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penfold



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I think perhaps I need to go back to basics - and, as far as possible, try to avoid any thought experiments.

First point: by "free will", I mean that what I might call a "true" decision is capable of being made.  I quite happily accept that we all appear to have what we call free will, and agree that when I pause for a moment to think of the mot juste, I present every sign of utilising that "free will" in my decision.  There is no possible way for anyone - including myself - to predict what word I will choose, and so in general terms it is reasonable to infer that we do, indeed, have "free will".

That, if you like, is the practical definition.  I'm not trying to argue that we all seem to be able to make choices, and that at any decision point in time, we fully feel as if we really COULD make any decision at all.  Please bear that in mind for everything that follows.

That's not what I am arguing against.  What I am arguing is that - to ME - when you call something "free will", it ACTUALLY means that you have the ability to make a decision.  That in absolutely identical circumstances, we truly could make this decision, or that - AND, that it would indeed be a "decision", and not the result of randomn quantum events.

Sorry to butt into a well-developed conversation, but I really wanted to comment here. Firstly I just wanted to say to Anfauglir that this is a really elegant outlining of why, given a ‘materialist reductionism philosophy’ [from here on referred to as just ‘materialism’] (ie that the only thing which exists is physical matter and all phenomena can be adequately explained in materialistic terms), we might feel compelled to reject free will as ‘illusion’.

Personally I am not 100% convinced in the coherency of materialism as a philosophy , I have certain problems with accepting various premises required by it (especially a ‘hard realism’ with regard scientific theory – for a good overview of this see Worrall: Structural Realism – The best of both worlds). However I do not want to debate that here.

What I would like to do is offer a way within a materialist understanding of the universe that we can still defend the notion of free will. The following is deeply indebted to the ideas of Dan Dennett as outlined in Elbow Room.

The deterministic hypothesis, so eloquently put by Anfauglir, as I understand him (please correct me if I am wrong), runs as follows:

Any moment of purported choice by a free agent can be completely explained by a full understanding of the laws of nature and the antecedent conditions. In other words, if I know exactly how the universe works, and exactly how the universe is shaped at a given time, I can fully predict how the universe will be shaped in the future (whether deterministically or probabilistically) without any reference to ‘free will’ or ‘choices’. Eg: If I really know everything about the universe on Monday I know what I’ll be having for dinner on Sunday.

This leads Anfauglir to make the general claim, that I could never have done otherwise than what I actually did (see quoted passage above). In other words if I chose bacon for breakfast I was always going to, no matter how much I thought I might have had toast this apparent choice was illusion.

In all of this I, playing the role of a good materialist, am in complete agreement. Where I disagree is in saying that this excludes “free will”. Instead I want to argue that “free will” is a completely meaningful term – not an “illusion” – and that this does not require any dilution of my materialism.

To do this I need to make one, vital qualification. I do not accept that “free will” means “I could have done other than what I actually did”. Rather “free will” means “I am able to act on the basis of reasons”. This re-definition might seem like cheating, but there are at least two very good reasons for preferring the latter definition.

Firstly “I could have done other than what I actually did” cannot be tested, it is non-falsifiable; it is strictly a non-scientific proposition. There is no way of gathering evidence for or against this claim; no two states of the universe are, or could be identical so no testing ground could ever exist (2nd law of thermodynamics). Being a good materialist I am therefore compelled to point out that “I could have done other than what I actually did” is in fact a meaningless proposition and cannot be taken to be a reasonable definition of free will.

Secondly the only moments that we would ever wish to call “moments of choice” that is “moments where I can exercise my free will” are when I have competing reasons for acting one way or another. We distinguish, for example, between falling off a cliff and jumping off a cliff in terms of having reasons. Falling requires no reasons, jumping does require reasons (except for certain trivial grey areas such sleepwalking off a cliff, or jumping off a cliff in error – ie thinking it was a mere step).

The question now becomes: is the claim – “I am able to act on the basis of reasons” – allowable within a materialist framework? Let us take a very simple organism, the sunflower. The sunflower will, in the course of a day, turn its face to track the sun. Now it would be absurd to argue that this organism is in the possession of ‘reasons’; however what we do have is ‘behaviour’ arising from – in the most primitive sense – goals, that is the evolutionary benefit gained by the behaviour.

Now let us look at the human. The main difference between the sunflower and the human is found in terms of complexity, both in terms of structure and behaviour. However just like the sunflower our behaviour is dictated by these goals. If the sunflower’s behaviour follows the arc of the sun, what does our behaviour follow? The answer is clearly ‘reasons’. Now these reasons are of course reducible to the shape and rules of the material universe, but we engage with these pushes and pulls as ‘reasons’. It is precisely this that we call “free will”.

An analogy might help clarify this admittedly subtle distinction. If I press the ‘n’ key on my keyboard, the letter ‘n’ appears on the screen. I can explain this in two ways; firstly I can say that the ‘n-key’ causes the ‘n’ symbol to appear thanks to a certain set of computer coding. Secondly I could explain it in terms of changes in magnetic switches and the movement of current through liquid crystal. The former account is far shorter and may well be incomplete but it is, none the less an adequate account. “Free will” can be understood in similar terms: we can explain our behaviour with a long-winded physical account; or we can explain our behaviour in terms of ‘reasons’; just as we can explain the behaviour of a computer with a long-winded physical account ; or we can explain it in terms of ‘computer code’. (NOTE: as with any analogy it is not perfect, but I hope it helps elucidate the account I have given)

In other words “free will” means the capacity to say “I did x for the following reasons” and this does not conflict with the claim that our behaviour can also be explained in purely physical terms. “Free will” then is both a meaningful and philosophically robust concept. It may not be the “Free will” that allows is to suppose “we could have acted other than we did”, but it is, to quote that great materialist Dan Dennett “the only type of free will worth wanting”.

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Anfauglir Excellently constructed post. January 08, 2013, 04:40:28 AM