Saturday, January 23, 2016

Tolstoy on Free Will & Necessity

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy

Germane to our last confab.

I abandoned my belief in the feasibility of the "free will" proposition some years before I picked up B.F. Skinner and found in radical behaviorism a developed and articulate theory delineating the general situation. Skinner helped to clarify and codify the conviction, but the metanoia that begat the conviction was an earlier occurrence.

When precisely did I stop believing in free will?

I guess it's one of those things that curious or reasonable people wonder about for a period, but either commit to noncommittal wishiwashiness on the issue or eventually affirm their belief in free will. Our culture actively encourages such an outcome: the rhetoric of Western society extols "freedom" as a crowning virtue; our historical/mythical/entertainment narratives are frequently constructed so as to be deconstructed as "freedom versus tyranny" allegories. Most conceptions of "freedom" become meaningless unless free will is axiomatic. Free will can't be called into question without shifting the sands on which the foundations of most of our cultural "truths" have been erected. It's much more comfortable to leave it alone.

The Back to the Future films (which I so loved as a child) conclude with Doc Brown's epiphanic declaration that the future is whatever we make it (implying a human agency uninfluenced by incident and circumstance). That did stick with me for a while. As a brooding teenager I found a compellingly delivered counterpoint in the Soul Reaver games (which, let's face it, were Back to the Future with vampires), whose in-world metaphysics were saliently deterministic. I must have gave the matter some further thought while trying to sort out the antinomies of Paradise Lost, but those efforts were more an examination of whether the poem actually succeeds in pinning a QED ribbon to Milton's thesis. (I guess I had neither the curiosity nor the savvy to look to philosophy or science for answers back then.)

After many years of neither fully believing in nor abjuring the existence of free will, what finally and irrevocably titled the scales was Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869), particularly the culminating synthesis of the epilogue. I think it's very cool that Leo would write a 1300-page story pullulating with characters and subplots through its fifteen-year arc—and then cap it off with a little epilogue wherein he closes the narrative curtain, comes onstage alone, and says a few words about what's been on his mind lately, explains what he's been trying to get at with this thing he's made. (I wonder if the new BBC miniseries will address the epilogue in some way; concomitantly I have to ask if transferring War and Peace to any other medium is really worth it.)

The second part of War and Peace's epilogue (of course there are two epilogues) is an essay on history; it is as much a repudiation of the "great man" theory of history (we can adduce the veneration of modern hero-figures like Steve Jobs to demonstrate its historiographical persistence) as a disproof of free will. (In the context of the novel and of Tolstoy's argument, these angles are complementary.)

I'd like to share with you some words from the final pages of War and Peace, taken from the 2005 translation by Anthony Briggs (who neglects the Oxford comma and is very wrong to do so). By transcribing it here I hope to better internalize its points; I always wish I could summon this stuff verbatim when I find myself speaking to an incensed believer in unconditional human agency. (We usually end up talking in circles until he or she is too angry to continue.)

Thus our sensation of free will and necessity gradually contracts or expands or expands according to the greater or lesser degree of association with the external world, the greater or lesser degree of remoteness in time, and the greater or lesser degree of dependence on the causes through which we examine the phenomenon of a human life.

It follows that if we consider the situation of a man with maximum known association with the external world, a maximum time-lapse between his action and any judgement of it and maximum access to the causes behind his action, we get an impression of maximum necessity and minimal free will. Whereas if we consider a man with minimal dependence on external circumstances, whose action has been committed at the nearest possible moment to the present, and for reasons beyond our ken, then we get an impression of minimal necessity and maximum freedom of action.

But in neither case, however much we vary our standpoint, however much we clarify the man's association with the external world, however accessible we think this is, however much we lengthen or shorten the time-lapse, however understandable or opaque the reasons behind his action may appear to be, can we ever have any concept of absolute freedom of action or absolute necessity.

(1) However hard we try to imagine a man excluded from any influence of the external world, we can never achieve a concept of freedom in space. A man's every action is inevitably conditioned by what surrounds him, and his own body. I raise my arm and let it fall again. My action seems to be free, but when I start wondering whether I could have raised my arm in any direction, I notice that I moved it in the direction where the action encountered least resistance from any surrounding bodies or from my own bodily structure. If I chose one particular direction out of all those available I did so because in that direction I encountered least resistance. For my action to be completely free it would have to have encountered no resistance at all. In order to imagine a man who was completely free we would have to imagine him existing beyond space, an obvious impossibility.

