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Your Preferences - Preliminary Results
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Part 1: Do We Have Freewill?
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This is a lie, she said.
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MSPaint is mightier than the Sword
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My very own Natural Disaster
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Porn: A force of Mutual Benefits
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What Your Voice Says About You
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Psycasm

Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

If you're new to this series, or new to Psycasm generally, Click Here for an explanation.

Here is Entry 2 (Kate)

And now, the thinker's thinker's perspective... Denise and formal philosophy

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And without further ado, I would like to continue discussing the issue of free will from the philosophical perspective. Thank you again to Psycasm and Kate for the opportunity to collaborate with those from the discipline of psychology; evolutionary and the more formal ognitive science. It is exactly these grand philosophical questions like ‘Free Will’ when we become aware of the very different and important ways we attempt to answer difficult questions on the nature of life. Without understanding the complexity and origins of our rational capacities from the study of the brain and observed human behavior, we would not be able to argue strongly one way or another in the philosophical debate of free will.

The general approach towards this debate in philosophy is a metaphysical one. Where I have observed the empirical approach of psychology in explaining how we humans have developed the cognitive capacity to choose, the issue of what is choice emerges. Choice, deliberation, agency… are these possible in a world in which most philosophers agree, is causally determined. Causality being an expansive philosophical concept upon which most philosophers have their own specifications to its theory. For me, this is not a question of observable empirical possibility, as we have sufficient evidence to claim that humans have the faculty for processes such as Mental Time Travel, mentioned by Psycasm. I agree that evolution gifted us this grand theatre of consciousness. Psycasm mentioned characters of the ‘Playwright”, ‘Director”, and ‘Executive Producer’, are areas in which some philosopher’s will say free will is logically generated. I believe these characters most aptly surmise the ‘phenomenological experience’ that C. A. Campbell speaks of in his argument for a compatible theory of free will and determinism (1957). He elucidates greatly on this psychological capacity requiring an existence of free will to generate moral responsibility; a very big issue in Compatibalist theory.

Very few, if any, philosopher’s argue that we lack the psychological ability to choose or rationalize our future paths, the degree and facility to do so is the realm of psychology. But the philosopher wonders, is agency part of the ontology of the universe? We ask the same metaphysical question of time? We perceive it, it is evident in the physical world, but is it real in the sense that it is logically built into the universe in the way that math or causality is? Does it really exist, or are humans merely imagining it much like we can imagine a unicorn with fantastical detail (I apologize, but the unicorn is my favorite non-real creature, can’t help myself). Though again, there are the few philosopher’s that will argue that even math or causality are not part of our ontology. But this could be said of most philosophical concepts. There is almost always a counter argument to their existence, varying wildly in degrees of strength.

The debate of the existence of free will in philosophy is often divided into two main positions; Determinism and the Free Will Theorists. Richard Taylor, a classic voice in the determinist argument, describes life as being like a story book already determined, and we merely experience the illusion of discovering how the story goes as we turn the pages (2007). There are also those who take the dangerous and difficult position to work somewhere in between. The theory that argues that both free will and determinism can coexist is typically called Compatibalism or Soft Determinism. This is often accompanied by a defense of ethics or moral responsibility and sometimes is based on a time concept that might accommodate free will such as the idea that “the past is the realm of determinate fact; the future is the realm of unrealized possibility” (Grey 1999, p. 68).

Where do I stand amongst these theorists? Well it’s apparently philosophically unpopular these days to be a hard determinist, with more evidence in physics supposedly supporting a non-causally determined world. I admit my  ignorance of the nature of this scientific evidence and so argue mainly from my typical agnostic and skeptical perspective in a purely a priori argument. I could get back to you in 20 years with more evidence, but for the sake of brevity I’ll argue as such.

I, for the most part, believe in the ontology of causal relations, under the basic understanding that causation just means that every individual thing or event has an antecedent cause. And if the theory of causation stands, then we  necessitate a causally determined world. Not logically per se, but purely through the laws of causation (Taylor 2007, p. 456). If this holds true, I would have to say I’m a determinist. If the theory of causality can be disproven in a knock down counter argument, I would reassess my position. I do believe that free will is possible if determinism is false. So in actuality, this makes me more of an agnostic incompatibilists than anything else. I could revise my position with more evidence countering the strength of causal necessity, but I continue to believe that while there is determinism, free will is not possible or real. It is still part of our reality in the sense of experience and sensation. It is a phenomenon we cannot deny, but this is not sufficient evidence to prove its ontological verity.

In a less formal refutation, I find that it is very difficult to defend the reality of this very ‘human’ concept of free will and agency when there are humans that have it and those that do not. If it is so greatly part of our reality, how are we to explain the unreality of it for those lacking the faculty? Think of Clive. Because he is unable to plan his future, is his life forfeit in a sense? Is he any less human for lack of his ability to rationalize his future and make choices? If it is determined that he live his life in moments, than he is relieved from any responsibility to be anything more than that, and is at no real loss. Does free will necessitate moral repercussions to a lack of free will?

