Free Will Expressed in First-Person


Why show an ostrich? Because the ostrich appears in the greatest chapter on freedom ever written. This ostrich is running away. Fast. And we won’t be able to catch her.

In this blog I’ll try to show how the logic surrounding the question of free will changes completely depending on whether the question is framed in customary 3rd-person language versus more appropriate 1st-person language.

We’ll start with some posture and stretching, step through some ideas in measured sequence, and eventually try to sprint with far more gifted authors than I.

Our Rule #1 – Every sentence is first-person – indicates that all statements and hypotheses lack objectivity at least to some degree. Therefore, Rule #1 implies that we cannot deem any statement or hypothesis invalid for lacking objectivity.

Positivists and natural realists reject the common-sense doctrine of free will precisely because it does not meet a criterion of objectivity. I agree, if objectivity is accepted as the rule, they correctly reject free will. Every attempt to describe free will in customary third-person, objective language comes across as clumsy and ultimately ridiculous.

Free will is so closely connected with first-person language that leaving first-person expression behind abdicates discussion of free will. Frankly I think that first-person language today is too poorly developed to support a long extended discussion of free will. For example, we have today only one English word signifying “we,” whereas someday 20 words with varying nuance and connotation may prove inadequate. How soon? If not in 75 years, then surely in 1000 years.[1]

An exercise is shown below. You will find that the left hand column is an exploration of free will in the usual third-person terms. It ends in incomprehensibility. The right hand column attempts to show what happens to a similar argument adhering explicitly to Rule #1, naming myself (first person singular) as the subject of every question and answer.

1st vs 3rd person A

1st vs 3rd person BLook with me at the right hand column, which expresses a first-person singular conversation with myself. Our examination of it constitutes a meta-view, so I’ll revert back to the usual (inadequate) third-person terms in describing it. The asking of questions eventually is recognized as part of a person’s actions. This recognition shifts the burden of proof from the interrogee to the interrogator. Relief is found in the realization that interrogee and interrogator are the same person. The final answer is not an objective one, nor is it an answer that stands on its own universally and for all time. However, the answer is neither mystical nor mysterious. It is simply anchored in the moment, and it depends upon the returning activity of the person asking the question “one more time.” Questions of the type “Will I continue to ask the question…?” might be called subsidiary questions, and I featured them in a previous 3-part blog. Free will may manifest itself more in the questions I repeatedly ask than in any foundational, universal doctrine I espouse.

Of the significant decisions in a person’s life, the great majority will not be clearly displayed. For example – “At that moment I knew that I loved her” has deeply motivative content, which may vanish on rational analysis. John Wesley’s account of his Aldersgate conversion proclaims simply, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”[2]

I believe that the 39th chapter of the Biblical book of Job is the greatest chapter on freedom ever written. Its 30 verses plus 3 verses from the preceding chapter feature 8 different animal species rearing their young, ranging and hunting for food, and dying in the open, the steppe, the battlefield, and the sky. It provides this description of the ostrich, which I take as emblematic of our own search to understand freedom: “When she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider,”[3]

You and I must recognize the futility of asking whether any single decision is demonstrably free. The same impossibility applies to the fullness of a lifetime of choices – noble, acquisitive, evasive, spontaneous, brutal, frivolous, sometimes disastrous. Yet we think that we can recognize freedom in choosing.

Great novelists may come closest to depicting human freedom and its consequences. Leo Tolstoy in a memorable passage from Anna Karenina contrasts the views of 2 brothers. Sergey was a highly esteemed thinker, well known in the drawing rooms of Moscow for his conclusions about the natural laws of social interaction especially regarding the virtues of peasant life. He enjoyed visiting the estate of his half-brother Levin in the country, where Levin sometimes worked alongside his peasants, adjudicated their quarrels, and admired some, disdained others. This is Levin’s reaction after his brother’s visit.

Levin regarded his brother as a man of immense intellect and culture, as generous in the highest sense of the word, and possessed of a special faculty for working for the public good. But in the depths of his heart, the older he became, and the more intimately he knew his brother, the more and more frequently the thought struck him that this faculty of working for the public good, of which he felt himself utterly devoid, was possibly not so much a quality as a lack of something – not a lack of good, honest, noble desires and tastes, but a lack of vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse which drives a man to choose some one out the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one. The better he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Sergey, and many other people who worked for the public welfare, were not led by an impulse of the heart to care for the public good, but reasoned from intellectual considerations that it was a right thing to take an interest in public affairs, and consequently took interest in them. Levin was confirmed in this generalization by observing that his brother did not take questions affecting the public welfare or the immortality of the soul a bit more to heart than he did chess problems, or the ingenious construction of a new machine.[4]

Notice that in the last sentence of this passage, Levin makes an observation about – in other words, derives evidence from – the questions that his brother asks and answers. Contrast the universalism of Sergey, identified by a repeated phrase, “the public good,” versus the particularism of Levin, driven by an “impulse…to choose some one out of the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one.” In the novel Sergey’s path of life goes nowhere. Levin marries, grows with the joys and terrors of family life, and continues to mow the fields with his peasants. Sergey finds answers, while Levin keeps on asking questions.

Science has no explanation for the operation of free will in a person. In fact, there is no satisfactory, objective way of describing free will, so that it might be proven or contradicted. Undoubtedly the free will problem was a key factor leading to the declaration of Rudolf Carnap and other positivists that some questions have neither true nor false answers, but are simply meaningless.

Yet from the perspective that “I” or “we” (less than the ideal universal “we” of completely objective science) bring forth, free will is axiomatic. We assume free will and move on with life. We choose, and we act upon our choices. We dream and hope to make our dreams real.  Our actions are free, not compelled.  In cases where a sense of compulsion overrides the sense of freedom, we are apt to diagnose psychosis.

We shall examine free will in much greater detail later, after the remaining 4 rules for philosophy have been presented. Let me close this blog with a very brief preview:

Free will operates in the context of scientifically understandable processes, but not entirely as a result of those processes. I do not propose to deny that genes can influence human behavior profoundly. Science is discovering rapidly how genes and environment may affect sociability, sexual preference, religiosity, and other human traits previously ascribed entirely to free choice.  It sometimes seems that free will may operate only in the gaps – gaps that will ultimately be closed by science.

No, let me reply, free will is not a refugee fleeing from science, hiding for a little while in one gap after another, always retreating.  Instead, free will is axiomatic for life as experienced and directed by “me/us” (less than all).  It is so much a part of us that often we don’t recognize it.  It is under our noses, in our hearts, at the inner boundary of our vision. It is like the implicit “I/we” that precedes every sentence that we utter.

My wish is not to catch an ostrich, but to become one and run where I choose. How about you?


Next post: Rule #2. No Overarching Viewpoint

Previous post: Choosing to Deny Free Will

Searching for GSOT outline: Home


Photo: Ostrich running (c) gi0572 – Fotolia

[1] Today we use 2-word terms such as “my family,” “our community,” “my country,” or “our values.” The adequacy of this approach is something to be decided over time.

[2] John Wesley. The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley in 4 Vols. J.M. Dent & Sons, London, entry dated May 24, 1838. Vol. 1, 1921 (printed), p. 102.

[3] Job 39:18. The Bible, Revised Standard Version, Nelson, New York, 1952.

[4] Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina. Literary Guild of America. Translator not identified. Publisher and year not identified. Can someone help me with this? Part iii, chap. 2, pp. 321-322 of 1090 total pages.


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