A George Santayana Home Page

Free Will

Use of moral

Essence / existence
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Spirit incarnate
Virtual knowledge
Mind function of body

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Free will

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©1996-2017 T. P. Davis

From Reason in Religion

The insoluble problems of the origin of evil and of freedom, in a world produced in its every fibre by omnipotent goodness, can never be understood until we remember their origin. They are artificial problems, unknown to philosophy before it betook itself to the literal justification of fables in which the objects of rational endeavour were represented as causes of natural existence. The former are internal products of life, the latter its external conditions. When the two are confused we reach the contradiction confronting Saint Augustine, and all who to this day have followed in his steps. The cause of everything must have been the cause of sin, yet the principle of good could not be the principle of evil. Both propositions were obviously true, and they were contradictory only after the mythical identification of the God which meant the ideal of life with the God which meant the forces of nature.

Religion at 167-168 (The Christian Compromise) [#675 1901]

From Reason in Religion

The existence of any evil . . . is a proof that some accident has intruded into God's works. [W]e must admit into the world . . . a principle . . . which is not rational. . . . For we wish to . . . maintain our loyalty to the good . . . . To pious feeling, the free-will of creatures, their power, active or passive, of independent origination, is the explanation of all defects; and everything which is not helpful to men's purposes must be assigned to their own irrationality as its cause. Herein lies the explanation of that paradox in religious feeling which attributes sin to the free will, but repentance and every good work to divine grace.

Religion at 143-144 (Conflict of Mythology with Moral Truth) [#674 1905]

From The Realm of Essence: Book First of Realms of Being

Hence the earnestness and honesty with which the defenders of free-will assert at once two incompatible things: indetermination and power. They are expressing the life of matter, which is indeed not determined exactly to reproduce its previous forms, but tumbles forward to fresh collocations; and the power in it is truly internal—not a compelling magic exercised by any fixed form, energising either out of the past or out of the future, but indeed a potentiality or propensity within the substance concerned, a part of that blind impulse and need to shift which is native to existence; and as this universal dance was groundless in the beginning, so it remains groundless at every stage and in every factor, whether the figures of it be novel or habitual. This groundless pervasive power, with its tireless inner monotony and its occasional outward novelties, is matter thumping in the hearts of free-willists much more loudly than in those of their opponents. Believers in necessity have caught sight of some essence—a law or habit or rule of some kind—which they make haste to clap upon nature, as if nature had no further depth, and they had touched bottom with their proverbs; as knowing people are always incredulous of things not within their experience or their books. At some depth, and in terms not at all on the human scale, nature may very well be mechanical—I shall return to this question in its place; but each factor in that mechanism would remain perfectly spontaneous; for it is not the essence illustrated here than can produce the essence illustrated there. One configuration cannot even suggest another, save to an idle mind playing with the rhymes of appearance; but substance throughout continues groundlessly to shift its groundless arrangement. One inert essence after another is thereby embodied in things—essences inwardly irrelevant, and associated even in thought only when thought has been tamed and canalised by custom. The method of this transformation may contain repetitions, and to that extent it will be mechanical; but it will never become anything but a perpetual genesis of the unwarrantable out of the contingent, mediated by a material continuity impartial towards those complications. So the common man feels that he is the source of his actions and words, though they spring up in him unbidden; and he weaves a sophisticated moral personage, all excuses, fictions, and verbal motives, to cover the unknown currents of his material life. Philosophers are not wanting to do the same for mankind at large, or even for the universe.

Essence at 80-81 (Implication) [#677 1927]

From The Realm of Matter: Book Second of Realms of Being

A man's body . . . is enormously complex, and his will highly conditioned and insecure, so that he thinks it free; but if we take him and his will in the flush of action, as factors in the moral world, they count as units.

Matter at 92 (The Flux of Existence) [#678 1930]

From The Genteel Tradition at Bay

The soul, being an independent centre of force, would have come, on this hypothesis, into the body from without, and would continue to act upon it from within, until perhaps she escaped to pursue elsewhere her separate fortunes. This independent initiative of hers would be her free will: free in respect to material laws or solicitations, but of course conformable to her own instinct and native direction, as well as subject to the original dispositions and dynamic balance of the total universe, natural and supernatural. We must not confuse the dualism of origin in human acts, asserted by this theory of a supernatural soul, with any supposed absolute indetermination of either soul or body, or of their natural effects upon one another.

Genteel Tradition at Bay at 37-40 (The Appeal to the Supernatural) [#679 1931]

From The Philosophy of George Santayana

I think that the old controversy about freedom and necessity was always morally futile, because whether, in physical genesis, there be continuity or fresh beginnings, law or chance, the spirit is equally the sport of fact. The freedom and dominion morally possible are of another kind, touching not the genesis of facts but the wisdom of the affections. Affections may liberate the heart or they may enslave it. This is not a question of good or ill fortune supervening, but of being or not being deceived in the original choice of our interests.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 592 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#681 1940]

From The Realm of Spirit: Book Fourth of Realms of Being

I do not, then, deny either the efficacy or the indetermination of human action or Will, but only a miraculous interference of spirit or of visionary objects with the flux of matter.

The universe, however broken and inconsequential may be its course, is what it is as a whole; but this totality is itself contingent; so that while I have not the least faith or hope in indeterminism, I see that all regularity is relative and factual, and by no means imposed on existence by any essence or law. The freedom that so many people, learned and unlearned, passionately wish to possess is a vital freedom, freedom to be themselves, and to bring to light the potentialities of their psyches, all knocking at the door of life. This freedom exists; and though variously modified by the acquired habits of the psyche, it belongs fundamentally to all life, if not to all change. Everything is what it is by its own initiative, not because some other thing was like it earlier, and compelled it to repeat that essence. Essences are all passive, and the flux of existence is as self-guided at every point as at the beginning.

