Central to the plot of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is William Ernest Henley’s short poem of the same name. Though the role of the poem suffers some historical revisionism in the film, its role in the life of Nelson Mandela is worth consideration. The film recounts the remarkable story of Mandela’s efforts at national reconciliation through his embrace of the South African rugby team, which at the time remained a symbol of Apartheid’s ethnic segregation. In 1996, when I returned for the first time to South Africa, my childhood home, some old friends shared with me how meaningful it was when Mandela appeared at Ellis Park donning the Springbok green and gold. I’m gratified that this remarkable story of reconciliation has made it to the screen, especially while Morgan Freeman is still with us. He was born to play Mandela. During Mandela’s long internment on Robben Island, Henley’s poem adorned a wall of his cell, a constant reminder that though his freedom had been taken from him, he remained “the captain of his soul“. The words of this poem, and their significance to Mandela, underscore a central point of contention in the debate about human free will. It seems to me that one problem with some arguments for compatibilism, the idea that determinism and human responsibility are compatible, is the conflating of freedom and free will. Mandela’s story is a powerful reminder that there is freedom beyond freedom. That is, it matters whether we are captains or merely observers of our souls.
Calling upon Henley’s poem as a powerful expression of our sense of having free will, here I consider one particular line of argument: that to be free in the sense relevant to moral responsibility is just to be free from external constraint. This view, classical compatibilism, continues to assert itself in spite of so obviously missing the target.1
Doing What I Want To Do
For their own reasons, a significant contingent of both religious and secular thinkers hold to a deterministic view of the universe. On this view, every event is wholly determined by a sufficient cause, either the will of God or the initial conditions of the universe, both of which are far beyond the locus of human action. The problem is that people intuitively regard events over which we have no control to be amoral. Peter van Inwagen articulates this intuition as follows:
If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us. (An Essay on Free Will, 1983, p. 56)
And so, throughout the history of philosophy, compatibilists have had to continually make and sustain a case that in spite of our intuitions, in the arena of human action, we are “free” in some sense, and moral responsibility is preserved in spite of those actions being irrevocably determined by causes far beyond a person’s control. Though some determinists have conceded that moral responsibility is an illusion on their view, the greater part, wanting to preserve the enormous edifice of human values — merit and punishment, love and hate, courage and cowardice — have made a tireless effort to reconcile their determinism with our untutored presumptions.
The Agreement at the Heart of the Disagreement
Interestingly, both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree that some sense of being free is required for moral responsibility. For the classical compatibilist, however, the lynchpin of moral responsibility is not whether an act is determined and inexorable, but rather whether it is coerced and whether there is an appropriate correlation between desire and action. That is, an act is free and morally significant if two conditions are met: If 1) what I do is what I wanted to do, and 2) if I am not prevented from doing what I want. In such a case, that act is mine, and that act is free, and it is thereby morally significant. For an act to be my act, it does not matter whether my wants or desires were bequeathed to me by God or by physics, so long as those desires were had by me and formed part of the causal chain preceding the act. And, for an act to be free, it must be unconstrained by another person. Following precedent, let’s call (1) the voluntary thesis, and (2) the constraint thesis. In his influential work on “liberty” and “necessity”, David Hume articulates these sufficient conditions succinctly:
By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a prisoner and in chains. (Hume, An Enquiry, Sec. VIII.)
I begin with common ground. There is indeed an important sense of being free that is not directly dependent on a libertarian account of free will. Some examples offered on behalf of the constraint thesis, with my own cinematic spin, serve to illustrate.2
The concept of freedom on the Constraint Thesis
- In Terminator 2, Sarah Connor is wrongfully institutionalized, held against her will, not permitted to see or communicate with her son. In one scene, after acting out, she is strapped down, unable to even move her body. Her freedom to act as she desires has been physically constrained. She is not free to act as she wishes.
- In Hostage (and countless other films), Sheriff Jeff Talley’s family is kidnapped, and on the threat of taking their lives, Talley is ordered to undermine the efforts of the FBI who are dealing with a hostage situation of their own. In such cases, the protagonist is not free because literally or essentially, a gun is being held to their head. They are constrained by threat.
