Wisdom and the Mind

10 Wisdom and Freedom as Reason-Sensitive Action Control

Aku Visala

Given the fact that philosophers are, by definition, lovers of wisdom, it is surprising that there is no philosophical consensus on what wisdom is. Socrates could be deemed wise because he acknowledged the limits of his knowledge. This implies that wisdom could be seen as a form of epistemic and moral humility. One is wise when one realistically assesses the limits of one’s knowledge. On the other hand, one could see Socrates as having access to a specific kind of knowledge—moral knowledge. According to Aristotle, for instance, young people can be intelligent but not really wise. This is because wisdom is a form of knowledge, phronesis, that pertains to how one should live. The wise in the ways of practical wisdom are people who know what is good and how to achieve it, and are able to live by it in the varying circumstances of life. In this sense, wisdom is a virtue, a habituated set of practices and behaviors that enable one to live a good life.[1] This Aristotelian idea of wisdom as a virtue combining experience, understanding, and right emotions has had a significant role in the theological tradition of the West. Most notably, Thomas Aquinas thought that wisdom, prudentia, meant understanding the proper aims and goals of human life and the ability to live accordingly. Wisdom “is of good counsel about matters regarding [a person’s] entire life, and the end of human life.”[2]

In this chapter, I will attempt to develop this Aristotelian/Thomistic notion of wisdom further. Specifically, I am interested in the ways wisdom might require a certain kind of psychological freedom. Both free will and wisdom seem to depend on reason-sensitive action control on the basis of shared reasoning. I will begin by exploring “wisdom” as developed by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who identifies three major prerequisites for developing wisdom: the individual must be informed and guided by a virtuous community; she must also have the capacities for reason and self-governance. After examining these three factors, I discuss recent work in the cognitive sciences that might give some evolutionary and cognitive depth for such a view.

Wisdom and Freedom: Reason-Guided Self-Control

MacIntyre has put forward an account of human moral life that is sensitive to vulnerability, dependence, and our connections to other forms of biological life.[3] For MacIntyre, humans are biological organisms, like all animals, but nevertheless possess certain unique features. One of these features is the possibility to become what MacIntyre calls an independent practical reasoner. I take it that excellence in independent practical reasoning constitutes the phronesis and prudentia that Aristotle and Thomas discuss. It is worth quoting MacIntyre at length:

What we need from others, if we are not only to exercise our initial animal capacities, but also to develop the capacities of independent practical reasoners, are those relationships necessary for fostering the ability to evaluate, modify, or reject our own practical judgments, to ask, that is, whether what we take to be good reasons for action really are sufficiently good reasons, and the ability to imagine realistically alternative possible futures, so as to be able to make rational choices between them, and the ability to stand back from our desires, so as to be able to enquire rationally what the pursuit of our good here and now requires and how our desires must be directed and, if necessary, reeducated, if we are to attain it.[4]

Here we see three requirements for developing excellence in practical reasoning. First, the individual is always part of a community. Constant interaction between the community and the individual is crucial because the individual can thereby learn to calibrate (“evaluate, modify, or reject”) her practical judgments against the standards of others. The community not only provides education and training, but functions as the source of one’s views of the good and models of good life. In this sense, there is no moral development without a moral community.

Second, the individual must develop a number of capacities that fall under the category of reason. The individual must be able to identify and understand the norms, ideas, and roles the community shares. Without this ability to recognize what others take as good reasons and good life, there could be no moral development. In addition, the individual must develop the ability to represent and evaluate alternative future scenarios to enable planning and goal-oriented behavior.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the ability to “redirect and re-educate” or to “stand back from” our desires. This “standing back” cannot be achieved by simply understanding good reasoning. It requires self-control and the ability to adjudicate how one’s actions develop in time. For MacIntyre our actions, like those of other animals, occur mainly because of our natural desires. These include biological desires for sustenance and health as well as social and moral desires like recognition, friendship, respect, and love. In addition, humans have a peculiar capacity to exert control over their desires, thereby controlling, at least to some extent, the sources of their own actions. In other words, they can choose to act upon one desire instead of another. Or they can choose, based on rational considerations, to inhibit their short-term desires for some long-term benefit. By exerting self-control or self-governance, the agent can have a certain amount of control over her desires. This is what philosopher John Searle calls the Gap.[5] The Gap is the place between desires and beliefs, on the one hand, and action, on the other. The Gap is where the conscious self operates: it assesses different reasons for actions, evaluates desires, and ultimately decides which reasons and desires the agent acts upon.

