Friday, January 2, 2009

More on the free will vs determinism issue

Let me say right off that I assume that we do, somehow, inexplicably, have free will. That is, I assume in practice that we do have it, while admitting at the same time that it is very hard to avoid the philosophical conclusion that we are determined.
I believe that we must assume that people have some spark of it, and I think we all do assume this in practice, even those philosophers who deny free will. For who, otherwise, than a rational being who is “free” to change his mind, are they trying to convince when they argue about it? We can retort to the determinist, “You are just saying that (the argument for determinism) because you have to!” If they think that I, for example, am “determined”, then isn’t all argument, and attempting to convince me futile? But of course, they can say they can’t help trying to convince me, that of course it is futile, but they can’t help saying it, just as I can’t help responding as I did, and so on and so forth--it all degenerates into an endless sequences of determined thoughts, and is hence totally absurd. Hard core determinism makes such a mockery and absurdity of everything. Isn’t it simpler to just postulate that we don’t know how it can be, but there is some spark inside of each of us that is free (but acknowledging that, sure, most of everyone’s behavior is probably determined by blind forces).
The problem with this, though, is that it seems to be very hard to even imagine how any behavior at all, even a “spark”, can be “free”. Consider this: a “system” can perform an “act” (using the term very broadly to refer not only to physically observable actions, but to thoughts as well, even when they are not spoken or otherwise observable by another party) from three basic causes: (1) something has been stored in the systems “memory” from past history (related to “nurture”, or experiences), (2) something was in the system from time “t = 0” (e.g., “nature” or genetic cause), or (3) a random causation mechanism is at work. The first would be what we would call “learned behavior”, and would seem to be well represented by imaging the system as a computer that is programmed, and has its data base built up from, what experiences the system has. Without allowing any element of free will to it, it is thus simply passively scooping up such experiences and data, and cannot be blamed for anything (note that free will seems inherent in the concept of blame--”ought implies can”). The second refers to what might be called “hard wired” data and data bases. The system (the person) inherits this from conception, and hence there can be no free will involved here. To make an analogy with a personal computer, there is some software wired into the basic machine when the user receive it, and some software is added to the computer during its useful life (only there it is added by the user, whereas in our argument it is added by the world/environment around it as it has experiences. There would seem to be no reasonable objection to some behavior being random (such as might be generated by a random number generator, even though this could be argued to be deterministic at base), but this is clearly not what the free will advocate wants as escaping from determinism. So in a nutshell, behavior seems to be exhausted by saying it stems from past experiences, genetic makeup, and random fluctuations. To say, no there is a fourth, “you” decide, begs the question of when there started to be a “you” that was not created through one of the three types of causes described above.
I would define “strict determinism” as being the theory that everything is absolutely determined. (Note added later: I believe this is often referred to as “hard determinism, and contrasts with “soft determinism”). Some determinists might actually, when pressed, admit that there is a spark of free will, but that they just claim that most human behavior is “determined”. I would probably have a minimal quarrel with this type of determinist, and maybe even put myself in this camp.
Why does it seem so important to us that we have this spark of freedom within us? Obviously this was a major factor or incentive in Immanuel Kant’s ethical writings. One major reason for the interest has to do with punishment, justice, and blame. “Ought implies can”, so why blame or punish people if they cannot help what they do. But of course this is silly, since if strict determinism were really true we couldn’t ourselves help blaming and punishing them, and so on.
Bertrand Russell often wrote that he did not believe in free will. He argued somewhere that if a protozoa did not have free will, and no one would argue that it did, how could people have it. That argument seems to me to be weak, for why could there not be the emergence of totally new phenomena in more complex or evolving organisms? Indeed, it seems plausible that free will could have evolved along with consciousness and reason, all of which are connected and related somehow.
Free will seems to be inextricably bound up with rationality, or reason. Somewhere the philosopher Ayn Rand has written that free will amounts to the free choice of whether to think or not to think, apparently implying that if one chooses to think, then he is free to go where the argument leads him. But of course this seems to gloss over the issue of whether one really is free to choose whether to think or not. But a determinist would say this choice itself is determined causally.
The argument that free will consists of the freedom to choose whether to think or not to think--i.e., whether to use reason or not--seems highly plausible to me. Maybe that is the reason that rationality evolved. Why would it evolve if it were not something that the organism would use? If we are just following nature, wouldn’t reason seem to be superfluous, a meaningless byproduct of evolution? And we all recognize that whatever features and organism evolves usually has some key function in the organisms survival (Darwin and all). There also seems to be a sense in which human action is “overdetermined” is reason is mechanistic.
Determinism is based simply on the idea that events are determined by physical laws, that all is mechanistic nature. There is no room for will in this picture, though quantum mechanics would perhaps make room for randomness, and chaos theory would preclude the practical possibility of actually predicting the evolution of the universe in all details (“Laplacian Determinism”).I think that “common sense” recommends free will to us. The fact that we cannot even say what it could possibly be does not deter us. Note that by saying we cannot even say what it could possibly be, is not the same as saying that we cannot say what causes free will. As I have argued above, there seems to not even be any sense to the concept of free will. But neither does there seem to be any sense to the concept of rational being without free will. Determinism could be mapped onto the idea of all beings simply following a “script”, the script here being ultimately just the events unfolding according to natural law.

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