- In The Dark Knight, the Joker presents Batman with a choice to save either Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes. Batman chooses to save his beloved Rachel, only to learn that he has been tricked by the Joker, sent to the location of Dent instead. So, Batman was not free to choose to save Rachel, constrained as he was by deception.
Let us concede that in each of these three examples of constraint, freedom — precious freedom — is obstructed. Freedom from personal and political constraint or coercion is a vital and important good. In the words of Morpheus, it is “worth fighting for, worth dying for”. Or, as William Wallace so unforgettably cries with his last breath: “Freeeeeedoooom!“. Nonetheless, as an analysis of freedom of the will or of the freedom requisite for moral responsibility, the constraint thesis misses by a mile. By locating the issue of free will in external factors, in the ability to actualize choices rather than in the ability to determine our choices in the first place, the compatibilist conflates the issue of free will with that of freedom. Both are important, but are nonetheless distinct.
If this is to be an analysis of free will, the Chinese dissident who stared down a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square did not act freely; Martin Luther King, Jr. and his cadre of civil rights advocates were not acting of their own free will as they refused to budge in the face of attack dogs, billy clubs, and fire hoses; the martyr who refuses to renounce his convictions with a sword at his neck does not do so freely. And, prevented as he was from carrying out his wishes, Mandela was in no sense free in his prison cell.
On the constraint thesis, in the very cases that seem to be the most powerful instances of the will’s triumphant freedom, the freedom with which the compatibilist insists we must be content is absent. The truth is, when we are constrained, the freedom of the will comes into intense focus, presented as it is with a decisive option to submit or rebel. In the proverbial example — having a gun pointed at our head — though our will is pressed upon with the gravest threat, we may yet resist to the point of death. Sarah Connor does not submit, fighting against her restraints and planning her escape. Sheriff Talley ultimately chooses to risk his own life and that of his family’s. Batman surely chose to save Rachel, in spite of the outcome of his choice being thwarted by the Joker’s deception. Constraint does not nullify free will. On the contrary, it shoves it onto center stage and yells, “Action!”. New Hampshire’s state motto puts it well: “Live Free, or Die!” That “or” is critical. Even under the severest threat or restraint, the will must choose. Most will submit, some will not. “Yippee-ki-yay.”
Authentically, Significantly, Genuinely Free
Incompatibilists have a way of exasperating compatibilists by referring to their own contra-causal3 notion of free will as “authentic” or “genuine” free will, implying, thereby, that the compatibilist notion of freedom is some facsimile of free will, a compromise necessitated by their deterministic worldview that falls terribly short.
Libertarianism holds that incompatibilism is true and determinism is false; in order for persons to have the sort of freedom that is required for them to be morally responsible for their choices and actions they must have genuine freedom, not compatibilist so-called freedom, regarding those choices and actions. (Yandell, Philosophy of Religion, p. 309.)
Compatibilists also complain that libertarians beg the question by defining free will contra-causally.
First, can may be interpreted in the contra-causal sense that no cause or set of causes is sufficient to produce any particular choice on the agent’s part. In this sense, the determinist says that someone cannot do otherwise. This is the point of his basic disagreement with the indeterminist. The issue cannot be decided, though, simply by defining freedom contra-causally, as many indeterminists do. (Feinberg, “God Ordains All Things”, in Predestination and Free Will, p. 27)
Well, I have no desire to decide things with circular definitions, but in my view it is the compatibilist’s abuse of the language that is problematic in this case. Because compatibilists who advance the constraint thesis insist upon using the term “free will” when a perfectly good word, “freedom”, is readily available, they rob us of the ability to employ “free will” in its natural sense, necessitating those bothersome modifiers: “authentic”, “significant”, and “genuine”.