Now we can ask whether any of the above has any connection to free will and responsibility. I submit that the connection is this: free actions are products of an agent’s practical reasoning. What makes human beings free and responsible is their ability to practice their capacity for reason-based action.[6] In the philosophical literature on free will and responsibility, theories that identify free will with reason-responsiveness are quite popular. The basic idea of these theories is rather simple: what constitutes free and responsible action is that the agent is acting on the basis of practical rational considerations without internal or external compulsion. One of the most popular reason-responsive theories has been put forward by philosophers John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza.[7] In this account, the agent is responsible for her actions when her actions are under her control. Control is analyzed in terms of psychological mechanisms: the mechanisms that produce free actions have to be reason-sensitive in a specific way. It is this sensitivity that distinguishes responsible actions from mere reactions and compulsive or otherwise obsessive behaviors.

Culture Is Our Survival Strategy

In the previous section, I have provided a brief outline of wisdom as phronesis and suggested how it connects with free will. I will now suggest that both evolutionary and cognitive considerations not only support this account of wisdom and freedom, but give it much-needed richness and depth. Whatever else we are, we are an evolved species. I also take it as a given that culture has played an integral role in human evolution. Putting aside the question whether non-human animals have culture, we can say that humans are the only species for whom hypersociality through culture has become the first and foremost survival strategy. Humans are characterized by their immense capacity to learn and transmit the results to adjust their beliefs, behaviors, and practices accordingly. This ability to learn and create cultural environments has fed back into our biological evolution itself so that it is appropriate to call humans the biocultural species.[8] One prerequisite for being such a species is a form of flexible behavior that is sensitive to the social and cultural environment. Given the enormous plurality and variety in the evolution of cognition literature, I have decided to focus mainly on psychologist Roy Baumeister, because his work provides an elegant picture of moral agency that is psychologically and biologically plausible. Baumeister begins from the fact that human behavior seems to exhibit certain features that non-human animals are seldom capable of. He writes:

We assume that something about the way humans choose and act is different from what other animals do. Humans’ greater flexibility and deliberate contemplation of alternatives make their behavior arguably freer than the more rigid and short-term decision styles of other animals. This is the reality behind the idea of free will.[9]

For Baumeister and his colleagues, humans have a unique ability to learn new information, respond to their physical and social environment, and adjust their behavior accordingly. At its best, this is what Baumeister refers to as responsible autonomy: autonomous agents are capable of taking into account social, moral, and legal expectations, norms and prescriptions, and take responsibility for them by providing publicly acceptable reasons or justifications for their actions. I take it that Baumeister’s responsible autonomy is either close or identical to MacIntyre’s independent practical reasoning. Responsible autonomy comes with a species-unique cognitive system for cultural living. First, responsible autonomy only makes sense in a community of individuals where shared norms and behaviors exist. In other words, responsible autonomy is, as MacIntyre points out, a communal product. Baumeister goes on to say that an individual organism would have no use for free will without a community. Second, responsible autonomy includes the cognitive ability to identify and acknowledge reasons for action, shared norms, and expectations that come from moral and legal considerations. One also needs a set of cognitive capacities that allow for the imaginative creation and assessment of alternative future scenarios and counterfactual scenarios. Without such capacities, it would be impossible to create and execute the long-term planning crucial for the survival of both individuals and the group. Finally, and most crucially, individuals must develop an ability to control their actions and regulate their desires and emotions.

In Baumeister’s view, the evolution of these cognitive capacities has made humans uniquely capable of cultural life. Given the fact that hypersociality and culture are successful strategies for survival, we should assume that such cognitive mechanisms emerged via natural selection as successful adaptations at a time when human groups started growing in size and social structure became increasingly complex. Next, I will briefly look at some components of Baumeister’s view.

