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The Freedom of Will

1956 to 1957
University of Edinburgh

Farrer begins by engaging with the problem of unity between mind and body. To do this, he uses a debate which was broadcast and later published (The Physical Basis of Mind) among Viscount Samuel, Professor Ayer and Professor Ryle as an introduction to some of the philosophical difficulties dating back to Aristotle and Descartes. Farrer argues the difficulty is not in proving a psychophysical unity, which is evidenced constantly, but in correlating this reality with the limited specificity with which we are able to assign to it. Thus there is a difficulty in locating consciousness within the vague relationship between body and mind.

Farrer calls consciousness an action or ‘shadowy doing’ that cannot be fully separated from the physiological processes of the body. Like the difficulty in discerning the separation between mind and body, so too is the difficulty in assigning the seat of personal action. The author asserts that action and choice are inseparable; action is merely the external manifestation of choice. In so doing Farrer deconstructs the notion that the two can be diffused into psychophysical parallelism (action-patterns) for this leads to Epiphenomenalism and disregard for the process of consciousness. Farrer questions the role of free will. He argues that free will exists in two capacities: freedom to act and resistance to constraint, but how to interpret these in light of deterministic or libertarian philosophical constructs is not so clear cut.

After a protracted discussion of libertarian and deterministic positions in a Socratic manner Farrer finally comes to the conclusion that ‘tautologies about choice are rules for being human, or . . . laws of human nature’. The question is then about predictability and intelligibility of conduct. Yet, Farrer asserts that ‘conduct may be called freely chosen in so far as we so act, but no further . . . we can decide against instinct [but] we do not commonly decide for it’. Farrer returns to a framework established in Aristotelian Naturalism to argue that instinct and appetite are the ‘parents’ of deliberate choice. However, the transition between stasis and action may be voluntary or involuntary and is affected by concomitant and antecedent factors. These are shaped by internal compulsions, circumstances and social contexts. As a result, decisions and actions cannot be limited to being merely affirmative or negative, or right and wrong within particular circumstances. In the case of right action, Farrer affirms that choice ‘often means to make a succession of serious and virtuous decisions in face of the morally relevant facts’. It is a process of invention by the individual through sensible and objective reasoning. Thus it cannot be deterministic in nature as it is formulated creatively by a free will.