Even if “free will” doesn’t presume contra-causality, it does presume that we are referring to freedom of or over the will, which, if it exists, is universally presumed to be an interior faculty of the heart, soul, or mind. Any analysis that refers only to external factors, to the body being free, misappropriates the term. And by conflating the terms “freedom” and “free will”, the compatibilist makes it harder to discuss these clearly distinct domains of being free. So, my Christmas wish is that compatibilists, insofar as they appeal to the constraint thesis, would content themselves with the term “freedom”, and leave “free will” for the status of the will, whether it be free or not. Incompatibilists would also do well to avoid using the terms interchangably, as they often do. After all, our language is rich with all the senses of freedom apropos to the constraint thesis: “freedom of expression”, “freedom of assembly”, “freedom of information”, “freedom of speech”, etc. Harry Frankfurt’s schema, “freedom of action” versus “freedom of will”, is also quite agreeable.
So, there is a question of freedom beyond freedom. And of course, that has been the question all along, muddled though it has been by those who could not assign freedom to the will and had to find it elsewhere. Henley’s words and Mandela’s story invite us to consider what it would mean if the will itself were free, a will that could not be shackled by the bonds of men.
O’ Captain, My Captain
“I am the captain of my soul.” Henley’s poetic, final affirmation is rich with implications for our subject matter. His choice of words and metaphor
resonates deeply with my own intuitions about human free will. Each word is indicative of what it feels like to have a will that is free.
First, notice the interiority. The command he feels over his inner soul stands in stark contrast to his lack of control over all that surrounds him on every side: “the night that covers” him, “the fell clutch of circumstance”, and “the bludgeonings of chance”. Though the storms of life, the “wrath and tears”, ravage and press upon him, he is “bloody, but unbowed”. His body is beaten. His soul is unconquered. The compatibilist’s singular notion of freedom does not allow for this second bulwark of being free, a fierce internal independence that persists in spite of the chains, the fetters, the bludgeons that press upon the body.
Second, notice the strong sense of an ego that stands over and in ownership of the soul. This self-understanding presumes much more than the voluntary thesis. The self is not identical to or swept along by the passions, thoughts and dispositions that move within the soul. Rather, the self stands in a governing role over the passions of the soul, able to make determinations over its ultimate course of action. It is safe to say that Henley’s words presume a robust view of the self such as is articulated by Thomas Reid.
My personal identity, therefore, implies the continued existence of that indivisible thing which I call myself. Whatever this self may be, it is something which thinks, and deliberates, and resolves, and acts, and suffers. I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts, and actions, and feelings change every moment — they have no continued, but a successive existence; but that self or I, to which they belong, is permanent, and has the same relation to all the succeeding thoughts, actions, and feelings, which I call mine. (Reid, “Of Identity”)
Finally, consider the image of a captain. Though there are winds and currents that press against the ship, directing it, tilting it, this way or that, he is at the rudder as captain, able to direct the ship with the winds and current, or against them. Though it is certainly easier to sail with the current, with some effort he can overcome them. In contrast, on the compatibilist view, there is no rudder, and the ship will tack wherever the winds and currents dictate. In other words, he is no captain at all. He is a passenger in a room with a view, along for the ride.
Of course, Henley’s poetic turn of phrase does not constitute an argument for the reality of free will. It is, however, a terse and powerful expression of the libertarian intuition. To the extent that Henley’s proclamation resonates with our own self-understanding, as it did for Mandela, we share the conviction that we are ultimately in command of our thoughts and desires. In the absence of freedom, our will remains free. Self-awareness has always been the principal ground for the libertarian intuition. And though we may be mistaken in our self-perception, at the very least, our sense of command over the desires that present themselves to us sets the bar for what we mean when we wonder, “Is my will free?”
Along for the Ride
Henley’s self-understanding is especially striking when we consider contemporary, naturalistc accounts of the soul or mind. On many such accounts, the mind is reduced to an epiphenomenon standing in a supervenient relationship to the brain. On this view, the physical events in the brain have a double effect, causing both a subsequent effect in the brain or elsewhere in the body as well as a mental effect or conscious state. For clarity, mental states include thoughts, desires, and qualia like seeing red or smelling roses. A brain state refers to a particular configuration of neurons in the brain. In the philosophy of mind, the distinction is often simplified by analyzing the concept of pain as a C-fiber firing (a brain state) and the feeling of pain (a mental state). On the epiphenomenal view, mental states have no causal impact on brain states. It is one-way causation. When I have brain state A, I also have mental state A1. Brain state A causes brain state B, and brain state B causes mental state B1. And so on, and so on. Returning to our metaphor, consciousness is like the wake trailing the ship, a necessary corollary of the ship’s passage, but with no causal impact on its course. If follows the ship wherever it goes, but does not determine its course in any way. This is thought to be the implication of two presuppositions: the mind is not strictly identical to the brain, and physical things are the only substances that exist. If something like this view is correct, I think it’s clear that “I” am in no way “the captain of my soul”. I am merely a passenger, along for the ride. Why so?
