Sunday, July 11, 2010

Immanuel Kant's theory of the transcendental Freedom of the Will

Interview with Pablo on Immanuel Kant's theory of the transcendental Freedom of the Will

Prussian Philosopher Immanuel Kant
The problem of whether man's free will is compatible with the apparently deterministic laws of natural science was especially troubling to thoughtful men of the 18th century, due principally to the newfound popularity of Newtonian physics and its corresponding "universal laws of motion". Philosophers were greatly distraught by the apparent determinism which these universal natural laws of motion implied, and whether this new science meant that all notions of Man's free will would now be obsolete. The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume responded to this problem by criticizing the possibility of gaining definitive knowledge of the truth of those causal connections which we perceived as cause and effect. However, this skepticism concerning universal causation merely served to bring the new science of Newtonian physics into doubt, and did not also demonstrate the possibility of free will of agent-determining moral action. The Prussian(German) philosopher Immanuel Kant(1724-1804) was deeply troubled by this apparently irresolvable skepticism of causal determinism, which raised fundamental doubts about the possibility of natural science and human freedom. At the age of 46, Kant began his "silent period" of uninterrupted isolation and dedicated contemplation of this very problem which would last eleven years. When Kant finally emerged, he was ready to publish the Critique of Pure Reason(1781), which would be followed within the decade by the Critique of Practical Reason(1788) and the Critique of Judgment(1790). These three great critiques explored, through the faculties of reason, the very potential and limitations of reason, judgment, and human understanding. Kant believed that he had discovered the solution to the problem which David Hume had raised concerning the incompatibility of universal causal determinism and human freedom(which philosophers call 'incompatibilism'). The following is a recorded discussion(edited for clarity) in which I discussed with Pablo the solution which Kant offers to this apparent problem.

Definition of Terms:

Causal Connectivity: This is the connection which is inferred to exist between the cause and effect of
any perception.

Determinism: This is the consistent universal relation of all perceived events in an inalterable chain of cause and effect.

Free Will: This is the freedom of a person to act apart from the causal influence of those causes which precede and determine effects in a sequence of cause and effect.

Causa Sui: This is the possibility of a self-caused effect, which has no preceding and determining cause for which it exists. Agent-Directed causa sui is thought to be necessary for the possibility of Free Will.

A Priori knowledge: That knowledge which is known independently of, and prior to, experience of the world.

A Posteriori Knowledge: That knowledge which is known of, and proven through experience of the world.

Postulate or Axiom: This is a premise in a logical argument whose truth is supposed, yet remains inconclusive as to whether it is either true or false.

Deduction:: This the logical and mathematical appraisal of whether the premises of an argument necessarily entail(or may be inferred as) the conclusion of the argument.

Induction: This is the sensory perception of phenomena and claims which may be made on the basis based on these experiences of phenomena.

Kant's theory of Free Will Interview with Pablo Vasquez.

[Tuesday December 1st 2009, 6:04-7:22pm]

[18:04] Ryan: I would like to tell you how it is possible to resolve the apparent conflict between Free Will and Determinism. I have determined how the difficulty might be successfully overcome.

[18:06] Pablo: I have a full hour, if you'd like to start.

[18:07] Ryan: alright. First, are you familiar with David Hume's criticism of commonly held view of causal connectivity?

[18:07] Pablo: Somewhat. Please overview it for me.

[18:09] Ryan: Alright. It is commonly held that just as "if A then B" entails "B" if "A" is true, then so too does "object A colliding with object B" compel "B" to move in equal and opposite reaction to object "A", as per Newton's 3rd law of motion.

[David Hume described the problem in "An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding". Here "reason" refers the deductive reasoning of mathematical logic and "induction" refers to what is perceived by the senses. First, Hume ponders the discovery of causal relations, which form the basis for what he refers to as "matters of fact." He argues that causal relations are known not by reason, but by induction. This is because for any cause, multiple effects are conceivable, and the actual effect cannot be determined by reasoning about the cause; instead, one must observe occurrences of the causal relation to discover that it holds. For example, when one thinks of "a billiard ball moving in a straight line toward another," one can conceive that the first ball bounces back with the second ball remaining at rest, the first ball stops and the second ball moves, or the first ball jumps over the second, etc. There is no reason to conclude any of these possibilities over the others. Only through previous observation can it be predicted, inductively, what will actually happen with the balls. In general, it is not necessary that causal relation in the future resemble causal relations in the past, as it is always conceivable otherwise. (More information:]

[18:09] Pablo: Indeed.

