The Weakest Link

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?

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  1. Just to check: Are you distinguishing between “cause” and “reason”?

    I’m interested in this issue, but I’m waiting until I’ve seen enough of your argument before I stake out a position.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted May 4, 2008 at 2:33 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Jeffery,

    Indeed I do make that distinction.

    I’m sorry to be bringing all this forth so slowly. I just have so little time each day, and I want to be careful.

    Posted May 4, 2008 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  3. JO says

    this brings me back to my thought that there is more than one “me”. Where do I look for that decision made in a split second, with no reasoning and no time to consider the cause? No time to weigh the pros and cons-I am very interested in that choice made in reaction-someone tries to hurt my loved one and no thought of this happening beforehand. Has my mind, me, been weighing the possible reactions maybe in a part of my brain still hardwired for survival? Would I choose to freely will someone else’s death in reaction to hurting my child right before my eyes? Since I don’t know yet what I will do and must depend upon some aspect of me, it leads me to think that free will may get tangled up with the “plain” will-especially the will to survive or protect.
    Sorry, I’m reading the “Naked Ape” and it has really made me ponder how my brain and will have actually developed into a machine that even considers these concepts. Would you and I search for meaning if we had to make survival decisions just to get food? Does freedom or willful choice change in cultures where kill or be killed is still the daily mantra?
    Is it to these people, not a considered option but a survival hardwire? If it is, then I have primarily come back to I think that the decision is made already.
    Once again, I beg your forgiveness if this has digressed into my own mind too far.

    Posted May 4, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I do think, Jeanie, that the leisure to consider these questions is rather a luxury.

    Posted May 5, 2008 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  5. JK says


    Likely you’ve already seen this on Einstein’s “religious view”. Kinda ironic due to his “God does not play dice with the Universe” thingy. However your site seems to generate perhaps the best commentary in the blogosphere and, I appreciate more than I can convey properly, your personal take on things.


    Posted May 16, 2008 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  6. JK says

    Oh Malcolm,

    Forgot why I originally came. Hopefully only a few come to your older posts, has to do with Chaiten. The photos your friend submitted were excellent but I’ve seen some that were taken from a source other than the one I posted from Nasa’s Modius. Can’t get into too much detail but this source requires certain clearances. Things’re going slow I “believe” due to some trajectory “repositioning.” There’s an effort afoot to try to assist China. Anyway, I might be able to get some interesting views of all that earths’ surface “apparent electromagnetic activity” as seen from some few hundred miles above. It’s a Navy thing. I will, well only say I’m trying.

    Posted May 16, 2008 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi JK,

    Yes, I did comment on this letter a couple of days ago, in this post.

    Thanks very much for your kind words. Much appreciated.

    Posted May 16, 2008 at 3:28 pm | Permalink