Essay by Laurence which was not included with the email
Can we create ourselves?
We instinctively believe that the answer to this question is yes, we can create ourselves, or at least to some degree. We accept that we cannot create ourselves completely; we do not choose our bodies or our early formative experiences, two things which play a crucial role in determining the people that we become. However, we tend to believe that beyond these limiting factors we have a self which does have the power to create itself.
Where does this conviction come from? Every single day of our lives we experience a sort of radical freedom. We are faced with choices and the inescapable feeling that we are radically free to do whatever we want. Right now you’re reading a philosophy essay but you’re free to go and make yourself a cup of tea, put your feet up and watch TV instead. In any given dilemma you are not free to not choose. You may choose to do nothing but this is still a choice. Sartre went as far as to say that we are “condemned to be free”. The sense that we have a free will and that we can be held responsible for our actions stems from the fact that we are faced with this phenomenon every single second of our waking lives. In a situation when we are faced with two possible courses of action—a ‘to be or not to be’—we are fully conscious of the situation, and we know we can choose one of two paths. This gives us the impression that we are responsible for the course of our lives, that we are creating ourselves.
But if we look a little closer, it appears we are not so responsible after all. To be responsible for the way you are, you must have somehow intentionally brought it about that you are the way you are. Now, supposing that you did bring about a certain mental nature, Z, it must be the case that you brought about this new mental state from an earlier one, Y. In order for you to be responsible for mental state Z, which was brought about by Y, it is necessary for you to be responsible for mental state Y. Again there must be a prior mental state, which we’ll call X, which was responsible for bringing about Y. This is the start of an infinite regress. What we’re looking for -- an act of ultimate self-origination-- is impossible to find.
Schopenhauer put it best when he wrote that “man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. For man to will what he wills he would have to be the cause of himself, ‘causa sui’. Nietzsche called the causa sui the “the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far” and a “rape and perversion of logic” and went on to write that “the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui” and amounted this to pulling “oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness”.
The argument can be elucidated if we consider a person’s life trajectory. Initially we are the way we are due to heredity and early experience. It would be ludicrous to suppose that a baby can be held responsible for the way he is. As the child gets older he begins to change but, as Galen Strawson wrote, “both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and experience”. Here we get a clear picture of the “brazen wall of fate” which, according to Nietzsche, we are confronted with in our lives. In our day to day lives there are indications that we understand the impossibility of being causa sui. We understand that children cannot be held responsible for the way they are but there seems to be an indelible belief that once we reach adulthood we become responsible. As Strawson notes, “E.H. Carr held that ‘normal adult human beings are morally responsible for their own personality”. How can we pinpoint this act of self-determination? It is impossible to do this because of the argument stated above.
Pick up a newspaper and you are likely to find an article about, let’s say, ‘antisocial teenagers’ and often the comment will read: ‘blame the parents’. Here is a sure fire indication that we recognise the impossibility of being causa sui but we recognise the impossibility in a limited sense—we do not go far enough. If we take the impossibility to its logical conclusion it is clear that no one can be blamed at all. We see children as determined by heredity and their environment but see adults as wholly responsible for the way they are. Even if we were able to isolate a point in time when we go through an act of self-determination, we would not be responsible for this act because it would have occurred due to the way we were before it. The causa sui argument is a truly insurmountable hurdle for anyone wishing to prove that we are in any way responsible for the way we are.
It seems that our belief in free will is also bound up in our notions of the self. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” still has a strong influence on the way we think of ourselves, but it is full of problems, some of which play a part in maintaining the illusion of free will. The first mistake that Descartes made was to accept a convention of grammar which says that the word “thinks” requires a subject. Apart from being a convention of grammar, the use of a subject before a verb serves a practical purpose. However, in the present circumstances, when we are looking to determine the existence of a self it is far more appropriate to use a non-referring grammatical subject rather than the misleading term “I”. As such, instead of saying “I think”, Descartes should have said “it thinks”. This would avoid all the inaccuracies which would undoubtedly arise from using a term such as “I” which is bound up in meaning. George Christoph Lichtenberg suggested it would be far more appropriate to say “it thinks” in the same way as we say “it thunders”. Use of the word “thunders” requires a subject in the same way as “thinks” does. As such we say “it thunders” even though the grammatical subject “it” does not refer to anything. When we say “it thunders”, all that is denoted is “that there is thunder”. When we want to say “thinks”, the grammatical requirement for a subject could just as easily be fulfilled by employing the word “it” so we would say “it thinks”. Descartes’ famous dictum can be reduced to “it thinks, therefore there are thoughts”. What does this prove exactly?