(2) However much we shorten the time-lapse between action and judgement, we could never arrive at a concept of freedom within time. For if I examine an action performed only one second ago, I must still acknowledge it to be unfree, since the action is locked into the moment when it was performed. Can I lift my arm? I do lift it, but this sets me wondering: could I have decided not to lift my arm in that moment of time that has just gone by? To convince myself that I could, I do not lift my arm the next moment. But the non-lifting of my arm did not happen at that first moment when I was wondering about freedom. Time has gone by which I had no power to detain, and the hand which I lifted then and the air through which I lifted it are no longer the same as the air which now surrounds me and the hand that I now decide not to move. The moment when the first movement occurred is irrevocable, and at that moment there was only one action I could have performed, and whatever movement I made, that movement was the only one possible. The fact that the very next moment I decided not to lift my arm did not prove that I had the power not to lift it. And since there was only one possible movement for me at that one moment in time, it couldn't have been any other movement. In order to think of it as a free movement, it would have to be imagined as existing in the present on the very edge of where past and future meet, which means beyond time, and that is impossible.

(3) However much we build up the difficulty of pinning down causes we can never arrive at a concept of complete freedom, the total absence of any cause. However elusive the cause behind and active expression of free will, our own or somebody else's, the first demand of an intelligent mind is to look for an assumed cause, without which no phenomenon is conceivable. I raise my arm in order to perform an action independent of any cause, but my wish to perform an action without a cause is the cause of my action.

But even if we could imagine a man excluded from all outside influence and examine one momentary action of his, performed in the present and unprovoked by any cause, thus reducing the infinitely small amount of necessity to zero, even then we would not have achieved a concept of complete free will in a man, because a creature impervious to all outside worldly influence, existing beyond time, and with no dependence on cause, is no longer a man.

In just the same way we could never conceive of  a human action lacking any element of free will and entirely subject to the law of necessity.

(1) However much we expand our knowledge of the spatial conditions in which mankind dwells, such knowledge could never become complete since the number of these conditions is infinitely great, because space itself is infinite. And as long as it remains true that not all the conditions that could influence a man could be defined, there can be no such thing as total necessity and there is always a certain amount of free will.

(2) However much we extend the time-lapse between an action under examination and our judgement of it, the period itself will be finite, whereas time is infinite, so here is another sense in which there can be no such thing as absolute necessity.

(3) However accessible the chain of causation behind a given action, we can never know the whole chain, because it is infinitely long, so once again we cannot attain absolute necessity.

And beyond that, even if we reduced the minimal amount of free will to zero by acknowledging its total absence in some cases——a dying man, an unborn baby, or an idiot——in the process of doing so we should have destroyed the very concept of what it is to be human, which is what we are examining, because once there is no free will, there is no man. And therefore the idea of a human action subject only to the law of necessity and devoid of all free will is just as impossible as the idea of a completely free human action.

Thus in order to imagine a human action subject only to the law of necessity and lacking all freedom, we would have to postulate knowledge of an infinite number of spatial conditions, an infinitely long period of time and an infinite line of causation.

And in order to imagine a man who was perfectly free and not subject to the law of necessity, we would have to imagine a man who existed beyond space, beyond time, and beyond all dependence on cause.

In the first case, if necessity was probable without free will, we would have to define the law of necessity in terms of necessity itself, which means form without content.

In the second case, if free will was possible without necessity, we would arrive at unconditional free will existing beyond space, time and cause, which by its own unconditional and limitless nature would amount to nothing but content without form.

In general terms we would have arrived at two fundamentals underlying the entire world view of humanity——the unknowable essence of life and the laws that determine that essence.

Reason tells us: (1) Space and all the forms that give it visibility, matter itself, is infinite, and cannot be imagined otherwise. (2) Time is endless motion without a moment of rest, and cannot be imagined otherwise. (3) The connection between cause and effect has no beginning, and can have no end.

Consciousness tells us: (1) I alone exist, and I am everything that exists; consequently I include space; (2) I measure the course of time by a fixed moment in the present, in which moment alone I am aware of being alive; consequently I am beyond time; and (3) I am beyond cause, since I feel myself to be the cause of my own life in all its manifestations.

Reason gives expression to the laws of necessity. Consciousness gives expression to the essence of free will.

Unlimited freedom is the essence of life in man's consciousness. Necessity without content is human reason in its threefold form.

Free will is what is examined; necessity does the examining. Free will is content; necessity is form.

