Sunday, 10 November 2013

Determined to be free...

I listened to a fascinating edition of In Our Time the other day, on Free Will.  It was first broadcast some time ago, I think but I subscribe to the Podcast, and listened to it on a journey just recently.

It seemed to me that the academics discussing it got themselves into something of a bind; particularly when trying to distinguish between fatalism and determinism.  The argument seemed to be that if you were fatalistic, it didn't matter what he did Oedipus was always going to end up killing his father and marrying his mother; whereas, in a deterministic world, his behaviours (over which he had no choice) were always going to lead to that outcome.  I found that a very nice (in the more technical sense) distinction.

In fact, as one of them pointed out, a thorough-going determinism, lets even Hitler off the hook: if he has no free will, then he cannot be blamed for his actions, as they were the result of everything else, and ultimately were determined at (or before) the time of the Big Bang.

Such a thought naturally repels us: it means that anything and everything we do is devoid of any moral content; that it is equally irrational to be grateful or angry in response to someone else's behaviour (as they were bound to behave in that way); that education, training, formation - and indeed planning or even discussing such issues is pointless (though we will still do those things if it is already determined that we will) and so on.

But the fact that it repels us is not, ipso facto, proof that it is wrong (though I will argue later that it is an indicator).

Likewise, the fact that we experience 'making decisions' does not mean that we do actually do so. There are well-documented cases of our being deluded about what we are actually doing; and in this instance, there are some fascinating experiments that demonstrate that a subject's motor-neurones are activated towards a course of action before the pre-frontal cortex is activated to make the relevant decision…  However, my view is that such experiments could equally demonstrate that we don't understand the brain (and still less the mind) as well as we think we do, as that we do not in fact decide in some sense that is meaningful.

In fact, the whole business is very complicated.  If one reflects on what one does, one can see that there is a whole spectrum. At one end are the autonomic processes (such as maintaining a heart beat, breathing) that we do not will at all. Moving along a bit are deep-rooted responses, some instinctive and some habitual, which may or may not seem mutable, such as the fight or flight response; then there are more superficial habits, which operate if we don't over-ride them, but which are relatively easy to over-ride, such as biting one's nails, or smiling on seeing a friend; and then there are the consciously willed decisions, such as making a cup of coffee, or deciding one has spent long enough on the internet and engaging with one's family.

Under determinism, these are a priori believed to be equally non-voluntary; the notion of choice is an illusion, and though we may think we are choosing, in fact we are always going to do whatever we end up doing.

But that, I think, is an example of physics over-stepping the mark and getting into metaphysics.

The fundamental point is that if we are to claim that we cannot prove free will (despite it being a universal experience, and being the basis on which civilisation is organised, and indeed being an illusion [if such it be] that is both necessary and impossible to shed), we can equally make the same claim about absolutely anything else - including the scientific method, or indeed our own perception of reality.

For we cannot get outside ourselves sufficiently to be able to prove empirically that we do exist and are not the febrile imaginings of some other being: a being whose imagination is so potent, that the creatures it imagines believe themselves to exist.  Likewise, we cannot prove empirically that the physical phenomena we observe bear any relation to an external reality, and are not the projections of a deranged mind.  Nor can we prove, empirically, that empirical proof is the only or most secure way to knowledge.

To put it in the positive, we can only think if we make some assumptions - such as that the process of thought has some validity; and even that we do, in fact, exist.

Once we do that, we can certainly tease out the implications of such assumptions, and test them to ensure that they are coherent and render a plausible account of whatever we are engaging with.  But to imagine that we can proceed 'scientifically' with no assumptions at all is simply deluded. 

The question that then arises is what assumptions we choose to make: and I am determined to choose to assume that I have free will...

1 comment:

Gregory the Eremite said...

If you want a follow-up, Robert Kane's "A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will" is pretty well-balanced.