Self-Governance and Action Control

I will begin with “action control,” which is essentially the ability of the conscious self to work in Searle’s Gap. As already noted, Baumeister thinks that human behavior is uniquely flexible and variable. This is possible because human actions do not simply spring automatically from beliefs and desires. Instead, a form of executive control governs at least some of our actions. The extent of this control is a disputed matter. Some scholars, like psychologist Daniel Wegner, think that the conscious self has no executive control over behavior; every action is ultimately caused by mechanisms outside conscious control.[10] Fortunately, there are good reasons to reject this pessimistic view of executive control. Although we have good evidence that our cognitive systems function more independently and automatically than previously thought, we do not have good reasons to think that executive control of the conscious kind is a complete illusion.[11] Baumeister agrees:

Free will in the sense of self-control and rational, intelligent choice comprises an important set of psychological phenomena and is plausible in terms of the evolution and construction of the human psyche. Quite likely human conscious processing emerged as a way to facilitate this new form of action control.[12]

Conscious executive control is like a supervisor of a large collection of sub-systems, akin to a chief engineer who oversees a ship’s large engine room. It oftentimes does not initiate actions directly but it can, in the long run, shape and rework the sub-systems and influence how they react in different circumstances. One of Baumeister’s main findings has been that executive control of actions is somewhat limited and its functioning is related to other conscious cognitive systems. His work on the ego depletion effect has made an impact on public consciousness. The main idea is that exerting conscious action control draws upon a limited resource.[13] The lack of that resource will, in turn, impair a variety of different cognitive processes. In a number of experiments, for instance, Baumeister and others noted that making demanding choices seemed to impair the subsequent self-control of the subjects. Immediately after facing moral dilemmas, the subjects would succumb to temptation more easily. Furthermore, when subjects were put in situations where they had to exert self-control and resist temptation, they resorted to poor decision-making strategies afterwards. Their decision-making strategies were more passive, they more often than not maintained the status quo, and they exhibited a greater than usual number of biases.[14]

Baumeister also found an interesting link between other cognitive functions and ego depletion. When self-control was strained, automatic cognitive processing tended to remain unaffected: forming new memories and retrieving old ones, which are mostly automatic processes, were not impaired. However, tasks requiring conscious processing, such as drawing logical inferences, were indeed impaired. In my view, this result highlights the connection between rationality and free action. Furthermore, after difficult tasks of self-control, the subjects also exhibited lack of creativity and initiative. When the subject’s ego was depleted, she tended to be more passive and beginning new tasks was more difficult. Similarly, creativity turned out to be more difficult after demanding tasks of decision-making and self-control.

Reason: Prediction and Justification

Baumeister and others have recently highlighted the fact that cognitive scientists and psychologists have too often looked at cognitive processing from the point of view of the past. Emotion, memory, and perception, for instance, are often seen as driven by past experiences. Instead, Baumeister wants to argue that most human cognitive functions are future-oriented. As a result, perception is more about anticipating possible future events than about receiving present signals. Memory is more about the construction of future possibilities than about storing representations of past events. Similarly, emotion is more about guiding future actions than about reacting to extant conditions determined by past experiences.[15]

Again, consciousness seems to have a significant role to play in controlling and organizing future-directed intentions and actions. According to Baumeister, conscious processes are crucial for both long-term planning and the formation of distal intentions. These abilities are needed, for example, when individuals must choose between different but incompatible courses of actions. Consciousness seems to make this kind of cognitive operation possible by enabling the running of offline, complex mental simulations. Such simulations also bring a certain amount of coherence to other mental functioning by stimulating, gathering, and integrating information from different sub-systems of the brain.[16]

In addition to imagining future possibilities, reason has another crucial function: recognizing and providing reasons for actions. In addition to Baumeister’s work, this idea has been developed in depth recently by evolutionary psychologists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier.[17] According to Sperber and Mercier, human reason did not evolve as a general-purpose problem-solving device. Instead, it is mainly an adaptation to social living. Even logical inferences and other forms of abstract and conscious reasoning mainly take place in a social context. They write:

Reason, we argue, has two main functions: that of producing reasons for justifying oneself, and that of producing arguments to convince others. These two functions rely on the same kind of reasons and are closely related.”[18]

The first of these functions is to facilitate the complex and varied social coordination and cooperation that are the hallmark of our species. In and through the ability to recognize and provide good reasons for one’s action, individuals learn what to expect from one another. It is precisely this ability to give and take reasons that enables our varied practices of moral responsibility, blame, and praise. The second function is that of argumentation. Argumentation and public reasoning are, for Sperber and Mercier, ways to create and foster trust and enhance communication. We have reason so as to convince and gain the benevolence of those who do not yet trust us. Such a view of reason contrasts strongly with the more traditional view of reason as a generic problem-solving mechanism aimed at finding out the truth in all domains of life. Sperber and Mercier call their alternative model of reason interactionism to highlight that human reason is, first and foremost, a form of social competence.


