Commenting on the notion of free will, 19th century American thinker Robert G. Ingersoll writes, “People are under the necessity of feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves. To the extent of their actual wants, they are not free. Every limitation is a master. Every finite being is a prisoner, and no man has ever yet looked above or beyond the prison walls.” In this video, we will discuss Ingersoll’s argument that free will does not exist.
Ingersoll likens the will, or the moral compass of an individual, to the compass of a ship. “The compass does not navigate the ship; neither does it determine the direction that is taken. When winds and waves are too powerful, the compass is of no importance. The pilot may read it correctly, and may know the direction the ship ought to take, but the compass is not a force. So men, blown by the tempests of passion, may have the intellectual conviction that they should go another way; but, of what use, of what force, is the conviction?”
People who are addicted to drugs are strong evidence in support of Ingersoll’s conclusion. Some drug addicts know that they will die if they continue to abuse drugs. They wish that they could stop using drugs, but their insatiable desire to get high overrides their will to quit. Although one can argue that drugs inhibit a person’s free will, this is exactly the point that Ingersoll is making. Not just drugs, but any passion or desire whatsoever inhibits a person’s free will. No man is free from passion and desire; and therefore, no man is free.
Still, some might argue that desires are merely limiting factors of the will, and that a strong will can overcome any desire. In response to this criticism, Ingersoll responds that the will itself is not within one’s control. In other words, a man cannot even control his own thoughts. To illuminate this assertion, Ingersoll provides an anecdote about a dream that he once had.
“I had a dream, in which I debated a question with a friend. I thought to myself: “This is a dream, and yet I can not tell what my opponent is going to say. Yet, if it is a dream, I am doing the thinking for both sides, and therefore ought to know in advance what my friend will urge.” But, in a dream, there is some one who seems to talk to us. Our own brain tells us news, and presents an unexpected thought.”
Thus, men are not masters of their minds. They do not control the thoughts that arise and vanish in quick succession throughout the day, just as they do not control the thoughts that arise and vanish in quick succession while dreaming. Men are inactive spectators of the tragedies and the comedies that are performed on the stage of the world.