The Question Of Free Will

Those physicians were wise who, at a recent congress, voted to refuse making any statement upon the problems of responsibility propounded to them by the courts. What does responsibility mean? Where does it begin? What are its boundaries?

One finds himself here not in the presence of a question of simple legal medicine; to speak of responsibility is to speak of free will, and to speak of free will is to be plunged into the fundamental mysteries of human philosophy. These mysteries, to tell the truth, are mysteries only because it is to man’s interest that things should be so. We are accustomed to consider human acts as free acts, voluntarily consented to; the adoption of a contrary view would so interfere with our habits that social life would become exceedingly difficult. Our teachers or experience have taught us that our body is capable of two kinds of movement,—the one involuntary and necessary, such as respiration, or the circulation of the blood, and the other voluntary, accomplished at will,—the movement of our limbs, our tongue, our lips. But a closer examination would soon show us that this division is very arbitrary. It is impossible for us to make our heart stop beating; but is it really possible to stop our finger from moving, and if it is, for how long? We can cease eating: but for how long? We can even stop breathing; for how long? In reality, the freedom of our bodily movements, if it exists, is a limited freedom, a freedom exercised within a very narrow circle,—the freedom of a prisoner who can pace back and forth in his cell. Similarly, the exercise of our external activity is subjected to rather strict conditions: we can speak, walk, work in a thousand different ways, but during a certain time only. At the end of this time we feel that our freedom is exhausted, we are at the end of our chain. There is nothing more to do: we must obey. In whatever direction we may turn we behold looming forth the obstacle that will certainly bar our way. Sometimes there is annexed to the prison a little courtyard where we may walk about a little, but this courtyard is itself only a prison: the boundary has been set back a few paces, that is all.

If we now pass to the examination of the most delicate organs of our body,—the brain and the nervous system,—we see that the motions executed within these organs are likewise limited in their evolutions. I employ these simple terms expressly, that I may be better understood. We perceive these motions in the form of sensations or thoughts. Are we free to be hot or cold, to be hungry or thirsty? Are we independent of the ideas that come to us, the images that are formed in our mind, that is to say, our brain? No, most assuredly. At least, then, we are free to receive them or reject them, to show them the door or smilingly invite them in? Here we reach the crux of the question, for it is at this point that the will intervenes. What, indeed, is the will? The will is nothing more than the realization, effected by our mind, that of two motives one is more powerful than the other. The will is perhaps the least voluntary and the least free element in our make-up. Before it declares itself, we are often in a state that gives us the illusion of liberty. We are still in ignorance as to whether we shall go to right or to left. These moments of vacillation are sometimes agreeable and sometimes disagreeable. Most often they pass unperceived, and we find ourselves started on one of the two paths, totally unawares. Our will has acted mechanically. Our mind has worked like an automatic scale.

Whatever we do, there is a cause, and this cause itself depends upon another, and so on to infinity. If I am at this moment smoking a cigar, it is because Christopher Columbus discovered America. The search for causes leads to authentications of this order. But our acts have only a single direct cause. Several influences have combined and weighed upon the lever. Often, when we reflect upon the motives for our acts, we imagine that we have found them, yet the most important motive has escaped us. To enter into examples of this would be to enter the absurd; Pascal has given one which has become famous,—his epigram about Cleopatra’s nose. It is saying little to aver that effects and causes are united like the links of a chain. I see effects and causes rather in the guise of an extremely complicated fabric, of which every thread depends upon the others. But such a representation may not be made materially. Let it suffice for us to understand and to admit that none of our actions is the beginning of a series. There is only a single series, which does not seem to have had a beginning and whose end it is impossible to foresee.

