The Thinking Poet


Frustration of the Will 1999

Freedom of the will has been on the philosophical agenda for centuries, but what about frustration of the will? So far as I know, no enquiry has been made into this daily human encounter, neither have questions concerning its philosophical implications been raised.

 This morning, in the usual semi-somnambulant state of first awakening, I reached for the soap several times. At each attempt the slippery tablet shot from my grasp. A short while later, whilst preparing breakfast, an annoying little fly hovered about me, tantalizingly close. Yet at every attempt to terminate the life of the wretched beast it evaded my clapped hands.

 Throughout the day there will arise similar examples of frustration. The aim of willed action is frequently diverted from its target by a combination of both animate and inanimate deflecting causes. It is in our nature to feel anything from mild frustration to downright raging anger when we do not get our way. Perhaps the philosophical question central to experience is not so much whether our will is free, but rather the manner in which constraints impinge upon value-motivated intentionality.

 We are continually setting ourselves goals. In order to achieve a goal, an end-state, we must mentally prepare and specify a series of actions that we hope will culminate in reaching the end-state. Philosophers since Aristotle have referred to such action as teleological. It is not in the nature of molecules to plan for the future. Laplacean science admits no concepts that accommodate a planning "I". Evidently there is something in the unique path of events that prescribes the goal of intentionality that is outside the realm of physical law as we understand it.

 Freedom too implies that we either set into motion a unique path of events, or we abort it. Either way we are once again in the realms of something extra-physical. In other words a solution to the "freedom problem" cannot be sought in terms of mere causality.This conviction is shared by Malcolm Clifton in his article in this year's Oxford Philosophical Society Review in which he writes: Freedom is essentially different from any physical process.----Physical events per se cannot contain the potentiality for freedom, which is intrinsically mental or spiritual in character.

 Freedom, it seems, is in our ability to overcome the frustration of unachieved goals by adapting to fresh strategies. If at first we don't succeed we are free to prescribe an entirely new unique path of events that will arrive at the same conjectured end-state. Frustration fuels the journey to success.

 I have said that freedom implies that we either set into motion a unique path of events, or we abort it. Either way we initiate a decision. The free-will debate however has traditionally focused upon the possibility that somehow we are forced to follow a path of events. Freedom then is denied if we are compelled to initiate some action within a continuous and ongoing causal pattern. To be precise the word "initiate" in this context is inappropriate. The picture would be more that of a causal-train in the environment that continues unabated within a person. The person could then be said to be constrained to act as an obedient mechanism.

 But, we may ask, obedient to what? To the demands of genes; to the blind and purposeless motion of molecules? But this is to go contrary to everything that our subjectivity tells us. The whole point of my behaviour is that it is conditioned by what I choose to call purpose: I grasp the soap to wash; I clap my hands together to kill the fly. It would seem to be a perverse and contradictory piece of pedantry to argue that the purpose of my act in each case is served by the purposeless play of matter. I could hardly endow the universe with the attribute of purposelessness unless I first understood, felt, and acted upon the concept of purpose.

Purpose and freedom, as I have suggested, are central elements of our subjective experience and can be no part of inanimate matter as we understand it. We cannot have it both ways. If the evolutionary sweep of molecules is essentially blind and without purpose we had better look elsewhere to explain our constant will for purpose, even the purpose of a Richard Dawkins whose mission is to deny purpose.

 One final point. There is a sense in which our behaviour may be perceived as no longer free, and that is when we choose to delegate it to habit, routine, and mechanical patterns invested in the cerebellum. For the accomplished executant much of driving a car or playing the piano is no longer under the conscious will of the person. In a sense the initial freedom of action has gone. But the automatic pilot mode is consequent upon an initial purposeful act being made.    


                                             RONALD R. CRETCHLEY, 22.11 99.