[18:09] Ryan: David Hume criticized this view in "an Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding". Here he successfully showed that we can only know the effects of causal connectivity(that A compels B ) through experience, which provides no universally valid, or a priori logical laws of causation.

[18:11] Pablo: Indeed

[18:13] Ryan: However, if causal connectivity were merely perceived rather than actual in the universe, then both the laws of natural science would be inoperative, and human action would be impotent (because our willful actions couldn't be expected to produce predictable results). This is the problem which Kant set out to solve in the three critiques. [The Critique of Pure Reason(1781), The Critique of Practical Reason(1788),The Critique of Judgment(1790)]

[18:13] Ryan: Do you follow?

[18:14] Pablo: Yes, indeed. Do continue.

[18:15] Ryan: Alright. Kant concedes, as per Hume's critique, that it is true that we only continuously perceive, rather than know a priori that causal connectivity is operable in the natural world. Further, Kant argues that we can only, and must necessarily postulate some form of determinism as a precondition for the functioning of both natural science and human action. Now, a postulate is a logical axiom which is adopted, not necessarily because it is true(as its truth cannot be validated without a supporting argument), but rather merely on account of its utility in allowing for the present argument to function.

[18:17] Ryan: Do you follow this?

[18:17] Pablo: Yes, do continue.

[18:20] Ryan: Alright. Now Kant also says that we must necessarily also postulate the truth of free will for moral action to be possible. This is the case because without the freedom of the will, we cannot be held morally responsible for our actions. This position, in which determinism(or not free will) is incompatible with moral responsibility, is called "incompatibilism".[more information:]

[18:21] Ryan: So, because we want to act morally (or even effectively), we must necessarily postulate free will and moral responsibility as a precondition for human (and moral) action.

[18:22] Pablo: I see, yes, excellent point.

[18:24] Ryan: Alright, now a paradox arises here because if determinism is true, then free will is necessarily false. So if we postulate determinism (which is necessary for science and prediction) then we must deny the truth of free will. Further, if we postulate free will(which is necessary for moral action) then we cannot simultaneously hold determinism to be true. Hence there arises a logical paradox in which a proposition(either determinism or free will) is held to be true and false simultaneously, in violation of the laws of logic! [ ¬(P ∨ ¬P), for more information:]

[18:25] Pablo: Quite so.

[18:26] Ryan: And now we come to where "ever-victorious" Immanual Kant, to whom immortal praise glorie and honor are forever due, triumphs over David Hume's skepticism.

[18:27] Ryan: Kant first distinguishes two abstract domains of human thought: pure theoretical reason and pure practical reason.

[18:28] Ryan: As an abbreviation of these terms, I will hereafter use "Pr" and "pr" to describe "pure reason"(Pr) and "practical reason"(pr) respectively.

[18:28] Pablo: Of course.
I made this picture to illustrate Kant's theory of cognition.

[18:30] Ryan: The former (Pr) is employed to cognize relations of a priori deductions; those of logic, mathematics, spacio-temporal arrangements, as well as the categories of understanding (unity, plurality, extension) etc. The latter (pr) is used to understand the relation to empirical phenomena and a posteriori things of experience, such as tying shoe laces, navigating while walking, chewing etc. In the first "Critique of Pure Reason", Kant grants to (Pr) the powers of theory and imagination, and to (pr) the power of understanding and judgment.

[18:32] Ryan: Now, one might question how the interaction between the faculties of pure reason(Pr) and practical reason(pr) can occur. For example, one would need to know spacial relations and deduction to know how to navigate while walking. Kant agrees that this is a difficult problem, and in the first and third Critiques he argues* that we use our faculty of "determinate judgment", with which to apply the theoretical ideas of (Pr) to the practical circumstances and experiences of (pr).

[*The comprehensibility of the most frustrating section of the first Critique, the "Transcendental Deduction of Categories", has been a consistently disputed topic among Kantians and later Idealists such as Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Hegel. Kant attempted to offer a more compelling account of this in the third "Critique of Judgement", and it remains a central question in Kantian scholarship and German Idealism as to how this 'Pure Reason-Practical Reason problem'(which mirrors the 'Mind-Body problem') might be resolved.]

[18:33] Ryan: For instance. If I see a ball, I can make the determinate judgment that it is a sphere by applying the idea of a sphere from pure reason(Pr) to the empirical phenomena of the sight of the ball.

[18:34] Ryan: Judgments of this sort are done reflexively and fairly instantaneously as you might imagine.

[18:34] Pablo: I see, yes.

[18:37] Ryan: Alright, here is where this question becomes a bit more complicated. As I mentioned before, both determinism and free will are postulates which are necessarily made for the functioning of practical reasoning(pr), and not those of theoretical reasoning(Pr).