We can be sure that when Henley declares “I”, he is referring at least to his thoughts and passions, if not also to some self-awareness of his existence as an essentially individuated being. As for all of us, when we speak of ourselves in the first-person, we refer principally to our conscious lives. But if Henley’s “I” is first and foremost his conscious life, we can see that his “I” is the captain of nothing. His “I” is an afterthought, an effect. The inexorable and ageless causal chains coursing through his brain and body dictate every thought, every desire, every choice… and though he is cognizant of them, he is utterly subservient to them. He is not a horseman with a bit and spurs to direct his spirited steed. He is a rider on a carousel’s wooden pony, having perhaps the time of his life, but destined to experience only the undulations and course determined by the amusement ride’s mechanics. As Susan Blackmore puts it…
So does Benjamin have free will or not? The critical question to ask is who do you mean by Benjamin? If by ‘Benjamin’ you mean a body and brain, then certainly Benjamin had a choice. … Is this sufficient for what we call free will? I think not, because at the heart of the concept of free will lies the idea that it must be Benjamin’s conscious self who made the decision. When we think of free will we imagine that ‘I’ have it, not that this whole conglomeration of body and brain has it. Free will is when ‘I’ consciously, freely, and deliberately decide to do something, and do it. In other words ‘I’ must be the agent for it to count as free
will. (The Meme Machine, 2000, p. 237.)
Consciousness: A Stream or a Sprinkler
Furthermore, Henley’s “I” is even more impotent still. At least on the most common versions of epiphenomenalism, not only do conscious states have no causal bearing on the brain, but neither do conscious states determine subsequent conscious states. It is all bottom up. So, for example, if I am formulating an argument as I am now, any conclusion that I draw from my premises will not be a consequence of those premises as propositions. Rather, each premise in my mind is caused by a brain state, and the conclusion by yet another brain state. So, when we consider — All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. — we are wrong to think that our conclusion is the product of some chain of thought, some intuition into what follows logically from the propositional content of each premise. Our conclusion is actually the product of brain state C, caused by brain state B, caused by brain state A. Or, if I think of my mother, I might then think how much I love her, and then I might call her. We naturally think that my remembering my love for my mother is the result of my fond memories of her, that is, of my conscious reflection on her many acts of love toward me. But actually, my feeling of love is the product of a certain set of neurons lighting up, neurons that themselves have no notion of my mother or even what a mother is. In the end, I would call my mother whether or not I had any thoughts of her because it is only the brain states that are causally efficacious. The implication of all this is that Henley is not only not the captain of his actions, but he is not even the captain of his thoughts, of his “soul”.
A Constrained Conclusion
Allow me to reiterate the narrow scope of my claims here. First, freedom and free will are distinct notions, and having one does not entail having the other. Second, constraint is irrelevant to the question of freedom of the will. Third, the will is understood by Henley as a faculty of the mind that construes the self as a captain of the soul and body, and the prospects for having such a faculty if the mind is merely an epiphenomenon are hopeless.
The driving concern for those of us who reject determinism — or more broadly, naturalism — is that the person is reduced on these views to something much less than the robust sense of self that we possess based on our own introspection. We emerge as zombies (with no reason or consciousness) in some cases, as androids (machines defined by inputs and outputs), or as puppets and marionettes (pulled hither and tither by the strings of fate). Some determinists assure us that no such reduction is entailed, or that categorical freedom “is not worth wanting”. Their assurances are unpersuasive. If we are not the ultimate causes of our choices and actions and do not determine our course in this life for reasons of our own choosing, we are but shadows of who we thought we were. Mandela took great comfort in his conviction that he was indeed a mighty soul, a captain who could chart the turbulent seas of life instead of being tossed by them to and fro. I, for one, hope that he is right.
