Free will 2: the left armpit of ‘me’

Oh, look, another question of free will (here at Neuroskeptic). Let’s see if I can say the same thing as in the previous post a different way.

Accept that we have free will. It is managed by the ‘free will module’ and, for the sake of getting it away from the brain, let’s imagine that the site for free will is the left armpit. My ‘self’ is located in this module and this is where ‘I’ make my choices. We’ll accept that we receive sensory impulses into the brain where they go through various bits of processing but when the time comes for a decision to be made, all the relevant bits of information are shipped off to the left armpit where the self makes its decision. This decision is then shipped back to the brain so that the relevant nerves can be activated and the decision made concrete.

Also accept that this module is wholly our own. It must, I suppose, grow up with us. Our decision aged two to eat that slug in the garden was perhaps not the best decision but our self did not have the information required to realize so. And at the age of four, we might be making better decisions about what to put in our mouths but the decsion to see how far that plastic dinosaur would fit up our nostril was also perhaps somewhat ill-informed. Our self must learn how to make decisions; it must grow as our physical bodies do. It is undoubtedly influenced by what happens to us: that is how it learns. If we are ill treated, perhaps our self grows to make rather selfish and nasty decisions. If we are loved and nurtured, perhaps it learns to be selfless and caring of others in its decision making. But, as we know, quite the reverse can happen as well. Our natures and our decisions are our own and so it must be if we are to have free will.

Now let us return to our person, call him John, facing choices A, B & C (see below). All the relevant information is shipped off to John’s left armpit where the decision is made (say, C) by John’s self and the action shipped back to the brain to be implemented.

But there is an observer who looks at all this and says, “That is exactly what I would have predicted John to do. Knowing what John is like, how he was brought up, all the past influences on his life, it is obvious that John’s actions were determined. John has no free will.” Is this observer wrong? If so, how do we show this? What else could there possibly be, apart from John’s being and his life, that could have made the decision? The only options other than John himself are something outside of John or random events. If thre former and some outside action forced John to choose C then we certainly would not call that free will. And if the latter, and John’s self had decided to flip a coin to make his choice then the observer could equally say, “Well, I knew that John was the sort of person who could not make that choice and would therefore flip a coin.” Where is hte free will.

At the end of the day, if a person makes an unforced choice, it can only have been made based on everything that goes to make up that person and so must be said to be determined by that person. I’m not saying it was predictable, quite the opposite, but it was determined. Free will mandates determinism (and we may as well stick the module, if such there be, back in the brain and leave the left armpit to its own devices).

Posted on May 16, 2009, in Philosophy, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree some of your ideas. But freedom is not equal for everybody. I mean more choices give you more freedom and choice creates the opposite.
    Another think is experiences and freewill. Well I don’t think every event affects us in the same way. We see things as we are. We can pretty much change our view of points. Then we can/could have different experiences. It’s another aspect of freewill.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mark. My post was about the supposed distinction, in philosophy, between free will and determinism (eg see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determinism) rather than the amount of freedom a particular individual may enjoy. It is more about whether everything that happens is caused/determined by what goes before or the individual brings some extra, non-physical thing to their choice (whether it be called ‘free will’, ‘soul’ or whatever).

  3. Thanks for the link. I completely agree with this, although I think one consequence of this argument is that the term “free will” should be abandoned –

    “Free will” is a loaded term; it is loaded with, amongst other things, the idea that it is some alternative to determinism.

    But when you examine it, as you do, one realizes that it cannot be.

    Now you could say “Well we do have free will, just not in the way everyone thinks” (and this is what a lot of people do conclude, e.g. Daniel Dennett, if I understand him). But that seems to me like a kind of verbal trick. We don’t have free will in the most commonly used sense of the term – so we don’t have it…

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