Just personal musings here now, but I have always found that theories claiming humans have some power over their reality to be a bit ambitious. We are superior in our rational abilities, there is no doubt, but the notion that we are more in control of the nature of lives in the realm of metaphysics than any other creature in the universe, is to me a megalomania. Kate pointed out that we are indeed, observably very much more in control of our lives than the single cell organism in our exercise of reason. But do we have something inherent in the universe that they do not? If we come from single cell organisms, and we share their universe and realm of existence, what really sets us apart from them in reality?

I find myself comfortable with the determinist’s reality that we have no control. We must live subjectively and through our rational theater of conscious to survive and function in the world. We would die very quickly if we did not function through our psychological understanding of the world. But the odd duality here is that the human can also see where this is no real control at all, but just a highly complex and fascinating exercise of biological genius gifted to us through the process of evolution. Thomas Nagel believes absurdity arises when both subjective and objective perspectives collide (a common occurrence in philosophy), and I think the argument of free will and determinism is one where this consequence is evident and the absurdity of it all continues to frustrate and baffle us at every turn (Nagel 2007, p.24).



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Campbell, CA 1957, ‘Has the Self ‘Free Will’?’, in Allen, G & Unwin (ed.), On Selfhood and Godhood,
Harper-Collins Publishers Limited, United Kingdom, pp. 158-179.

Grey, W 1999, ‘Troubles with Time Travel’, Philosophy, Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 55-70

Nagel, T 2007, ‘The Absurd’, in Perry, J, Bratman, M, Fischer, JM (ed), Introduction to Philosophy:
Classical and Contemporary Readings, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 21-27.

Taylor, Richard 2007, ‘Freedom and Determinism’, in Perry, J, Bratman, M, Fischer, JM (ed.), Introduction
to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 451-463.

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Kate
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Many thanks for your post! I apologise for this obscenely long comment on it...

I readily and eagerly agree that we don’t have perfect free will. We don’t have Kant’s uncompromised rational Will. We’re not Satre’s impeccably self-created selves. But that’s fine. We already knew that, long before anyone thought to debate any of this. We knew that what I can choose to do is constrained by what I happen to know, what sort of character I’ve happened to form over my life, what sort of ideas will happen to occur to me. Children are shaped by their parents, adults are shaped by society, and so on. Choices are not made in a pristine metaphysical vacuum.

But it’s a mistake to think that knocking down an impossibly absolutist idea makes any progress on the real, interesting question. It would be like me defining self-consciousness as having perfect unfettered access to every part of my internal state, observing that I obviously don’t have that (and perhaps smugly noting that it’s a logical impossibility anyway), and so concluding that the question is solved, and my alleged consciousness is merely an illusion. That makes no contribution to the problem at all. The fact remains that I have unprecedented (on Earth) access to my internal states, which is a real and wonderful problem, begging for empirical explanation. Likewise, of course I don’t have metaphysically perfect freedom, but I am quantifiably freer than anything else (on Earth), and that too is a real and wonderful problem.

(For this reason, a case like Clive Wearing’s is not problematic to the claim that most of us are free agents. To go back to my analogy of self-consciousness, the capacity for introspection varies greatly across people and within each of our lifetimes, but the claim that some people do have some access to their thoughts and feelings is not troubled by that observation.)

A lot could be (and has been) said on the subject of whether free will and determinism are at odds. Suffice it to say that I am an ardent compatibilist, and to offer this quote:

“No one has ever claimed that because determinism is true, thermostats do not control the temperature.” ~ Robert Nozick

It seems to me that there are two things which need to be shown, to demonstrate that we have meaningful free will:

1) that things have effects, that complex things have complex effects, and that humans are one of those sorts of complex things with complex effects (which can be easily demonstrated by glancing out a window at whatever complex effects town planning and the automotive industry are having out there), and

2) that the bit that feels like “me” (whatever sort of a system we end up discovering that to be) is indispensible to the effects I have. That consciousness deliberations aren’t mere epiphenomena, but have actual causal power in the world. This is a much harder one to prove, but I think a good indication that it’s true is that there seem to be a lot of things that we can’t do without being conscious of them (i.e. without feeling like I decided to do it). I can scratch my head without ever experiencing a decision to scratch my head, but it is impossible for me to write an article on free will without feeling like I’ve made decisions about whether I should do it, what I should say, etc. I think it will be demonstrated within our lifetimes what sort of a thing consciousness is, and what it’s needed for, and I think it will become clear that the bit that feels like “I” is indeed causally responsible for my effects on the world.

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