Notwithstanding, we have the sentiment of liberty, and consequently, of responsibility. These are very curious illusions and very mysterious, but illusions none the less. Among those of which our life is composed, they are perhaps the most useful; they are even more,—they are necessary. We are not free, yet we cannot act except by believing ourselves free. If for a moment we actually ceased to believe in free will, we should at once cease to act altogether. In his book on Duplicisme Humain, M. Camille Sabatier has written: “Liberty is as inexplicable as it is certain.” It is, in my opinion, the illusion of liberty that is as inexplicable as it is certain, and, I add, necessary. Where I agree fully with him is when he asserts that the matter presents “a mystery of our nature.” He has attempted a most ingenious explanation, but which, I believe, leaves still standing the determinist objections, of which I have summarized several of the features. It is the eternal opposition of feeling and, not reason but reasoning. But it matters little whether they teach and adopt one or the other theory; that could have no influence upon the conduct of men or upon their judgments. Nor would it have any influence upon our manner of looking upon crime and the various infractions of the law and moral conventions. If men are free and consequently responsible, there need be no change in our judicial institutions. If men are not free, if they are irresponsible, there need still be no change, for a crime is a crime just the same,—always an anti-social act against the repetition of which it is necessary to protect ourselves. It even seems that the determinists, to whom I belong, would be inclined rather to a very severe repression. A philosophic doctrine is not necessarily a social doctrine. A determinist, doubtless, could not admit the idea of punishment, but he will readily admit that of repression. And it all comes to the same thing. We must live. Societies have no choice. But it is easy to understand why the physicians, who are almost all determinists, should have resolved not to take a stand upon questions of responsibility. That is not within the province of medicine, which should limit itself to declaring whether the subject is healthy or ill, and to caring for him if he is entrusted into its hands.

One may, moreover, in agreement with Dr. Grasset, and also with the facts and common sense, admit that there are mentally sick persons, and that these persons vary as to the degree to which they are affected, that is to say, they are more or less conscious, more or less able to resist their impulses. The hypothesis of determinism cannot make us forget all the visible shades of difference between the normal individual and the typical madman. The normal man receives varied impressions, external and internal; some impel him to action, others hold him back: he establishes an equilibrium. Normal life is nothing but that,—a state of equilibrium, a static condition. The man who is termed abnormal is, on the contrary, more or less constantly out of balance. He is impelled by one force that is not counterbalanced by another: he falls. When the wind blows always from the same direction upon a row of pines, it bends them all in the same direction. If the wind, though violent, blows alternately from opposite directions, the trees remain erect. These rows of pines will provide us, not with the image, but with the schema of the normal and the abnormal man. Neither one nor the other,—and the man as little as the tree,—is responsible either for the origin, or the power, or the direction of the wind which bends them and straightens them in turn or, on the contrary, breaks them forever as if they were mere reeds; there remains however, the fact, that while the one kept itself erect in a healthy posture, despite occasionally rude shocks, the other, subjected to a constant pressure, bent over from day to day with its head nearer to the ground, or even, as the result of a more than usually violent tempest, broke altogether.

It is a fact, and one must keep it in mind when he passes judgment upon trees or upon men. It is a fact, and that is all. Nevertheless, if the tree has been uprooted by a violent tempest, there is nothing left but to call the wood-cutters, who are the judges of trees. If they inquire into the cause of the disaster, it will be through pure curiosity; their business does not lie there; they know their duty and will perform it.

When we shall have exhausted all the arguments for and against all the degrees of responsibility that may be discovered in a healthy or a sick person, we shall find ourselves in agreement with the social wood-cutters, with the magistrates, on the necessity of removing and forever ridding society of him. Then, having once more become philosophers, we shall try to reach agreement upon this point: that it is a matter not of administering punishment but of preserving ourselves; our interest should be centered not upon the author, but the purpose of the crime. Let us not even speak of crime; let us speak of danger. Ah! How simple it all would be, or at least more simple than at present, if the notion of criminal act was superseded by that of dangerous act. The idea of crime is a metaphysical idea; the idea of danger is a social idea. The opinions of MM. Baudin, Faguet and de Fleury, which frighten M. Grasset, are in principle highly acceptable. On the occasion of each new crime society cannot institute a new philosophical debate nor set about resolving questions which, ever since there have been men who think, have troubled human thought. For some time they have not been asking the jury for their opinion upon the materiality of a fact; they subject them to an examination in philosophy. It’s ridiculous.

There are on one side the assassins and on the other the assassinated. What difference does it make to me whether the fellow who’ll split my head be an apache or a lunatic? What does matter to me, is to live. I feel intense compassion for the sick, but I am very anxious that persons suffering with madness be shut in.

All men are ill, said Hippocrates. We all need care; so I see nothing wrong about criminals attracting special attention from the medical corps. There are so many interesting cases among them!


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