Only by separating the two sources of cognition, which are like form versus content, do we arrive at the mutually exclusive and separately unimaginable concepts of free will and necessity.

Only by bringing them together again do we arrive at a clear concept of human life.

Beyond these two concepts, which share a mutual definition when brought together, like form and content, there is no other possible representation of life.

All that we know about human life is a certain relationship between free will and necessity, or between consciousness and the laws of reason.

All that we know about the external world of nature is a certain relationship exists between the forces of nature and necessity, or between the essence of life and the laws of reason.

The forces of life in nature lie beyond us and our cognitive powers, and we put names to these forces: gravity, inertia, electricity, the life force and so on. But the force of life in man is not beyond our cognitive powers, and we call it free will.

But just as the force of gravity, intrinsically unintelligible despite being sensed by everyone, is understandable only in terms of the laws of necessity to which it is subject (from our first awareness that all bodies possess weight to Newton's law), the force of free will is also intrinsically unintelligible but recognized by all and understandable only in terms of the laws of necessity to which it is subject (all the way from the fact that all men die to knowledge of the most complex laws of economics or history).

All knowledge is simply the essence of life subsumed by the laws of reason.

Man's free will differs from all other forces in being accessible to human consciousness, but in the eyes of reason it is no different from any other force.

The forces of gravity, electricity or chemical affinity differ from each other only by being differently defined by reason. Similarly, the force of man's free will is distinguished by reason from the other forces of nature only by the definition assigned to it by reason. And free will divorced from necessity, from the laws of reason by which it is defined, is no different from gravity, heat or the force of organic growth; in the eyes of reason it is only a fleeting and indefinable sensation of life.

And just as the indefinable essence of the force that moves the heavenly bodies, the indefinable essence that drives heat, electricity, chemical affinity or the life force, forms the content of astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology and so on, the essence of the force of free will forms the subject matter of history. But just as the content of all science is the manifestation of this unknown essence of life, even though the essence itself can only be the subject of metaphysics, so too the manifestation of the force of man's free will in space, in time and in dependence on cause, forms the subject of history, while free will itself remains the subject of metaphysics.

In the biological sciences, what we know, we call the laws of necessity; what we don't know, we call the life force. The life force is simply an expression for an unexplainable leftover from what we know about the essence of life.

Tom Brown, The Hum of the City

It is the same with history: what we know, we call the laws of necessity; what we don't know, we call free will. In the eyes of history free will is simply an expression for an unexplainable leftover from what we know about the laws of human life.

History examines manifestations of human free will in relation to the external world existing in time and dependent on cause; in other words, it defines free will by the laws of reason, which means that history can be considered a science only to the extent that free will can be defined by those laws.

In the eyes of history the acknowledgement of human free will as a force capable of influencing historical events and therefore not subject to any laws is what the acknowledgement of free will in the movements of the heavenly bodies would be to astronomy.

Such an acknowledgement negates any possibility of the existence of laws, or indeed any kind of science. If there is even one freely moving body, the laws of Kepler and Newton go out of existence, along with any representation of the movement of the heavenly bodies. If there is a single human action determined by free will, all historical laws go out of existence, along with any representation of historical events.

For history the free will of human beings consists in lines of movement with one end disappearing into the unknown and the other belonging to the present time as man's consciousness of free will moves along in space and time, fully dependent on cause.

The more this field of movement unfolds before our eyes, the clearer its laws become. The discovery and definition of these laws is the purpose of history.

From the attitude now adopted by the science of history towards its subject matter, from the way it is going at present in looking for ultimate causes in man's free will, no scientific delineation of laws is possible, since, whatever limits we place on human freedom of action, the moment we recognize it as a force not subject to law, the existence of any law becomes impossible.

Only by infinitely limiting this freedom of action, reducing it to an infinitesimal minimum, shall we come to know the absolute impossibility of finding any causes, and then, instead of looking for them, history can set itself the task of looking for laws. ...

Erin Schell (adjunct to this NYT piece, which makes
for excellent further reading on this subject.)

Just as in astronomy the problem of recognizing the earth's motion lay in the difficulty of getting away from a direct sensation of the earth's immobility and a similar sensation of the planets' motion, so in history the problem of recognizing the dependence of personality on the laws of space, time and causation lies in the difficulty of getting away from the direct sensation of one's own personal independence. But just as in astronomy the new attitude was, 'No, we cannot feel the earth's movement, but if we accept its immobility we are reduced to absurdity, whereas if we accept the movement that we cannot feel we arrive at laws,' so in history the new attitude is 'No, we cannot feel our dependence, but if we accept free will we are reduced to absurdity, whereas if we accept dependence on the external world, time and causation we arrive at laws.'

