Fernando Pessoa and the Logic of Free Will

 We know that Fernando Pessoa wrote on existential themes–boredom, absurdity, authenticity–but it isn’t common knowledge that he wrote on the metaphysics of free will.  As it turns out, the concept of free will occupied him a great deal.  He alludes to it in his major prose work The Book of Disquiet, written under the heteronym of Bernardo Soares, and he directly addresses the problem in his recently published Philosophical Essays (Contra Mundum Press, 2012), which he wrote in English.

According to the philosopher John Searle, whose credentials we can rely on, consciousness and the problem of free will is the most important problem of the modern era.  We know that we’re sentient beings–we have consciousness–but we don’t know exactly how it happens.  As Kant pointed out as well, there is a basic incompatibility between our intuition that we can control our actions, such as raising an arm or taking a step forward, and the chemical facts of our daily lives, neurotransmitters firing like pistons in a cylinder.  We don’t seem to have any control over the hard facts of our neuro-chemico-physiology.  That is, we cannot really control the work of a complicated network of synapses.

As we know, philosophers have been discussing these issues for a very long time.  They lose sleep over these things, and rightly so, because we need smart individuals like John Searle, Colin McGinn, and Daniel Dennett to help us think about issues that occasionally almost literally get under the skin.  These philosophers employ complicated arguments and attempt solutions,  but definitive answers aren’t forthcoming any time soon (or within the province of philosophy).

Pessoa is not a writer who produces fine-tuned arguments.  He was a literary man, not a philosopher.  However, he had serious philosophical interests and one of them was the very serious metaphysical problem of free will.  He was interested in the compatabilism of our sensations, even our intuitions, with the hard facts of biochemistry.  That is, how do we obtain the justified belief that we’re free agents over our bodily movements and actions in spite of the fact that we have no control over the electromagnetic machinations of our neurotransmitters?

As we know, Pessoa was not a philosopher or a scientist.  But again, he went to school and studied these subjects.  As a disciplined student, he took philosophy classes.  At some point, he came across the writings of Thomas Aquinas, who believed that the existence of God can be proven with sound logic.  He was no fideist.  His scholastic methods were based on the rigors of Aristotelian logic, not faith alone, as Augustine and other Church Fathers had maintained.  He favored the mesh between faith and reason such that evidence for the ex nihilo sui generis characteristics of God’s creation could very well be deductively concluded by the assistance of rational providence–the First Cause–the divine Unmoved Mover of our planetary cosmos.

Now, Pessoa’s engagement with Thomas is interesting for readers of The Book of Disquiet, because we recall his declarations of agnosticism in faithless times.  His mouthpiece Bernardo Soares decries an era that has lost its religious faith: “I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason their elders had had it–without knowing why.”  Rather than adopt metaphysical solutions of the modern cult of Humanity–the secular philosophers and scientists–Soares endorsed renunciation and the contemplative life of a genuine Decadent, one who is “Impassive to the solemnity of any and all worlds, indifferent to the divine… a refined Epicureanism, as befits our cerebral nerves.”  Soares didn’t identify himself with religious cults, occult beliefs, or modes of secular existentialism that espouses the individual’s responsibility to voluntarily decide her freedom.  Rather, he adopted a version of ancient philosophy based on the metaphysics of sensations which permitted him the pose of Pascalian reverence–the suspension of belief over insolvable problems.  For Pessoa, the wager of God’s existence held him in abeyance.  However, the inconclusive suspension of belief, as he knew, is a form of passive action, not a symptom of limited human understanding.

Pessoa is known as a modernist Portuguese poet.  However, I would like to consider him as a thinker more akin to Kant, who investigated multiple realms of human knowledge, and pondered the nature of reality as a process of apprehending the world through the faculties of our imagination.  In such a way, metaphysical possibilities always resided at the fringe of our dreams.

