1. How is self-knowledge of the will achievable? Is it only accidental, or can it be willed?
2. Isn’t resignation the only sensible thing given the subject’s lack of autonomy?
3. If one is truly NOT free, what is the behavioural difference between one who believes oneself to be free and one who does not?
4. What is the value in having true beliefs as compared with false ones?
The knowing subject is only a knower and can never be an agent. But, how is knowledge itself attained? Surely the attainment of knowledge is an act, thus requiring an agent to perform it, exempting the subject of knowing from this responsibility. Knowledge is of two forms: abstract conceptual knowledge and concrete intuitive knowledge. For its attainment, each of these two forms requires grounding, by a rationalized reason in the former and by an understood cause in the latter. So even knowledge, thus defined, is subject to the principle of sufficient reason and, as such, cannot be sought freely as its attainment relies entirely upon the determined relations operating in the world as representation.
I want to attempt to answer question 3 that I have posed above because that is a particularly itchy dilemma that persists within me screaming for resolution in slow meticulous rationalization. This question arises from one of the noted differences between the two philosophies that I am heavily influenced by, namely, Buddhism and Schopenhauer. The difference I am referring to is the soteriological one by means of which these two philosophies demarcate the path to salvation. In Buddhism this is marked by an encouragement to act in wholesome ways and prescriptions as to what this entails in the form of the five precepts, which seems to stem from the idea that a person is an agent capable of acting freely in a variety of ways and of wilfully bringing about salvation. In Schopenhauer, the situation is radically reversed as the salvation he speaks of descends upon individuals by means of grace as opposed to works. Due to the otherwise nearly ubiquitous congruency of these two philosophies, this discrepancy is all the more stark and the reasons for it must be examined carefully.
One way that I have attempted to rationalize this difference is to attribute it to the different aims of the two philosophies just mentioned. Buddhism is a philosophy insofar as it is theoretical framework attempting, through reason, to make sense of the world, but is also a practical framework whose guidelines for action are meant to be practiced along with the theoretical understanding the philosophy imparts for the purpose of approaching and, eventually, realizing salvation. Schopenhauer’s philosophy contains no such practical aspect to be implemented along with the theory and thus is not aimed at the same end as Buddhism is. In fact, the implications of his epistemology and metaphysics are such that any guideline of conduct derived therefrom would be useless, since the conduct of agents is conditioned entirely by their characters and the motives which present themselves all ordered neatly under the necessity of the principle of sufficient reason. But, perhaps even this does not invalidate the prescription of guidelines as perhaps an agent’s character may be such that in apprehending the theory and believing it to be true, these prescriptions may then become efficacious motives for this agent. And, perhaps it is just this point which led the Buddha to preach his philosophy with a practical aspect to it as well, as he saw well enough that those for whom he represented divinity, his recommendations would motivate.
Now, to address the question, I must examine what behavioural differences may arise in between agents believing themselves to be free and those entertaining no such belief. Let us take Agent X as believing himself to be free and Agent Y as believing herself to be a slave. One who is not free is necessarily enslaved, and in this case we refer to the principle of sufficient reason, or generally causality, as master. Now, Agent X is under the impression that his ability to choose between the different choices available at any moment is unconstrained by any forces external to him and that this choice can then be called free. This seems to imply that he believes himself to be capable of choosing arbitrarily and that in a given situation where he performed Action A, he could just as easily have performed Action B. Agent Y, on the other hand, realizes the necessity of causation and the universality of this law and abdicates any mandate of autonomy she had believed herself to represent in the sphere of her individuality. This implies that she believes her actions to be utterly conditioned by the whole interdependent synchronicity of events we call the universe. The next question to ask now is: how do these beliefs motivate the agents?
I want to first spend a little bit of time examining the mechanism by which a belief may motivate an agent. In order for any motive to have efficacy, it must be coupled with the belief that it will bring the agent closer to his/her underlying aims. So, when presented with a variety of choices, the agent quickly projects each of these into the future in simulation according to the beliefs gathered over the course of life and the one seen to have the highest chance of bringing the agent into a favourable situation is chosen. So, it is right to claim then that an agent’s beliefs do play a role in what motivates that agent. Now we are ready to begin directly addressing our question.
Let us proceed with the aid of hypothetical arguments first. Agent X is presented with several choices and he immediately begins to simulate the futures that these will each lead to. This is based upon the judgements that he has made from past experience and equally upon his underlying aim in life. Due to this agent’s belief in his own autonomy, he will expend much energy in this effort and then also in the choosing itself, which he believes to be a free act. Agent Y, on the other hand, when presented with those very same choices, arguably would not spend much effort at all in this consideration since she does not think that it will make a difference, believing that whatever is going to happen will happen anyway not requiring her intervention. But perhaps she is wrong in this. By believing herself to be a slave she has disregarded the motivationally efficacious effect of considering a choice in simulation. This is because even the consideration is an act and hence is conditioned and not free; she cannot initiate this act given her belief that she is not free. But by doing so she has committed to making premature choices and thus may end up making the wrong choice more frequently. “Wrong choice” here means that which leads to an unfavourable situation. The extreme of Agent Y’s behaviour is the case where she is no longer capable of acting at all as there is no consideration whatsoever and hence no motivation except in the cases where it is arguable that no consideration is required for motivational efficacy – i.e. eating, sleeping, breathing, etc. In fact, if we examine the extreme of Agent X’s behaviour we may find a similar result. If his belief in his autonomy reaches its conceivable maximum in terms of conviction, it is arguable that he too would become incapable of acting as every choice would require an infinite consideration due to the necessary uncertainty inherent in the judgements upon which he bases that consideration.
Agent Y’s ensuing paralysis is a result of her inability to consider any choices due to the belief that she cannot act freely. Actually, here I wish to question this idea. Even if I am incapable of acting freely, I am still capable of acting. Thus, I am still capable of acting rightly or wrongly. Thus, consideration of different ways of acting is still required, whether a free or conditioned consideration. Now, in considering whether or not to consider a given action, I may be motivated not to consider if I have some belief that in not considering the outcome is more likely to be favourable. But this is not at all related to beliefs concerning whether or not I am free. Some clarification is required.
In asserting that beliefs can motivate agents, we are not specifying these beliefs enough and this leads to a confusion. When considering several choices, the beliefs which have motivational efficacy are those which relate directly to the choices being examined. These are better called judgements as they are beliefs concerning the relations between different things that have been extracted from life through repeated observation over its course. However, the beliefs that we have been examining are more general and all-encompassing. They are not related to any particular thing but to agenthood as a whole. Thus, Agent Y’s abdication does not extend to any of those beliefs which we have just called judgements but only to the general one of the nature of agenthood itself. So, her behaviour may arguably remain unchanged regardless of her beliefs concerning her autonomy since her judgements remain unchanged. This seems to lead to the implication that arguments concerning free will are motivationally irrelevant since the beliefs which directly give rise to action, called judgements, are not involved in those arguments. Also, we have seen that holding too firmly to one or the other point of view may become a cause for stress leading, in the extreme cases, to a kind of paralysis of the will since the agent is either struggling feverishly to work out the right thing to do or is otherwise passively disregarding all such consideration.
So, as a tentative conclusion, I posit here that behavioural differences do not come about due to beliefs regarding whether one is free or not, but rather due to judgements about the causal relations operating everywhere which furnish the raw material for the simulations created during the consideration of any course of action an agent may be presented with. It is these judgements that lead directly to action. Hence, one should concern oneself solely with the pursuit of ever truer judgements through the feedback loops of experience and not the pursuit of the truth about whether one is autonomous or not since that does not seem to directly affect behaviour at all.