[18:38] Ryan: Further, Kant states(and we will return to this later) that neither the truth of determinism nor that of the freedom of the will can be theoretically(Pr) demonstrated to be either true or false. That determinism cannot be shown to be theoretically true follows from the conclusiveness of David Hume's aforementioned critique of causal connectivity.

[This is David Hume's conclusion, which Kant and I accept as valid, that the truth of causal connectivity cannot be demonstrated either deductively or a priori, and must generally be assumed due to our continual perception of apparent causal connections.]

[18:39] Ryan: Now, Free Will cannot be shown to be true because of the requirement that for the Will to be free would mean to have the quality of "causa sui", or self-causation, and so also to be without an antecedent and determining cause.

["Causa sui" is a technical term of medieval scholasticism meaning "the cause of itself". The 17th-century physics of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz contained as self-evident axioms within them, the idea of universal causal laws of motion and the principle of sufficient reason. The acceptance of these two principles led inevitably to a conception of the universe in which all effects must necessarily be preceded by a sufficient cause. As A causes B, and B causes C, and on and on ad infinitum, we arrive at a conception of universal causation which requires a previous antecedent cause for every subsequent effect. As a the circumstances of a person's birth and life are preceded by and thought to be caused by effects which precede their birth, so too would everything about them, as well as all those decisions which they might make in life, be thereby causally determined by events prior to their conception. The term "causa sui" refers to those acausal instances in which an effect has no previous cause, and is thereby simultaneously both the effect and its own cause. Prior to Newtonian mechanics, God, the will of human beings, and miracles where all thought to occur in this way. (More information:,]

[18:40] Ryan: Kant acknowledges that the "causa sui" quality of the will, cannot be theoretically demonstrated, and doesn't generally conform to our experiences of the natural world, where we perceive causal connectivity to be the norm.

[The impossibility of demonstrating "causa sui" or the self-causation of the will also follows from David Hume's criticism of the indemonstrability of causal connectivity.]

[18:41] Pablo: Indeed.

[18:51] Ryan: Now recall that Kant argued that the practical belief, or postulate, in and for the truth of causal connectivity is a necessary "practical postulate", or hypothesis of human action. Yet, we know from David Hume's criticism that the mere postulate of causal connectivity is not sufficient to theoretically demonstrate determinism, however necessary it may be for the practical belief in deterministic causal laws.

[18:55] Ryan: Here, Kant and I argue that the practical(pr) postulate of a deterministic universe is of no relevance to our ability to otherwise postulate, in our daily actions, the existence of the causa sui quality of and freedom of the Will. This follows because we have already accepted (due to David Hume) that determinism cannot be theoretically(Pr) demonstrated as an a priori law of reason, but must instead be merely presumed as a necessary postulate with which to speculate about the universal laws of natural science(for example Newton's Three Laws of Motion).

[18:58] Ryan: To clarify, we can willfully alternatively adopt the hypothetical postulate of free will and causa sui in our practical moral decisions, so long as there is no a priori and theoretical (Pr) argument which opposes and invalidates these postulates. It is admitted that we cannot practically(pr) postulate a theoretically(Pr) impossible axiom because, we cannot genuinely(with contrite judgment) adopt a practical(pr) postulate which contradicts what we know theoretically(Pr). If we attempted to do so, we would be deceiving ourselves and by acting contrary to our theoretical beliefs without a defensible theoretical justification.

[19:01] Ryan: Now, the English philosopher Galen Strawson argues that there is an a priori reason for not holding the postulate of Free Will to be true. He argues that 1.) causa sui (and Free Will as well) is impossible under deterministic natural causal laws, and 2.) that even if causa sui (and Free Will) were possible postulates of practical reason, then regardless there would be no means of judging according to a "causa sui" free choice, rather than our previously inherited circumstances(mental states, dispositions, biases etc.).

[19:02] Pablo: I see.

[19:01] Ryan: Now there is one further counter-argument which I would like to address. The English philosopher Galen Strawson(the son of the celebrated philosopher P.F. Strawson) argues that there is an a priori reason for not holding the postulate of Free Will to be true. He argues that 1.) causa sui (and Free Will as well) is impossible under deterministic natural causal laws, and 2.) that even if causa sui (and Free Will) were possible postulates of practical reason, then regardless there would be no means of judging according to a "causa sui" free choice, rather than our previously inherited circumstances(mental states, dispositions, biases etc.).

[19:02] Pablo: I see.