My aim in this chapter has been to explore a view of wisdom, inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre and others, as excellence in practical reasoning. I have suggested that wisdom in this sense requires a certain form of free will, that is, reason-sensitive action control. To make this view of wisdom and its link to freedom more plausible, I have pointed towards some models of reason and self-control in the cognitive sciences. I hope that this cognitive and evolutionary background gives some plausibility and psychological depth to this view of wisdom as practical reasoning. I am painfully aware that developing this view more fully would require much more work (which I will hopefully get to later).

I want to tentatively draw some conclusions from what has been said above. First of all, if Baumeister is correct, an individual can train her ability to control her actions via conscious effort, thereby expanding the set of possible future actions. In other words, one can practice one’s action control and become better at it. This conclusion, if correct, points to the psychological reality behind the Macintyrean account of wisdom: self-control comes about only through experience and practice; one is not born with it. Only after facing many difficult practical decisions and cognitively demanding situations can people begin to develop willpower and self-governance. In time, responses and desires can change, becoming more integrated with consciously adopted norms and values. This, I take it, constitutes the process of acquiring wisdom.

Regarding the mechanisms themselves, it seems to me reason-sensitivity can also be trained and developed, not wholly unlike a virtue. Although Fischer and Ravizza do not discuss this issue directly, their account does suggest that the agent can get better at it with time and experience. Fischer and Ravizza talk about reason-sensitivity as a matter of degree: an agent’s psychological mechanisms can be weakly or strongly responsive to reason.[19] This already implies the possibility of developing one’s reason-responsivity in some domain of life.

Moreover, Fischer and Ravizza also provide an outline of the historical process through which an agent develops into a moral agent. This process involves the taking of responsibility for one’s actions and understanding the psychological mechanisms that are driving them (inclinations, character, and so forth).[20] Again, it seems to me that we could see wisdom as a strong form of “taking responsibility.” An agent is wise when she is able to recognize her character, her actions, and their consequences, as well as understanding herself to be accountable for them in front of others. This form of self-knowledge and control does not come about automatically but requires experience and feedback from the moral community.

What emerges from these considerations is a rich and deep picture of the relationship between freedom and wisdom. Most humans come into this world equipped with the cognitive machinery that makes attaining wisdom possible, at least in principle. We all acquire the abilities for some kind of self-governance, future-planning, and reason-sensitivity. Nevertheless, this natural cognitive endowment does not automatically result in wisdom without conscious effort and constant feedback from the moral community itself. Wisdom and freedom are achievements rather than gifts.

AKU VISALA is a philosopher of religion whose work is located at the intersection of philosophy, theological anthropology, and the cognitive sciences. He is an adjunct professor in philosophy of religion and a Research Fellow of the Finnish Academy at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He has held postdoctoral positions at the Universities of Oxford, Princeton, and Notre Dame. His publications include Naturalism, Theism and the Cognitive Study of Religion (2011); Conversations on Human Nature (2015); and Verbs, Bones, and Brain: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Human Nature (with Agustín Fuentes, 2017).


[1] For an overview of theories of wisdom, see Sharon Ryan, “Wisdom, Knowledge, and Rationality,” Acta Analytica 27.2 (2012): 99–112.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, cited in Olli-Pekka Vainio, Virtue: An Introduction to Theory and Practice (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 74.
[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999).
[4] Ibid., 83.
[5] John Searle, Rationality in Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 61–96.
[6] Ibid., 259.
[7] John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza, Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
[8] See Kevin Laland, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
[9] Roy Baumeister, Cory Clark, and Jamie Luguri, “Free Will: Belief and Reality,” in Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience, edited by Alfred Mele (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 49–50.
[10] Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002); Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of The Brain (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).
[11] See Roy Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and Kathleen Vohs, “Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?,” Annual Review of Psychology 62.1 (2011): 331–61; Alfred Mele, Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[12] Roy Baumeister, “Free Will, Consciousness and Cultural Animals” in Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will, edited by John Baer, James Kaufman, and Roy Baumeister (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 82–3.
[13] Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (London: Penguin Books, 2011).
[14] Baumeister, Clark, and Luguri, “Free Will,” 56­–9.
[15] Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada, Homo Prospectus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
[16] Baumeister, Clark, and Luguri, “Free Will: Belief and Reality,” 59–61.
[17] Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
[18] Ibid., 8.
[19] Fischer and Ravizza, Responsibility and Control, 28–91.
[20] Ibid., 207–39.


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