04 February 2008

Historical Inevitability-Part 1

...When we speak freely, it is not the liberty of voice, or pronunciation, but of the man, whom no law hath obliged to speak otherwise than he did. Lastly, from the use of the words 'free will,' no liberty can be inferred of the will, desire, or inclination, but [only of] the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do.
Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, XIX
In recent months I've been startled by the tendency for recent books on history to allude to the "non-inevitability" of certain historical events. One that stands in my memory is Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, Penguin (2004).
Developments that seem inevitable in retrospect were by no means so at the time, and in writing this book I have tried to remind the reader repeatedly that things could easily have turned out very differently to the way they did at a number of points in the history of Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. People make their own history, as Karl Marx once memorably observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Those conditions included not only the historical context in which they lived, but also the way in which they thought, the assumptions they acted upon, and the principles and beliefs that informed their behaviour... For all these reasons, it seems to me inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgment. For one thing, it is unhistorical; for another, it is arrogant and presumptuous. I cannot know how I would have behaved if I had lived under the Third Reich, if only because, if I had lived then, I would have been a different person from the one I am now.
Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, p.XX
A quick search turns up two places where Evans did remind the reader of the "non-inevitability" of history; on p.43 ("...the German past was a burdensome one in many respects. But it did not make the rise and triumph of Nazism inevitable. The shadows cast by Bismarck might eventually have been dispelled...") and p.444 ("Nor was everything that subsequently happened in the history of the Third Reich made inevitable by Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. Chance and contingency were to play their part here, too, as they had before.").1

This question of inevitability in history is actually fairly problematic, and in what follows I am going to confine myself to outlining the basic problem.

Free Will

An ancient philosophical problem is that of free will. In some religions, there is a major quandary over the power of mortals to "earn" salvation. In Roman Catholicism, for example, humans possess ultimate control (and therefore, praise or blame) over their actions. Hence, damnation is "fair" because those damned to hell could have chosen to be righteous, but did not. In Calvinism, humans do not possess any control over their actions; damnation is not "fair," since humans lack the ability to chose the righteous path anyway. Since the 19th century, the Calvinist perspective has been somewhat revived by behaviorists, who argue that doctrines of freedom and dignity are illusions, and that all human behavior (including thought) is determined by conditioning.2 Subsequently, neurologists, inter alia, have claimed that mental processes are a random natural event, analogous to meteorological processes.

In fact, Immanuel Kant had addressed this problem in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787), II.ii.2, under the rubric of the "Third Antinomy of Pure Reason. " Kant proposed two alternative conclusions, between which there was no middle ground, and which were equally impossible:
  1. The free will of sentient beings constitutes one of many forces in the universe;
  2. All events are determined by prior causes, including the mental events that we mistakenly characterize as our "free will."
Kant "proves" each of the two propositions by refuting the converse. To paraphrase, (1) is impossible because the transcendental notion of freedom presupposes an initial state of mind capable of selecting a subsequent state of mind.3 Each state of mind is dependent on the state immediately before it, since one's desires and principles cannot change without some rational cause (viz., some sense-event, such as witnessing something surprising). Likewise, the consequence of one's mental state on, say, Tuesday, is one's mental state on Wednesday. This precludes a free choice of mental state on Wednesday.

Conversely, (2) is impossible because it requires an infinite regression of explanatory events. In other words, we insist on describing the conditions that led someone to have a certain mental state in terms of some other physical events, including the mental state an instant earlier (say, a peculiar configuration of the molecules in one's brain). This prior state has come to be after a moment earlier, when it was not. This is a paradox.4 Kant seems to me to be arguing in his follow-up that the power of reason on mental states has to be understood as the essence of "freedom," in so far as it stands apart from strictly phenomenal influences on mental state and physical events. This is not really satisfactory, because "reason" is simply a catch-all for mental processes which undoubtedly conform to some mechanism.

A close reading of Kant is exceptionally difficult, but his predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, made the point that "free will" had no meaning beyond "acting without hindrance." Thinking this through, it seems as though free will can be defined relative to one's consciousness. I am aware of sitting here typing this sentence. I am conscious of a subsequent idea that needs to be expressed in sequence. I elect to type this subsequent idea using the words that you are presently reading. Indeed, I am not aware of any force stopping me from doing so, or forcing me to suddenly start typing about puppy biscuits. True, my sensation of having wanted to type this article may be a delusion caused by some mechanism, but insisting on the absence of any form of mechanism imposes a logically (and transcendentally) impossible demand on the meaning of the phrase, "free will." It means that there is no universe possible in which "free will" means anything. If I want to type an article about free will, and instead my body types words about puppy biscuits, then I am without free will. While I have, at rare moments of my life, suffered involuntary muscle spasms or tics, I have never had the experience of consciously willing my body to do one thing, and it doing something else.

(to be continued)

  1. Richard J. Evans also wrote In Defense of History, W.W. Norton (1999); chapter 5 addresses causation. I have not read this book, although I have skimmed chapter 5.

  2. "Freedom" refers, obviously, to an individual's power to choose an act; "dignity" refers, here, to the honor of having chosen well (or being trusted to choose well). Frequently, when Usonians use the word "freedom" as an abstract concept of liberty, they really mean "dignity": the principle that they are entitled to have their choice honored, on the grounds that their choice has a higher moral worth than choices made for them by others. The principle of dignity as a foundation of political ethics is attacked by B.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Hacket (1971). When I said behaviorists had "revived" Calvinism, I was being facetious; this essay withholds my opinion of Skinner and his prescriptions.

  3. Transcendental: in metaphysics, the relationship among entirely abstract propositions. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy linking abstract propositions to physical ones. State of mind: to put the matter another way, suppose we wish to make a judgment of somebody for being racist. We all agree that racism is bad. Strom Thurmond is an egregious example of a racist person. His contemporary admirers might argue that his racism was merely an unfortunate byproduct of his times, although Thurmond was an exceptionally virulent racist, even for one born in North Carolina in 1902. Suppose we disregard the explanation that his racism was entirely a random byproduct of the peculiar neurochemistry of his brain. We therefore assert that his choice of racism at any given instant reflects the state of his mind in the preceding instant. By the assumption of free will, we are compelled to expect him to evaluate any sense-event using his prior mental state. But his prior mental state is a "slave" to the mental state he had immediately before that. His racism on Thursday is mainly the result of his racism on Wednesday, which is mainly the result of his racism on Tuesday.

  4. The paradox is not exactly clear to me, except that Kant regards infinite regress as unacceptable. Things have to begin somewhere. Another point, though, is that each event (say, my state of mind on Wednesday) has a large set of consequences, of which my state of mind Thursday is only one; and it is the manifold (resulting configuration) of many causes, of which my state of mind Tuesday is only one. Eventually we are obligated to consider the mental state as some form of actor.


Joshua Cherniss & Henry Hardy, "Isaiah Berlin: Free Will & Determinism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008)

James R. MacLean, "Technology and History," Reshaping Narrow Law & Art (Nov 2005); "Change in the Weather," Ibid. (Dec 2005); " On the word 'Tend'," Ibid. (April 2007)

Dr. Alun Munslow, Review of '87 edition of E.H. Carr's What is History?Institute of Historical Research

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