Blog Archives

Back to the drawing board

Ever since I completed the MA in Philosophy at the Open University, I’ve thought about doing a PhD. One of the subjects I’d had in mind recently was free will and determinism: the thesis being, as I’ve laid out here, that they are not only compatible but essentially interdependent. I’ve been thinking about this subject and making notes for a few months. I then came across an article on Philosophy Compass, Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility. This pointed me to the book by Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. There I discovered, not only that my great and original thinking had been done before, but that this had been said as long ago as Hume and Mill and as recently as Dennett.

This, of course, points up the problem of doing an MA without the preceding undergraduate work. I shall finish the book before attempting to think of any further problems in free will that I might attempt!

And, I still have the idea of what might a robot mind look like: I’m almost afraid of looking into that subject now :).

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).

Determinsim 3: Free will?

Determinism cannot be right, ‘they’ say, else there would be no free will. Ok, so what is free will? Let’s go back to our person facing choices A, B and C. And now assume he has free will. So, he makes a choice – say, C – for which we offer due praise and compliment him on his choice, made of his own free will. But let us, ask why did he make that choice? Because he is a good person. And, why is he a good person? Because his parents raised him well, he was not exposed to contrary behaviour etc etc. So, what are we saying here? His choice was determined by his fundamental nature which was determined by his prior experiences. His choice was determined. No, they claim, it was not determined, it was made under free will.

But what is this free will? I know it sounds as if I am trying to ‘fit’ free will up with a deterministic nature but, really, where does it come from? If it does not come from the person’s experiences and nature then where does it come from? If it is not formed by experience, is it external to the person and, if so, what is it? If we exclude the nonsensical ‘soul’ and exclude dualism then the free will must be wholly part of the person and so, must be formed by that person’s nature and experiences, just as every other part of the person is so formed. So, whatever free will is, it must be determined.

Or, let’s say there is a little choice module in the brain, to which choics are referred. But, again, the bases for that module’s making choices must be the person’s nature and experiences: what else is there to influence the development of that module? Even if that module has some sort of dice throwing mechanism for the really tight choices, the choice is still wholly determined because no dice throwing is wholly random.

Basically, if we exclude the supernatural, there is no place for free will.