The second mistake that Descartes made was to suppose that thinking is an activity brought about by a being that can be thought of as the cause of this thinking. This can again be seen as the symptom of a grammatical habit which supposes that for every activity there is an agent. Thinking is an activity so it is assumed that there must be an agent. Peter Poellner notes that “it is grammar which misleads us into thinking that, apart from the (changing) qualities, effects, or ‘powers’ of a ‘thing’, there is some permanent, unchanging and unknown, seat or bearer of these properties in which an object’s qualities inhere and from which its powers emanate”. Throughout the history of philosophy there are numerous conceptions of this ‘permanent bearer of properties’: Plato’s immortal soul, Descartes’ cogito and Kant’s transcendental subject. All of these sought to prove the existence of some ‘agent-self’ which exists over and above our fleeting mental states.
The concept of a self which is able to cause mental states is merely a projection. This can be elucidated by highlighting the parallels between this projection and that of cause and effect. Hume delivered the first revolutionary blow against traditional conceptions of cause and effect by asserting that the supposed necessity of cause and effect resides ‘in the mind, not in objects’. We only get an idea of cause and effect by regularly perceiving a certain cause being followed by a certain effect— through the contiguity and constant conjunction of objects in Humean terms. Nietzsche agreed but went further:
Hume was right; habit (but not only that of the individual!) makes us expect that a certain often-observed occurrence will follow another: nothing more! That which gives the extraordinary firmness to our belief in causality is not the great habit of seeing one occurrence following another but our inability to interpret events otherwise than as events caused by intentions.
Nietzsche would hold that this inability brings about the belief in a permanent agent-self which exists over and above our mental states. This leads us to Nietzsche’s proclamation that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything”.
Our belief in free will can also be put down to other deep seated convictions. Consider the concept of punishment. If we are not responsible for our actions, surely it’s not fair for us to be punished. 2000 years of Christianity have taught the western world that we have the freedom to choose to be good or bad and that we will be punished or rewarded accordingly. Imagine being condemned to spend eternity in hell just for being the way you are, something you are not responsible for. That wouldn’t be fair. Well, according to Nietzsche it was this train of thought that led to the ‘invention’ of free will. Nietzsche called the concept of free will “the foulest of all theologians’ artifices, aimed at making mankind ‘responsible’... [T]he doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wanted to impute guilt”. Nietzsche sees that in order for man to be judged and punished it is necessary for him to be considered free—“so that they might become guilty”. Nietzsche identifies priests as the originators of this “old psychology”; it was conditioned by the priests’ desire to “create for themselves the right to punish”. Importantly, the consequence of this desire is that “every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within the consciousness”.
Perhaps the concept of free will was indeed ‘invented’. What are the consequences of rejecting it? Will this knowledge serve me in some way? Will it make me change the way I behave? Is it positive or negative? Nietzsche’s attitude was clear. Throughout his works there are references to ‘amor fati’ (love of fate).
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it... but love it.
Another answer, one that I am inclined to agrre with, comes not from a philosopher, but from a scientist, a certain Albert Einstein, who said:
I do not believe in freedom of will. Schopenhauer's words, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills,” have accompanied me throughout my life and console me in my dealings with others, even those which are truly painful to me. This recognition of the lack of freedom of will helps me avoid taking myself and my fellow men—both as actors and as individuals casting judgment—too seriously, just as it protects me from losing a sense of humor.