[19:03] Ryan: His first argument (1) is shown to be false because he unjustifiably supposes that causa sui is impossible. For causa sui to be impossible, and Strawson's presupposition to be true, determinism would have to be conclusively true and thereby universally binding. However, we have already accepted that it is impossible to demonstrate the truth of determinism. Therefore, neither determinism, nor argument (1) can be justifiably be accepted as true.

[19:04] Ryan: Now, if we postulate determinism as a precondition for natural causal laws, then causa sui and free will cannot be possible. However this postulate is only made necessary as a precondition for the study and understanding of the laws and mechanisms of natural science, and need not be consistently adopted for judgments of practical reason(pr), or moral actions in general. Indeed, it cannot be adopted as a postulate of practical reason(pr) and moral actions, without raising the practical contradiction of believing in determinism while simultaneously acting, as though one were free, to effect some future and conceivably indeterminate cause.

[19:06] Ryan: the second argument (2) is more difficult to refute as it appears to require a conceptual account of cognition which allows for causa sui as well as freely-willed judgments, independent of those previous involuntary facts of inherited biases, dispositions, and mental states. This is the case, because although we might practically(pr) postulate the freedom of the Will, if the freedom of the Will is nonetheless logically and theoretically(Pr) impossible, then we might assuredly come to know theoretically(Pr) that we are merely postulating falsehoods rather than the actual qualities of the cosmos. Further, regardless of our knowledge of our determinism, if the existence of causa sui and the freedom of Will is logically impossible, then no amount of willful protest can overcome our previously inherited determination.

[In the first Critique, Kant offers a helpful distinction between 'transcendental freedom' and 'practical freedom'. Transcendental freedom is that quality of the universe and our minds in which universal causal determinism is false, and human agents are wholly free from the determinism of antecedent causes(what philosophers call 'libertarianism'). Practical freedom is rather the moral freedom to act without a determinate influence from involuntary inclinations(such as concupiscence, lethargy, hunger, or wrathfulness). Kant believes that, whether we could come to or not know of universal determinism and the truth of 'transcendental freedom', is a question of pure theoretical reason(Pr), while acting with moral and 'practical freedom' in our daily affairs is a concern for practical reason(pr).]

[19:10] Ryan: Now, for this argument, in which causa sui and the freedom of the will are impossible, to be universally binding it would be necessary to conclusively show that causa sui is not only impossible in this universe(which was attempted with argument 1 and yet has been shown to be inconclusive), but also that the freedom of the will is metaphysically impossible; or impossible in any possible universe regardless of that particular universes physical laws due to the metaphysically binding laws of logic! [More information:]

[19:10] Pablo: Haha, indeed.

[19:11] Ryan: This raises two questions; 1.) what is the criteria for metaphysical impossibility, and 2.) does the postulate of the causa sui freedom of the will violate these criteria. I should stop to notify you here, that these criteria of metaphysical impossibility are enormously difficult to satisfy because they must be valid and irrefutable a priori - or merely on account of the very laws of logic.

[19:13] Ryan: The most commonly mentioned criteria of metaphysical impossibility is inconceivability. Because we can only conceive of logically possible things, it is generally held that a logical or metaphysically possible thing must similarly be conceivable. If a thing is inconceivable then it is generally thought to violates the laws of logic, and thereby also to be metaphysically possible.

[19:13] Ryan: Now, is causa sui and the freedom of the will conceivable? The answer is Yes! As no antecedent and deterministic cause to our wills can be conceived, human minds must always and everywhere phenomenologically perceive ourselves as willing our actions causa sui. This mere fact alone satisfies the criteria of conceivability for the able functioning of our practical reason(pr).

[This is Kant's, as well as my own, belief which I find to correspond with my inner sensation(or phenomenological perception) of my volition. This is an apodictic or self-evident assertion for which no argument(to my knowledge) can be given. Rather it must be perceived immediately and always by ourselves. It can easily be perceived by envisioning some prior cause which thereby determines your actions. Kant and I believe that this would be impossible to imagine because 1.) no preceding mental event can be perceived as the determining cause of our will to act, and 2.) because even if (1) were true, this would merely be a mental perception of causal connectivity which cannot be held to be true a priori (due to David Hume's critique).]

