement or if it’s something each observer/listener assigns to it. You seem to suggest the latter, and imply that a deterministic observers’ label assignment would have no meaning/significance.

    Anyways, I will read the books you mentioned (assuming I have free will 🙂 )

  6. >I guess the issue is whether the truth label is an inherent property of the statement or if it’s something each observer/listener assigns to it.
    If you consider a statement in its concrete form, a sequence of sounds or a set of symbols on paper, it is clear that inherently the statement has no meaning. It only acquires meaning when those sounds or symbols are assigned meanings through a language. The language is external to the concrete form of the statement.
    I am claiming that language as such cannot exist in a deterministic world. I am not fully clear about my chain of reasoning but it is something like this. Language involves concepts. Concepts involve reference. Reference involves intention to refer. Intention requires free will.
    Let me try to clarify “Reference involves intention to refer”. Consider the pattern of letters in the following word ‘sky’. It refers to the actual sky because that is what I intend it to refer to. Consider an ink blot formed by chance (no conscious intention) that resembles the same pattern of letters. Does the ink blot refer to the actual sky? I would answer no. Without the intention to refer, there can be no reference.

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