Wagging The Dog

When we talk about the question of free will, it often seems that we approach the subject rather differently from the way we would look into any other unanswered question about the world. Usually, when we don’t know about something, we ask “what is going on here?”, and examine the observable phenomena, form hypotheses, put them to the test, and so forth. But with the questions surrounding determinism and how it might affect our lives, this productive convention is often stood quite neatly on its head.

Rather than asking ourselves what it even means to say that we have “free will” — in other words, rather than asking what, exactly, we think is taking place when we make a “free” decision, and how it might possibly be so — we simply announce that regardless of what it is, exactly, we must have it, because it would be awful if we didn’t. We then use this little pep talk as the basis for an elaborate structure of metaphysical, ethical, and even theological reasoning, all of which is, of course, no sturdier than than the fogbank upon which it is built.

All of this stems from our apparent dread of the possibility that the ordinary causal processes that, as far as we can tell, order and impel the behavior of everything else in the entire Universe might apply to us as well. In order to support the edifice described just above, we are willing to imagine that out of all the vastness of the Cosmos, and everything contained therein, a special exemption from the regularities of Nature has been made in the case of a small but complex blob of goo housed in the cranium of a modest and recently-arrived bipedal ape. Put as charitably as possible, this seems a bit of a stretch.

So why not go with the simplifying assumption that our brains, and the minds they support, do in fact proceed according to deterministic principles, like everything else? Indeed we do seem to realize that this is the most likely assumption — but rather than accepting it, we hastily declare it off limits, put up the yellow police tape, and announce instead that we stand in the humbling presence of a Mystery. It is as if, to paraphrase Dennett’s discussion of this point in Elbow Room [pp 14-15], that we fear that science threatens to reveal a Dread Secret: one that, once learned, will reduce us to helpless, paralyzed lumps. Note that it is not the fact of determinism that appears to make the difference; determinism, if true, has always been true, and we’ve done just fine so far. No, it seems, instead, that what we must prevent at all costs is our believing it to be true. But are we really justified, having been told all along that “the truth will set us free”, in believing that it will do exactly the opposite?

I think not. But we have a lot more careful scouting to do, I think, before we can see why this should be so. In particular, we will have to look very carefully at what it is we think we have, what it is we want, and why.

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4 Comments

  1. “All of this stems from our apparent dread of the possibility that the ordinary causal processes that, as far as we can tell, order and impel the behavior of everything else in the entire Universe might apply to us as well.”

    We allow for the possibility that there is something else about which we know nothing as concerns mentality, particularly when we behave by intuitive belief that there is something else, illusion or no. Now, this is not an argument for freewill as such, but rather for the idea that we believe in it despite our intellectual protestations — and very good ones they are too! And we must admit that it is a possibility. I have no idea that there couldn’t be some element in the universe that is self-determining, particularly as concerns that most interesting phenomenon, consciousness. There are all sorts of weird things that have gone against traditional materialism and determinism. I am aware that the stranger-than-we-can-suppose stance is a little annoying, but there it is.

    “[D]eterminism, if true, has always been true, and we’ve done just fine so far.”

    But if we haven’t believed it to be true, not just intellectually, but also all the way down to our bones, as it were, then that makes all the difference.

    Posted April 25, 2008 at 6:05 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    There are all sorts of weird things that have gone against traditional materialism and determinism.

    Well, perhaps, but they have been brought into the fold as our understanding has deepened, no? My position, of course, is that the same will happen for consciousness. But anyway, as noted in a previous entry in this series, consciousness and free will are quite separate issues. Would you say that our unconscious choices are as free as our “conscious” ones?

    But if we haven’t believed it to be true, not just intellectually, but also all the way down to our bones, as it were, then that makes all the difference.

    Ah — the point, I think. And this assertion, which I believe to be a harmless bogeyman, is just what we need to examine more closely. But I’m taking my time here.

    Posted April 25, 2008 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    If determinism is the case–then neither I nor you have any choice regarding whether we believe it or not, fear it or not. What’s the point of discussing it, then? Oh, yes–we have no choice in the matter. Further–if person A believes n determinism, and person B does not, and person A is bothered by person B’s rejection of the idea–according to person A’s own belief, too bad. Person B can’t help it. Of course, neither can person A help being bothered. And off into an infinite spiral. Which, it seems to me, makes discussion about the question remarkably pointless, from a determinists point of view. Not that they can stop themselves, of course. But that’s where I came in.

    Of course, that’s no evidence or argument against determinism–but I can’t help that :-)

    Posted April 26, 2008 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Good points all, Addofio. Of course, if one is so constituted to fear the corrosive effect of belief in determinism, then one will argue against it, so as to influence the behavior of the determinist in the general direction of dropping the subject — or will, at least, try to plump for the notion that the whole thing is an impenetrable Mystery.

    All of which points out that, regardless of the truth or falsity of determinism at the microscopic level, what we do is still the result of the influences that impinge upon us, and of our own deliberations.

    But more on this in forthcoming posts.

    Posted April 26, 2008 at 11:03 am | Permalink