It is interesting, though probably idle, to speculate as to what Eastwood’s own philosophy of life contributes to Invictus. It is a story primarily about reconciliation, and yet this poem that runs through the film and animates Mandela’s thoughts gives no indication of what influences grounded Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation instead of retaliation. It is certainly the case that Eastwood’s career displays an abiding interest in fiercely independent characters who are unconquered by the world, from his days as Josey Wales, Blondie and Dirty Harry to Million Dollar Baby. Invictus, meaning “unconquered”, dovetails nicely with this arc. I’ve also thought that Eastwood, especially as a director, evinces an ultimately nihilistic despair, exhibited most clearly in his definitive work, Unforgiven. However, with his last two offerings, Gran Torino and Invictus, we have a story of self-sacrifice on the one hand and of forgiveness, of foregoing justice and retribution on the other. As much as I resonate with Henley’s poem, I might have hoped for some insight into the reasons for Mandela’s chosen course of reconciliation. What other scraps of paper hung on his prison walls? What books lined the shelves? As captain of his soul, it is right that we laud Mandela for directing his thoughts and feelings toward love instead of hate, forgiveness instead of resentment. No doubt his soul was presented with all manner of vengeful thoughts and feelings, and with due cause. His victory over them is a beacon for all of us who also experience injustices in this life. But Mandela could have just as easily honored the spirit of Henley’s poem had he emerged from prison as “Dirty Nelson”, on a righteous mission of retribution. What were Mandela’s own reasons for choosing the path of reconciliation instead? It matters not only that we are captains of our souls, but also on what course we choose to chart the ship.
1 A disclaimer. I have not intended to address the many subtle and important aspects of the free will debate. For example, much of the above has no bearing on Harry Frankfurt’s much refined “hierarchical compatibilism”. Furthermore, I have not aimed to resolve the “coherence problem” or “intelligibility problem” — that if human choices are undetermined, they must be random — which remains the principle objection to libertarian, categorical, or contra-causal free will.
2 These examples are my own, in keeping with my cinematic theme, but are analogues to the examples offered by classical compatibilists themselves as seen from the beginning in Hume’s reference to “everyone who is not a prisoner and in chains”. (See Feinberg, “”, p.) [Citations forthcoming]
3 Thomas Reid’s articulation of liberty as undetermined or contra-causal: “If, in any action, he had power to will what he did, or not to will it, in that action he is free. But if, in every voluntary action, the determination of his will be the necessary consequence of something involuntary in the state of his mind, or of something in his external circumstances, he is not free; he has not what I call the liberty of a moral agent, but is subject to necessity.” (“The Liberty of Moral Agents”)
4 “If the existence of conscious states such as active power is embraced, as it must be if libertarian agency in in view, then a naturalist will have a difficult time avoiding an epiphenomenal depiction of conscious states according to which they are caused by or emerge from the brain, but they are themselves causally impotent. To see why this is so, consider a person getting a drink of water. Now, according to the causal closure principle (in tracing the causal antecedents of any physical event, one will never have to leave the physical; if one has to do so, this would be tantamount to admitting a miraculous intervention in the flow of events as the micro-physical level), the cause of the person getting the drink is a relevant brain state. If so, what does the mental state of feeling thirst contribute? If it is a real mental state distinct from the brain state, there appears to be no room of it to affect anything, since the relevant brain state is the adequate cause.” (James Porter Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (SCM: 2009), p. 50.).
* I am suspicious that Frankfurt’s famous counter-examples and version of compatibilism are yet again a spin on the constraint thesis. If we successfully locate the question of free will to that of freedom of or over the will, on the hierarchical compatibilist’s view of the matter, the will remains constrained by first and second order desires and by nature, if it is not identical to them. I may revisit this question in a subsequent article: “Sock Puppets or Marionettes”.
• Note to self, for further refinement.