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The Fallacy of Free Will

A RE-READING, once a year, of Mark Twain's "What is Man?" might save some of our social uplifters from becoming confused and uttering nonsense on the subject of free will. The book is a materialistic and mechanistic interpretation of human behavior, written by a master craftsman. The brain, says Twain, "is merely a machine; and it works automatically, not by will power."


We are led to this remark after reading the "Official Statement of Priniciples of the Humanist Society of Friends," in which the following lines occur:


"Religious humanism then, is the broader sense, carries with it a definite faith in man as the director of his fate, founded upon the latest scientific conception of the universe and man's place in it."


Man is no more "the director of his fate" than the alley cat or the family gold fish, for he is subject, in every thing he does, to the laws of inheritance and to the chemical make-up of his bodily mechanism. He cannot transcend his biological limitations or rise above his inherent abilities.


There are thousands of ambitious persons today who would like to write with the ease and grace of Shakespeare, paint like Meissonier, sing like Caruso, play chess like Capablanca, possess the sparkling wit and genius of Voltaire. Then why don't they? Because, in spite of Henley's famous fallacy, "I am the captain of my soul," they cannot do what they would like to do: they are merely mess-boys, not captains, on their voyage through life. No matter how much they try, they are unable to touch the tiller of their lives or guide themselves to port.


But our pep-talk Humanists and "success" psychologists love to tell us that we can do whatever we "will" to do. Theirs is the chatter of the visionary, which would have even the moron believe he is "the director of his fate".


If the world ever wakes up - I am not at all convinced that it will - it will realize that human conduct is governed more by glandular secretions than by pretty preachments and "moral" platitudes. The rake, the pyromaniac, the swindler, the miser, the glutton, the hypochondriac are rarely amenable to sentimental slogans. The bully respects no one but the one who knocks him down. He is no more susceptible to "moral suasion" than the sluggard, the liar, and the cheat. Those who respond to "moral niceties" are those who have been conditioned to respond in that way. The "reformed" criminal is generally one who has discovered (in his own case, at least) that crime "does not pay". Those who find it does, keep merrily on, cracking safes until caught by the police. The pickpocket who "accepts" Jesus at last is usually the one who has grown gray in the art and lost his deftness at snatching watches. Criminals are generally religious, but our penal records show how little these men are influenced by a "fear" of God. Sunday school lessons, pulpit sermons, and threats of hell are rarely restraining forces in the lives of the religious criminal.

Friends and Colleagues