In considering Thomas, Pessoa returns us to the intersection of reason and faith, and asks us to dwell on the logic of creative possibility, God’s omnipotence.  In his essay “On Thomas Aquinas,” he addresses the scholastic philosopher’s theory of motion to ascertain its strength.  He begins by summarizing Thomas’s argument:

God determines all things that act; he determines one to be determined in the action and he determines others to be free.  Thus, in this last point, there is conciliation of divine power and the freedom of the human will.

Pessoa recognizes a refutation of this argument, which turns out to be fallacious: If God determines objects X and Y, then all things are determined.  This is an existential variable fallacy: If an object X has an attribute (namely that it has been determined), then all X objects have that attribute.  This is like saying that the Yankees are debilitated as a team because a player, perhaps Derek Jeter, is debilitated in his ability to play baseball.

Moving forward, Pessoa points out a basic incompatibility: All things are determined; besides those determined things there are other things determined to be free by their own nature.  Since their nature supposedly determines them to be free, they cannot be free.  As Pessoa notes, determinism and freedom are incompatible.  However, the argument holds.

As the Thomistic argument goes, God creates the natures of all things; if He creates a thing determined, then it is determined (not free); if He creates a free thing, then it is free.  God can create things with a determined nature that are free.  According to Pessoa, this situation is like a despot who issues an order: “When I command disobey me.”  Although improbable, it is conceivable.  It is improbable because we don’t expect the despot to command disobedience.  This would be like a logician recommending faulty logic.  Is it a contradiction?  Can God contradict Himself?  (Can God create a heavy boulder that He cannot lift?)

But we can conceive of circumstances when a person might want his or her command disobeyed.  If a superior officer has incurred a serious stomach wound in battle, she may issue an order for the medic to provide water to quench her thirst.  It is conceivable that she could tell the medic prior to battle, “Whatever you do, if I am wounded in the stomach and order you to give me water, don’t do it. Disobey me.”  The officer commands disobedience.  In such cases, it may be in an individual’s best interest to disobey a command.  As Pessoa says, and as curious as it may sound to us, God commands us to be free.  We are limited by our lack of freedom to be otherwise.  It’s this rationality which seems most absurd, and counterintuitive, but as Pessoa implies, it is valid reasoning.

Surely, we feel a little hoodwinked by Thomas’s reasoning here.  But as Pessoa recognizes, Thomas’s procedure lets us recognize the validity of the argument–feel it out, if you will–then he squashes it like a flimsy gnat, collapsing our vulnerability to the noble conclusions of intuition.  God creates some things determined, but the proposition that some things are free isn’t entirely satisfactory.  We can grant this sticking point.  The real catch is this: God created some things determined and other things free.  That things have a ‘nature’ excludes the concept of freedom.  God may determine things to be free, as we saw awhile ago, but for God to make freedom the nature of a thing, a thing’s essence, does not seem like a satisfactory proposition.  A thing having a nature implies determinism.  Thus, according to Pessoa’s analysis, God cannot make the nature of things to be free.

Why?  Because a thing is ‘that’ thing and no other.  A thing must conform to the laws of nature and its essential freedom is incompatible with those laws.  Thus, the latter proposition is nonsense.  If it did make sense, then we’d have to accept the idea that freedom implies a thing has no nature at all. And if that were the case, then God creates things with natures that have no nature at all.  It is likely we would be averse to characterizing God’s omnipotence in such a way.

Although a conclusion is arrived at by valid reasoning that does not make it true.  Pessoa agreed with the reasoning, but he did not consent to the truth of the proposition.  For him, we can never know the empirical effects of the laws of nature with any certainty.  Why?  Because the external world could very well be a dream, an extravagant hallucination.  The force of Cartesian doubt returns in another form here.  As Pessoa says, “Thus goes the basis of the philosophic system of Thomas , and the foundation of the theories and of the dogmas of the Catholic Church (nay, of all Churches).”

As Pessoa intimates, determinism and freedom are indeed incompatible.  Moreover, this conclusion relies on the free will of human beings–two incompatible positions, two different wills.  For him, the permanence of the problem hinges on the “indeterminateness of will,” conveying the infinity of voluble minds.  So we are entitled to believe we’re free or otherwise determined by our rational doubts.         


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