In the first case, we had to get away from a false sensation of immobility in space and accept movement that we could not feel. In the present case it is no less essential to get away from a false sensation of freedom and accept a dependence that we cannot feel.


  1. Beautiful rumination. I've never actually read Tolstoy, I admit with some shame. The Idiot remains the densest Russian work I've picked up.

    Funny thing thinking about the Soul Reaver games vis-a-vis determinism; I think the work of fiction that opened my eyes to the concept was Watchmen, with Dr. Manhattan basically being an invincible god who, through the way he perceived time, was totally impotent and helpless.

    1. Oh my god. How could I have forgotten to mention Watchmen?!

  2. I prefer Anna Karenina, personally, but it doesn't really say much different about free will.

    As far as free will versus agency goes, I don't think it really matters. Behaviourism is interesting to consider as a means of explaining human actions, although I think it can be twisted in an attempt to absolve people from responsibility for their actions, and it can seem lacking if you use it to try and explain some people's seemingly random behaviour (why did I buy chicken breasts instead of chicken thighs today?). Free will theories are similarly lacking once you realize how limited your control over life is, and other people's over theirs. This lack of control is really evident in people with addiction problems (who simply cannot stop injecting themselves with heroin, for example), but I know I'll never suddenly decide to pick up a gun and shoot someone for no reason, since I've been conditioned by society to view that type of behaviour as unacceptable. Not being a gun-toting maniac is only one example out of countless of the ways society has influenced my behaviour and actions.

    But, again, I don't really think it matters if I'm actually controlling my life or only operating under an illusion of doing so. I don't believe that my existence is diminished by a lack of control, or that I'm special somehow if I do have agency (as so would everybody else).

    1. I really need to read Karenina. The next Tolstoy book on my list is a collection of his religious writings. And then maybe "What Is Art?" because it seems to piss off everyone who reads it.

      If behaviorism cannot account for "random" behavior, it is because of technological limitations that might be insurmountable. That mightn't be such a bad thing, though.

      The significance of the free will vs. behavioral determinism matter is largely brought to bear where social organization is concerned. A culture that believes everyone is absolutely responsible for their own actions is more likely to care less about, say, social welfare programs: "the ignorant and poor CHOOSE not to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so fuck 'em."

      Meanwhile, closer to the left, Noam Chomsky railed against Skinner because he believed Skinner was essentially trying to draft a guidebook for authoritarian control. I would not say his concerns are unfounded. A totalitarian government whose leaders accept that human behavior is almost completely under environmental control will understand that the repressive quashing of dissidents is less effective than producing a society where the notion of dissent never crosses anyone's mind. (Brave New World, remember, is about a world where an authoritarian government keeps the populace ignorant and in line through a regimen of positive reinforcement.)

  3. I read War & Peace last year, and since then, I've read and reread Part 2 of the Epilogue twice. Your blog and the other comments are on point, but I find myself focusing on the "necessity" component of Tolstoy's reasoning and, by analogy, Darwin's "Natural Selection" and Hegel's Dialectical Materialism - determinism, not founded on mysticism.

    1. Allow me to recommend BF Skinner's "About Behaviorism" if you'd like to ponder the matter further.

  4. The first time Tolstoy introduces this concept is in the lead-up to the War of 1812 as Napoleon crosses the Niemann and the invasion of Russia. What struck me recently is that this chapter comes after the final act of Natasha's great shame-- her fall for Anatole and attempt to elope as she breaks off the engagement with Prince Andrei. Andrei has left Moscow in an attempt to find Anatole and try to find a pretext for a duel-- but instead simply seals his fate by joining the Army again as Kutuzov's adjutant. Natasha is bitter and depressed after being denied and after her somewhat half-hearted suicide attempt. So here's the question? Doesn't Tolstoy's theory apply just as much to her and these critical series of actions? How much free will did she have in her engagement to begin with, in Andrei's father's refusal to approve the marriage without a year delay, in Anatole's appearance at the opera, etc, etc. In other words, I don't think it was coincidental that Tolstoy chose to follow what was perhaps the key plot element of the "Peace" with his first rejection of free will in the beginning of the climactic description of the "War".