Rodin - Thinker

James Felt

Photo of book


by James W. Felt, S.J.
Cornell University Press
Copyright 1994

A Book Review
by Fred Currie

Are we free? Most of us feel free. Our culture operates as if we are free and responsible for our freely chosen actions. Yet, the popular wisdom in philosophical circles today is that we are not free. Any feelings of freedom are illusions. In reality, all of us are determined to be what we are by causes beyond our control. What are these causes? How did we loose control of our own destiny? Did we ever have any control of our destiny? Is fate a play we all are acting in with a script not of our own choosing? Is the script is dictated by god, genetics, psychology, or some other unknown factor outside our control? Is there room for an individual acting as a free agent in there somewhere?

James Felt has written a remarkable book, that concisely puts forth the view that we are free to make choices independent of the multitude of influences that clutter our decision making process. Determinism in its various forms is exposed as baseless dogma. Dogma built on the shifting sands of faulty presuppositions and unsound logic. The book is written in language accessable to the general reader. Many footnotes and a suggested reading list guide you, if, you desire to dig deeper into the points he discusses. He avoids any theological arguments and sticks to philosophy and metaphysics. Yet, the book progresses beyond the abstract and brings the freedom issue to where we live: the Libertarian free philosophy should clarify our response to the problem of evil. And our rational understanding of our personal freedom should cause us to realize that we are responsible for determining our own character. The concept of agency puts responsibility on our shoulders. We are fully culpable. This sobering fact should drive any thinking person straight to the Cross of Christ, where the blood of our risen saviour redeems us and truly sets us free.

James Felt starts off with a the common feeling we all have of being free in our decision making process. When I say, “I did it,” I know that I could have chosen otherwise. No one feels that they act out of necessity all of the time, if ever. Outside influences do not cause my internal decisions. I am free to ignore those influences. Our choices are our own creations, influenced by, but not an effect of external causes such as: psychology, or physical factors. This concept flies in the face of the common notion of cause and effect. Some from the determinist camp would argue that James Felt’s position is irrational. James Felt’s self created decisions seem to arise out of nowhere, for no reason at all. This objection is based on a flawed understanding of causality. This point should send shock waves throughout the scientific community. Many brilliant men have made a philosophical error. Causality is not a 2 step process. Between cause and effect there is a causal process. It is this process that takes time. Time for the internal freedom of an agent to make a decision about how to act. Hence, our freedom is not in the doing like John Locke argued. Our freedom is in the deciding what to do.

Yet, determinists say that internal freedom makes no sense. Indeed, four types of determinism make freedom seem impossible: physical determinism, psychological determinism, logical determinism and rational determinism. James Felt goes over each position carefully but before giving a refutation he moves on to compatibilism. Since many determinists believe that determinism is compatible with freedom. James Felt shows how compatibilism does not make rational sense. At the core of many determinist beliefs is their desire to make sense of the world, yet they have adopted an argument that is contradictory. If, every situation we find ourselves in is determined by antecedent events that necessitate our actions, then we cannot do anything but what we in fact do. There is no room for freedom. Kant’s explanation is that freedom and determinism belong to different realms. On the one hand, Kant says we are determined to do what we do, but if you look at it from another viewpoint, the world of understanding, you are free and responsible. Kant’s position is dualistic and absurd. Human actions and reason are integrated. Kant is playing linguistic games to try and get out of the problems Hume raised with causality. Some who hold compatibilism argue that freedom requires determinism. Your character determines the types of acts you are free to choose. You are most free when you are acting in your true character. Actions not consistent with your character come about by chance and you are not responsible for them. It seems there is way too much wiggle room in this definition. How does a person develop his character? Can you say a person’s behavior is determined because it is predictable, based on character analysis? This type of compatibilist makes an the assumption that all events are either determined or just come about by pure chance. James Felt also points out that there is no logical reason to assume there is a deterministic link between motives and decisions. We come back to the faulty concept of causality. Where determinists do not see that there is a process that happens between the cause and the effect.

Why does the case for determinism fail? James Felt points out that determinism cannot be a statement of fact. It is a statement of faith to claim that everything that happens, happens necessarily because of events that came before it. So we are talking about doctrinal issues. Physical determinism, psychological determinism, logical determinism and rational determinism are doctrines built on a narrow definition of causality and a faulty understanding of time. Once the concept of agency is understood, determinism is obviously incoherent. Determinism is exposed as a linguistic game of setting up definitions to create a self stultifying argument.