[19:15] Ryan: Here Galen Strawson aims to raise one final objection; that even if causa sui is phenomenalogically conceivable and functional for practical reason(pr), then it still does not follow that a conceivable account of causa sui, and transcendental freedom, can be given and conceived of theoretically(Pr). Strawson believes that it is necessary to offer a positive theoretical explanation of the transcendental freedom of the Will, for the practical freedom of the Will to be conceivable. If this were true and no positive account could be offered, then it would follow that the practical freedom of the Will is merely illusory and factually unreal. Furthermore, we have already established that neither universal determinism nor the transcendental freedom of the Will can be theoretically demonstrated. However, the indemonstrability of the transcendental freedom of the Will or of universal determinism, is not logically sufficient to conclusively discredit the metaphysical possibility of transcendental freedom or of universal determinism. Instead, we are left, as Socrates so often found himself, in a state of aporia, or a logical and conceptual impasse from which no conclusions can be forthcoming. The indemonstrability of either of these theoretical postulates(Pr) does not invalidate, but instead allows for the free postulation of either hypothesis(determinism or free will) by practical reasoning(pr). It is inconclusive whether Kant believed he had shown that the transcendental freedom of the will was true*, yet and later German idealists believed that he had conclusively saved the practical freedom of the will from the specter of determinism!

[*Although it is apparent from the Critique of Practical Reason that Kant believed he had overcome the problem of free will and determinism, there remains some contention among Kantian scholars, concerning whether Kant believed in the transcendental freedom of the will, or only the practical freedom of the will. Henry Allison in "Kant's Theory of Freedom"(1990), and Derek Pereboom's paper "Kant on Transcendental Freedom" in the journal "Philosophy and Phenomenological Research" argue in favor of Kant's theoretical account of the transcendental freedom of the Will. However, Allen Wood presents Kant as arguing merely for the practical freedom of the Will in "Kant's Compatibilism"(1994).]

[19:19] Ryan: Because our daily actions of practical reasoning (pr) are informed by and generally correspond to the dictates of pure reason(Pr), our practical actions must generally, if not universally, obey the theoretical determinations of pure reason(Pr). To postulate that we have the freedom of the will, is not mere wishful thinking. Rather, the inherent unknowability of the truth or falsity of either determinism or causa sui, requires that we make this practical postulate. Further, we need only to postulate this as an axiom of practical reason(pr), to act with the belief in free will and moral responsibility in our daily affairs.

[Kant will argue further that, although we might theoretically believe in determinism, we nonetheless cannot act with practical consistency while holding this practical understanding. To do so would result in a practical(pr) (rather than logical or theoretical(Pr)) contradiction in which we should simultaneously act with the understanding that we were both free and not free.]

[19:21] Ryan: To conclude, if it is conceivable, and thereby possible, to postulate without a logical fallacy the causa sui freedom of the will, and for this reason it may thereby be freely postulated without practical(pr) or theoretical contradiction(Pr).

[19:22] Ryan: With this line of argument, the apparent conflict between determinism and free will is resolved.

[19:23] Pablo Vasquez: Absolutely fascinating.

[With this argument concluded, I implore all you who read this to daily act with the genuine confidence in your transcendental freedom to dutifully obey your very own self-legislating moral duties. Proclaim far and wide the philosophic gospel of Immanuel Kant.]

Dedication to Immanuel Kant:
Kant described overwhelming and terrifying aesthetic delight as a feeling of the sublime. If an undiluted insight into the very nature of cognition and reality can ring with the same finality as a new and harmonious melody, then I should loudly proclaim that the three great critiques of Immanuel Kant are surely the most sublime work of recorded human ingenuity. Now I feel assured that the mind actively synthesizes the perceptions of space and time into a coherent apperceptive unity. I have theoretically confirmed what I had heretofore known only in practice; that I am, at every moment, bound by the apodictic rational duty to my own self-legislating moral law, yet simultaneously practically free from the determination of outside causal forces.

I still find it astonishing to have had the philosophic dilemmas of my youth dismantled and thereafter reconstituted so as to grant my mind a brilliant new awareness of space, time, cognition, freedom, beauty, and the moral law. Johann Gottlieb Fichte confided a similar feeling to his friend in 1790 upon reading the three critiques: "I have been living in a new world ever since reading the Critique of Practical Reason... Propositions which I thought could never be overturned have been overturned for me. Things have been proven to me which I thought could not be proven - concepts of absolute freedom, and the concept of duty. I feel all the happier for it." The arrival of this insight was entirely unmerited, as it might have heretofore been imagined that our discursive and unruly intellects should have struggled unendingly with these intransigent paradoxes. That their answer should have been so fittingly and perspicaciously revealed gives me a renewed and ever-greater hope for our future, as well as a far deeper respect for the inestimable potential of Man's angelic reason.

All glorie and honor we give to thee o' Kant whose miraculous theophanie hast sav'd Mankind from the devastating skepticism of David Hume. Praise Kant! Zuruck zu Kant! Praise Kant! Hallow'd is his name forever and ever.

Paul Harvey's "Immanuel Kant with Flowers and Painting"
Acrylic on canvas, 92 x 71cm

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