Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Free Will Blogging

As I've become integrated into Mom Culture over the past 8 months and I've started to develop some friendships, I have started to get into some substantive discussions about people's fundamental views of the world.

One topic that tends to come up a lot when you discuss philosophy is the idea of "free will." People will always take one of two positions on this topic, either that free will exists or that it doesn't. Invariably the rationale behind the person's POV on the topic rests on a series of busts to the alternative idea - that is, a person who believes free will doesn't exist will give examples of human behavior that cannot comfortably be explained by free choice, and vice versa.

It's always been interesting to me that it breaks down like that, since "free will" is not actually a thing that can exist or not exist in a binary sense. "Free will" is a name we give to a certain type of model of human behavior, and thus it "exists" to whatever degree it is useful as such a model.

Put another way, free will is not actually something you have but something you do.

So how do we make use of free will? Well, the human brain is capable of understanding and mastering the forces that induce it to behave in programmed, conditioned ways. A person who can't help drinking too much can, through a variety of techniques, learn not to drink at all, or to drink less, or to make less risky choices when drinking, etc.

The recovering drunk is not then "free" in the sense of having limitless options as to how to act - a drunk who goes out to a bar with his old drinking buddies is likely to revert to past conditioned behaviors and drink too much, for example.

At the same time, personal experience of human consciousness renders absurd the argument that human beings cannot everchoose between one set of behaviors and another. People do, at certain times, consciously weigh the risks and benefits of multiple options, choose to go down one path or another, and then face the results. The idea that this experience is some sort of illusion is difficult to defend without a spiraling into generalities and unfounded claims.

Human behavior cannot be explained by one particular static model as if the brain were just a very sophisticated sort of abacus. At the same time, the biology of the nervous system shows plainly that much day-to-day behavior is controlled by essentially programmed responses that are never processed by the brain's higher reasoning centers.

In other words, human beings can behave in ways that could be usefully described as "free" - under certain conditions. Maximizing the number and quality of the moments in which a person is truly free to choose her path is a matter of preparation, and practice.

In the East, particularly in the Muslim world, the idea that conditioned behaviors exist and can be integrated with the "free" mind through study and mental exercise has been discussed by scholars both secular and religious for many hundreds of years, and the amount of research on the subject is vast.

Yet in the West we still make little study of this idea, preferring instead to argue about which dead philosopher is right about his antiquated, binary view of how the mind functions.


Eric said...

I've always thought of the issue of free will as more of an epistemological question. As you write, and I agree, there are pragmatic proofs or 'useful' ways of describing how humans have free will.

However, there are less useful ways of determining with certainty, to use an old saw from philosophy class, that we aren't actually lying sedated in a saline bath à la The Matrix having our thoughts and experiences fed to us.

As implausible as that sounds, this scenario or some other unimaginable construct can not necessarily be rejected. We just don't know: Are we the shadows on the cave wall or the Ape Man dancing around the fire?

But, I haven't cracked a philosophy text in a while because these unanswerable imponderables, while entertaining, were ultimately not 'useful.'

Pragmatically yours.

Raul Groom said...

It's an interesting point, but I think my interpretation of Socrates' cave shadows metaphor is a bit different. The point isn't really that "we can't know." There's more to it than that.

I'll try to develop this in a future post; it's interesting.


theloushe said...

Meant to respond to this last spring but was too fuzzy-headed to put together a coherent reply at the time. Here goes nothing...

"personal experience of human consciousness renders absurd the argument that human beings cannot everchoose between one set of behaviors and another."

This presupposes that the argument against free will equates free will with choice. Free will is not the same as choice, but rather refers to some sense of self (e.g., the soul) that exists separately from a person's prior experiences and tendencies and acts as a separate - and superior - component in decision-making.

I can accept a belief in free will as logically consistent with belief in a soul. If, however, a person does not believe in the existence of a soul (as I do not), this changes how one might define "self", and how one might view personal choice. If I do not have a soul, what defines me, if not a collection of neural impulses related to past experiences, genetic tendencies, and biological conditions? From that point of view, there is no choice that I can make that is truly "free" in the sense that it is unrelated to all of the environmental factors that make up the person that is me. Do I make choices? Absolutely. Are those choices free from my human body and human existence? I have not seen or studied anything that would lead me to believe so.

We may not be able to identify all of the factors that make up who each of us is, but those factors exist and shape the way we interact with the world - both our programmed day-to-day responses, as you call them, and our higher reasoning.

Some find this idea to be deterministic and depressing. I find it to be awe-inspiring and wonderful in itself, rather than dismal. Is it possible that the concept of free will and the various philosophies that flow from it is outdated now that we have a better understanding of neuroanatomy and psychology?