As to freedom proper to spirit, this is no power to move matter by magic, but the fact of being sometimes liberated from distraction and permitted to be pure spirit.

Spirit at 282-283 (General Review of Realms of Being) [#682 1940]

From The Idea of Christ in the Gospels; or, God in Man: A Critical Essay

Nevertheless, within the created world there need be no logical necessity. All events may remain contingent, all laws ideally changeable and perhaps actually plastic or only approximately applicable when when they apply. Human choices in particular may be utterly unpredictable by any anthropologist, historian or psychologist, and intimately inexplicable to the man himself who makes them, or in whom they occur. But then, paradoxically, the more groundless our choices seem, the less they seem to be ours: and an absolute freedom comes round again to absolute fatality. I think there is a word that might solve this ancient riddle. It would come to us if we distinguished clearly the physical from the moral order. Contingency in the physical order is quite irrelevant to freedom in the spirit or to responsibility of a moral sort. If I heartily love my transgressions, and am ready to stick with them forever, I am spiritually one with them, no matter what causes or antecedents might explain my love according to the usual course of nature. If, on the contrary, I hate my transgressions, or hate my hypocritical values, God will not charge me with them, seeing that they were contrary to my free will, and only imposed on my ignorance and helplessness by forces hostile to my moral nature and hidden heart. Moral freedom, therefore, does not lie in alleged magic power to produce events contrary to the course of nature; it lies only in the physically undiscoverable love of the spirit for that which it truly loves. The will is free, not because it is uncaused historically, but because it is a moral choice and allegiance by its very nature. For as Saint Augustine asks: Quid magis in voluntate quam ipsa voluntas? Love, which has obvious biological grounds as a vital habit, is spiritually the first possible seat, instance, and essence of freedom.

Idea of Christ at 192-193 (The Concept of Creation) [#683 1946]

From The Letters of George Santayana

For instance, you suggest the old question of freedom of the Will or necessity. But now-a-days "necessity" and "causation" are ambiguous concepts. I should say, for instance, that no fact was or could be necessary, all existence being by definition contingent. Would it follow from this that I believe in free will? Not at all. The ways of nature are contingent in that logically they might just as well have been different or not to have been discernible at all, if no trope had ever been repeated. But tropes are repeated more or less: events to that extent are predictable on the assumption that these chance repetitions will continue regularly. There is therefore no traceable problem of freedom or necessity in the history of philosophy, but only confused contradictory talk on uncriticised presumptions.

Letters 7:349 (To William Gerber, Rome, July 6, 1947) [#684 1947]

From Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government

[The intuition of truth which we may draw from the earnest and deep-rooted conviction of many conscientious people who are sure that there is absolute contingency in their deliberate choices is] the inadequacy of the conscious arguments crowding and disputing in the mind to cause or justify the decisions taken. With this comes also the intuition of a positive truth, that beneath that loud forum of sophistical pleadings there is a silent judge, the self, that decides according to its free will, contingently, and inexplicably. For the close texture of events in nature is what it is by chance; yet what it is by chance determines, according to the occasion offered, what it shall do by nature. The affinities of this self are far more constant and certain than the passing passions or influences that may absorb conscious attention. Therefore the self can check its reasoning fancy; it can repel sensuous suggestions; it can seek dangerous adventures apparently without reason; it can recover its freedom, and reverse its habits and opinions. Moreover, this hidden self is, like every other centre or kind of movement in nature, perfectly contingent in being groundlessly determinate; and to this profound characteristic of all existence self-consciousness bears witness in the conviction that a man is the author of his actions, and that his actions are free.

The consciousness of acting freely, and not by the measured weight of motives or reason, has therefore a natural basis, not only in human nature, but in the essence of all existence. But it is not so that in Christendom this feeling has been interpreted. Instead of fetching man's vital initiative from the very rudiments of life, spontaneity has been attenuated into something non-natural and nonsensical . . . . Responsible was only the free will which wickedly chose sin, when the motives for sinning and for not sinning were naturally perfectly balanced. . . .

This is not the place for examining the mythological and conceptual habits of thought that led to this singular conclusion; they are a part of the verbal and imaginative jungle which the exuberant fertility of nature breeds in the innocent mind. And society has done much to aggravate the confusion and the pain of these moral entanglements; for it has imposed codes and logics on minds that had not that natural bent, and loaded with praise and opprobrium, to which the social man is keenly sensitive, the congenital choices of his blind heart.

Dominations at 53-54 (Liberty of Indifference) [#685 1951]

From The Birth of Reason & Other Essays

The question is not what effects friendship may have in the world, but what powers in the world may sustain or prevent friendship. Friendship is an elementary instance of something good in itself. . . . It is something spiritual, a phase of freedom. It can have no consequences. One of the blunders of philosophy has been to think of freedom as a cause. Freedom is a result of perfect organization. The problem is so to organise ourselves as to become free. Nature must do this for us, not a non-existent power called liberty; and our physical and psychical persons are the parts of nature that do this for the spirit within us, whenever they can.

Cory's Birth of Reason at 85 (Friendship) [#676 1968]

Number of quotations (including supressed): 12

Quotations concerning the perennial philosophical issue of freedom of the will are here gathered separately from the page on False Steps in Philosophy due to their pertinence to moral philosophy. Santayana views the question of the freedom of the will as he does the problem of evil itself: on his premises, these are artificial problems whose origin lies in the conflation of essence and existence, ideal and fact, justification and cause. Distinguishing these conflated categories is a favorite method of Santayana's which is especially prominent in his early writings (i.e., at the moment, about half the quotations found for the page, Essence and Existence, were published before 1906).