an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

on free will and libertarianism 1: introducing some issues

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I vaguely remember this book annoying me 35 years ago

Canto: So I’ve wanted to get back to this issue for some time, as it’s been on my mind, to connect an increasingly prevalent political ideology (or so it seems to me) with an increasingly tenuous philosophical position with regard to free will, but I’m not sure whether to start with the politics or the philosophy.

Jacinta: Well I think I can dispose of it all quite quickly. Free will’s a myth and individual freedom, however defined, has gotten us nowhere as a species. That’s it – so it’s off to the pub?

Canto: Well, that might be an interesting starting point, but I think we might need to put some flesh on the bones of those arguments, if I may cannibalise a cliché, or whatever.

Jacinta: Hmmm. So you really think there’s more to say?

Canto: Well I do feel the need to account for my change of position over several decades. Of course I’ve always been a determinist – the whole cause-effect relationship underpins our understanding of all human and non-human behaviour. I don’t think even quantum mechanics disrupts it too much, and to the extent it does, it certainly doesn’t do so in favour of human free will. But way back in the late seventies, when I was first introduced to the topic, ‘hard determinism’ as the term was then, was so out of fashion, and seemed to allow so little wiggle room for our actions, that I kind of assumed it was the province of attention-seeking extremists, or something. And of course it did seem a bit deflating to the human spirit, and all that.

Jacinta: So now you don’t mind a bit of deflation?

Canto: Well, over time, I reflected on my background, and perhaps also on the backgrounds of the philosophers and academics putting forward the compatibilist arguments – that somehow free will is compatible with determinism and even dependent on it. I found this later in Dennett’s book Elbow room, and I think there was some of it in Pinker’s The blank slate too. What I found was a kind of disdainful, and dare I say upper-middle class, attitude to ‘wrong-doers’ who need to be held accountable for their actions. And as a person who grew up in one of the most working-class and disadvantaged suburban regions in Australia, I felt defensive for the people around us (our family were better off than most), their bootlessness and despair. It certainly rubbed off on me in my teen years. I didn’t exactly bear a grudge against the world, but I certainly never had any inspiring teachers or adult figures who encouraged my scintillating intellect.

Jacinta: Okay, enough about you, what about the argument?

Canto: Well let’s look at free will first. The compatibilist argument is that free will is itself a determining factor in the decisions you make. You weigh the pros and cons in your mind, without undue influence from other sources, and determine to have tea with your breakfast instead of coffee, for the first time in months. Of course you’ve done this of your own free will, just as you’ve chosen to feed the dog instead of throwing her out of your 10th storey window, etc etc. The favourite term is ‘you could’ve done otherwise’.

Jacinta: But you didn’t.

Canto: And the feeling that you could’ve done otherwise is also determined, as is the feeling of regret that you quit that job when you should’ve stayed on, that you didn’t make that move interstate, that you didn’t keep in touch with person x, etc. The sense that we could have been better than what we are, could have done better than what we did, these are everyday feelings that we’re never free from. But getting back to compatibilists, they try to have the best of both worlds by claiming that the self is this autonomous determining factor in decision-making. It all revolves around this self. Presumably the developed self, since obviously the two-year-old self is not fully responsible for her actions.

Jacinta: Ah yes and there’s where it all falls apart. Where does this ‘self’ come from? We start as a fertilised egg, the width of a human hair. No brain, no heart, no belly, no skin, just genetic potential. Clearly we’re not making decisions. Nine months later, we’re born, fortunately with all those organs. But surely we’re not making our own decisions at this stage. And we’ve been subjected to a lot in this period, nutrients of all sorts, twists and turns, bumpings and grindings, the sounds of laughter, tears, music, shouts, squeals, long silences, all of which may influence our patterns of neural development both inside and outside the womb. All of which lay down the pattern of our future self, our future ‘free will’.

Canto: Yes, and from that time on its ‘meet the parents’, or caregivers, and/or our siblings and our homes, the furniture of our early lives. Not our choices. I think the no-free-will argument can be most persuasive when you can persuade the opposite side of the most obvious limitations, which are all big ones – for example you don’t get to choose your parents, your place or time of birth/conception, or even the species you were born into. So with those huge limitations accepted, you start to home in on the wiggle room the freewillers have left. Presuming they’re compatibilists, that’s to say determinists, they must accept that all that ultra-connecting and later trimming of neurons in early childhood has nothing to do with personal choice. And yet they try to argue that after all that connecting and trimming, when they’re a ‘fully determined self’, this self goes into auto mode, that of a self-determining self. Which presumably coincides with ‘adulthood’.

Jacinta: Right. As if our courts, or our laws, have solved the free will problem.

Canto: Yes, but it’s a bit like those claims for perpetual motion machines, that can produce output with no energy input. They’re as mythical as free will. The self is essentially only useful as an identifier, and it’s obviously very useful for that. And every self is unique, and perhaps that’s what confuses people. A person can be eccentric, ‘exceptionally different’, in good or bad ways, and we say ‘she’s really her own person’ or ‘she goes her own way’, and strictly speaking that can be said of everyone, whether human, fish or fowl, or of the plants on our balcony, or the jacarandas on our street, each one of which is unique, but not of their own free will.

Jacinta: We mistake complexity for free will, perhaps. Complexity is everywhere on this life-coated planet, but the human brain beats it all for complexity. We carry those things around, we feel it, and so we feel free, to possibly do anything, be anything, learn anything, commit anything. And feel proud when we do the ‘right’ thing, make the requisite effort and so on.

Canto: It’s arguable that this feeling of free will is important for our success. Or our striving. It’s up to you to work hard to pass that exam, to build a successful business, to become a regular in the first team, whatever. The sense of freedom can be exhilarating, though it might be just as obviously caused as the health-giving freedom ‘experienced’ by a plant moved from a nutrient-poor soil to a nutrient-rich one. Something in our environment makes us more successful than the guy down the road, or in Africa, but we don’t want to place too much emphasis on that environment, especially if we know we’ve put in an effort to succeed.

Jacinta: Okay, so what about punishment? As you’ve said, we might claim too much credit for our successes, isn’t a corollary that we place too much blame on those who ‘fail’, who give in to their peers’ world of violence and contempt? Punishment is mostly about deterrence, they say, but isn’t there a better way to treat people than this?

Canto: That’s an interesting question, and of course a complex one. We should talk about it next time.


Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2022 at 8:07 pm

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