On February 1, 1870, William James recorded the following in his diary:
I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. [ (James, [son of William James] 1920, 147).]
The above was quoted by Ralph Barton Perry, who wrote the famous work on the life and thought of William James, Perry goes on to comment on that quote:
Thus James felt his old doubts to be dispelled by a new and revolutionary insight. It is important to note two things: first, the fact that he experienced a personal crisis that could be relieved only by a philosophical insight; and, second, the specific quality of the philosophy which his soul-sickness required.
That he should have experienced such a crisis at all furnishes the best possible proof of James’s philosophical cast of mind. He had for many years brooded upon the nature of the universe and the destiny of man. Although the problem stimulated his curiosity and fascinated his intellect, it was at the same time a vital problem. He was looking for a solution that should be not merely tenable as judged by scientific standards, but at the same time propitious enough to live by. Philosophy was never, for James, a detached and dispassionate inquiry into truth; still less was it a form of amusement. It was a quest, the outcome of which was hopefully and fearfully apprehended by a soul on trial and awaiting its sentence.
Philosophy is, and should be, a playfully serious business—it should be taken up as if your life depends upon it—since it does. Here is how Albert Camus put it:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And it is true as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.
To choose to live, to get up out of bed each day is an act of free will and decision taken consciously or unconsciously, and it is a philosophic decision to affirm one’s ongoing life. Now for some getting out of bed is a mere habit and thus not an act or choice of philosophy or of free will.
Free will is something, like self-awareness, that is only an ability that we have the potential to make use of. When we choose to think or act, consciously choose—that is an act of putting our potential for free will into operation and effect. Habit and habitual acts or the opposite of free will, they are acts taken by our unconscious to simply repeat what we have done before. Habitual thinking can be the enemy of free will and choice, it can be surrendering that potential for choice, though paradoxically we can consciously inculcate habits by choosing to make some action become repetitive and automatic.
An artist or athlete relies on habit, depends on it, and has trained herself to utilize it as a means to accomplish her goals and purpose. To be an artist or an athlete is a choice, a life choice which can be a vocation, avocation, or if she is lucky, her profession. To become an artist or an athlete is to acquire skills and talents by the purposeful acquisition and work of inculcating habits. To practice over and over and over again an action or set of actions so that the body and the mind together will fix on a specific outcome when the time is ready and needed to act. That is what training to learn any skill is all about. To choose by free will to acquire a skill that becomes automatic and thus becomes a habit.
Habits that you did not indeed to acquire are the opposite of free choice and free will. They are the results of circumstances shaping you. They could be the results of the shaping forces of nature, nurture, or culture. These kinds of habits are taken on unconsciously. They are maintained by the habitual decision processes of the unconscious mind. Getting out of bed, be it as a result of an alarm clock or just waking up seemingly without conscious choice, is an example of unconscious habit. Circumstances of your life got you trained to wake up as a way of responding to the alarm or to the rising ambient amount of light in the room or even your internal sense of time. William James wrote:
But the fact is that our virtues are habits as our vices. All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,--practical, emotional, and intellectual,--systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be. …
I believe that we are subject to the law of habit in consequence of the fact that we have bodies. The plasticity of the living matter of our nervous system, in short, is the reason why we do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.
James was right when he said, “So far as we are thus mere bundles of habit, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves.” That getting out of bed can be just the philosophic habit to unconsciously think that your life is worth living by the mere fact that you unconsciously choose not to think about your life and its circumstances and its meaning at all. Not in the way that either William James meant thinking or Albert Camus either. Living unconsciously by habit may be enough if you are lucky. Life will just enable you to avoid any crisis or challenge or change in circumstances and thus prevent your derailment from the habits of your life.
But radical change, death of a friend or family member, pending divorce or separation or radical change in a relationship, serious accident, losing one’s job, etc., could bring about the questioning of your life situation and habits. These could cause an existential crisis—i.e. a philosophic crisis that makes you question how you have been living your life, which would require a philosophic response. You must answer the challenge and the question, is life, your current living situation, worth it. How you respond will either be an act of free will or not. You can either choose to do something consciously or not. If you consciously recognize the question and challenge and consciously choose a response, even if it is simply to say, ‘Well life must go on’, then you have demonstrated your capacity for free will.
As you can see, free will is wrapped up with an act of conscious choice. It is the potential gift that we have if we avail ourselves of it. Those who deny we have such a capacity fail to understand themselves and others and prefer, unconsciously, to remain in a state of delusional determinism. Which is their unconscious choice and in general for such a person, they will refuse with all their might to consciously veer off from that belief. They will argue with vigor and intensity their denial of free will. That intensity and insistence by someone that we do not have free will seems to me to be a sign of their own belief which somehow, and for some reason, became wrapped up in their definition of life and self. It seems like they fear the responsibility of choice and thus they deny it. That denial will be disguised with such terms as ‘common sense’, ‘clear thinking’, and ‘realism’. But it is a denial of the reality that we potentially all have free will, we only need to choose to acknowledge it and use it.
Works CitedCamus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (translated from the French). Translated by Justin O'Brien. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 1955.
James, [son of William James], Henry, ed. Letters of William James. Boston, 1920.
James, William. Talks to Teachers On Psychology; and To Students On Some Of Life's Ideals. Henry Holt and Company, 1899.
Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James: As Revealed in Unpublished Correspondences and Notes, Together with his Published Writings. Vol. I. II vols. Little Brown, and Compnay, 1935.
 (Perry 1935, 323)
 (Perry 1935, 323)
 (Camus 1955, 3)
 (James 1899, 49)
 (James 1899, 50)