Ludwig von Mises on Free Will

I am currently reading (or rather re-reading) Ludwig von Mises’ Theory and History. I may have more to say about it later; but for now I will just take up his views on determinism and free will. But first my own view:

“Free will” means the ability to choose between alternatives. Where there are no alternatives, there can be no choice; but where there are alternatives, man has to choose between them. (He may choose not to choose, but that too is a choice.) But what is free about this choice? The alternatives merely present themselves; and the consequences of the choice one makes, for good or for evil, are inescapable. What is free is merely the very act of choosing.

Take a trivial example: I wake up in the morning with a slightly sore throat. Now I have two alternatives: getting up and go to work despite the sore throat (hoping it will get better during the day) – or to report sick and stay in bed. The sore throat makes it necessary to make this choice; this necessity is determined by the circumstances. The consequences are inescapable: if I go to work, it may happen that my throat gets worse; reporting sick and staying in bed will result in the loss of one day’s pay; those possible outcomes are, at least partly, determined by my choice. The only thing that is truly free is the choice itself. And if someone were to ask me what caused the choice, the only possible answer is that I caused it; I made the choice.

It is often claimed that free will or the power of choice is in conflict with the law of causality; so that either free will is an illusion or that, if there is free will, this is an exception to the law of causality and proves that there are “uncaused” or “random” events in the universe. But it is not an exception to causality; it is a special kind of causality.[1]

Now to what Mises has to say (all quotes are from pp. 76–78, the section on “The Free-Will Controversy”):

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. (Emphasis mine.)

This is of course precisely what I answered in presenting my own view of free will above. I cause the choice, I determine what it will be; it is caused and determined by me.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins upon him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

This is the standard determinist argument one hears all the time: you merely fool yourself if you believe in free will; in fact, you are a puppet and will always remain a puppet. (Determinists disagree over what you are a puppet of; it may be your genes, your environment, the material productive forces, your toilet training, or even God.)

Also, “determinism” is an ambiguous term. When contrasted to “indeterminism” it means simply that causality is omnipresent throughout the universe; there no such thing as a “contingent” or “random” event. But then it is also used in contrast to the idea of free will. This equivocation on the term “determinism” has played a lot of havoc. The determinist says to the free will advocate: “So you don’t believe in causality?”, and the free will advocate can only retort: “So you believe you’re a puppet of forces you cannot control?”; and the debate just stops there.

But since Mises accepts the idea that our choices are “undetermined and uncaused”, he has to give the determinists a slightly different answer:

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts.

True enough; but it is also a choice to adopt a certain idea! One hears a new idea; and then there is the alternative of accepting the idea or rejecting it. What determines which ideas one chooses, except oneself by making the choice?

One still may ask: What makes a man adopt a new idea? (It is not a matter of tossing coins or adopting it arbitrarily.) It may be that the new idea agrees with other ideas already held: it is seen as an implication of the old idea or a further development of the old idea or something that sheds new light on the old idea. But the old idea must at some time in the past have been adopted by choice. This reasoning seems to lead to an infinite regress (the choice to adopt idea A depends on earlier having adopted idea B, which in its turn depends on even earlier have adopted idea C, etc., ad infinitum).

So where does this regress stop? Probably with the first idea within a given field that a person decides to pay attention to.

But I’m digressing. Back to Mises:

The determinists are right in asserting that everything that happens is the necessary sequel of the preceding state of things. What a man does at any instant of his life is entirely dependent on his past, that is, on his physiological inheritance as well as of all he went through in his previous days.

I could add to this that it is also dependent on all the choices he has made in his previous days. A man’s character is shaped by the choices (big or small) that he has made. A man becomes brave by making many brave choices; and he becomes a coward by making many cowardly choices (just to take one example).

Yet the significance of this thesis is considerably weakened by the fact that nothing is known about the way in which ideas arise.

Very little is known. I said something earlier about how ideas arise, but it is just a preliminary sketch. (And what Mises has in mind is the fact that we know very little about the relation between what goes on in our mind and the neurology of our brain.)

The free-will doctrine is correct in pointing out the fundamental difference between human action and animal behavior. While the animal cannot help yielding to the physiological impulse that prevails at the moment, man chooses between alternative modes of conduct.

This, of course, is true. Animals are goal-directed in the sense that they act (or react) to preserve their lives and the life of the species (by procreating); but it is only man who can consciously set goals and purposes and who has to do this consciously in order to survive and prosper.

There is another quote later in the book about this crucial difference between man and the other animals:

Free will means that man can aim at definite ends because he is familiar with some of the laws determining the flux of world affairs. There is a sphere within which man can choose between alternatives. He is not, like other animals, inevitably and irremediably subject to the operation of blind fate. He can, within definite narrow limits, divert events from the course they would take if left alone. He is an acting being. (P. 179.)

Agreed. Mises continues:

The will is unbendable and must not yield to any violence and oppression, because man is capable of choosing between life and death …

“Life and death” is the fundamental alternative for all living organisms, including man, but man is the only organism that needs to be aware of this alternative. – I’d like to add that most choices we make are not literal “life-or-death” choices: when we make our choices and weigh pro and con, we simply take it for granted that the choice we make should be the most life-promoting choice; if we have a choice between an edible mushroom and a poisonous one, we do not even bother to consider picking the poisonous one. There is one exception:

…and of preferring death if life can be preserved only at the price of submitting to unbearable conditions.

It is very rarely that death is actually preferable to life. One instance is if one is suffering from a painful and incurable illness. But I don’t think this is what Mises has in mind here; it is more likely that he thinks of risking one’s life fighting against tyranny. It reminds me of that famous Patrick Henry quote: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

This blog post is beginning to meander, so I stop here. For the time being. And this choice was mine to make.

(Scandinavian readers may also read Mises och determinismen and Spridda tankar om den fria viljan.)

[1]) Leonard Peikoff discusses this at some length in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 62–69.


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