We’ve been brooding lately on the subject of free will and determinism. For tonight, just a few brief remarks; more to come shortly.
Everybody wants free will, of course, but the notion itself is one of those things that look clear enough from a distance, but get harder to make out the closer you look. What is a “free” choice, anyway? Apparently the key notion is that not have been caused. Is this really what we want? Let’s say I am presented with a choice to make: say, whether to put my paycheck in the bank or buy some crack.
How am I to proceed? I could simply flip a coin, or if that’s still too deterministic, I could rig up a truly random device that would, say, count how many ticks a piece of radium makes in a Geiger counter in the space of a minute, with an odd number being heads, and an even number tails.
This is hardly what we want, though; a random choice takes none of our own interests into account. Sure, a crack binge might be fun, but we have all sorts of things to consider: our financial responsibilities, the danger of being caught, the risks to health and reputation, and so forth. We must take all of this into account as we decide.
Fortunately, that’s not a problem. We have all sorts of knowledge, opinions, affections, aversions, beliefs, memories, and dispositions at our disposal to bring to bear on the problem. We want all of these to be weighed carefully in the balance, and indeed they will be.
But once we’ve consulted all of these resources, and sought the counsel, as it were, of our Cabinet, there still comes the moment of choice, that place where the decision has to happen. In our interval of deliberation, we have managed to put ourselves into well-informed state regarding the pros and cons of the options before us, and about which of those options might be most congruent with our personality and our goals; it would not be unreasonable, then, to hope that our decision would be the result of this careful deliberative work.
According to prevailing sentiment, however, it seems this might not be enough. We require, it appears, that even after all this effort our decision must still, somehow, be independent of the effort we’ve made: despite all that preparatory work, the choice must not be the causal result of any cognitive state that we’ve got ourselves into.
But if the choice is not random, and is not caused by our state immediately prior to the decision, then it seems only fair to ask: where does it come from? What can tip the balance one way or the other? What makes the final call? If the choice can still go either way regardless of our state in the previous instant — in other words, we insist that it is causally isolated from our deliberations — then in what sense can we even regard it as ours?