What Does ‘Free’ Mean?

Here’s a little video clip of Michael Shermer and Jordan Petersen discussing free will.

Although there isn’t a whole lot of detail here, the view they seem to converge on is not far from my own. (I haven’t written about this in ages.)

See my own posts on this topic, in the series of links below.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for your posts. Seems we agree on a lot of the issues here.

    The “free will” that we reject is “libertarian” free will. We have no problem with the idea of “reason-responsiveness”; “creativity”; “unpredictability”; however, the big problem is with moral responsibility.
    Our views were changed on the matter by reading Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility (though he believes in compatibilist “free will”).

    The way we see it, there are three arguments that point to, while not quite determinism, a position known as “free will scepticism”. You don’t have to accept “determinism” in order to accept “free will scepticism.”

    Arguments:

    1: Infinite regress argument or the logical argument. (Hume and Nietzsche made this argument.)

    2: Arguments from neuroscience (such as Libet’s experiments) or the empirical argument(s). The general principle here is the empirical demonstration of unconscious causes (in the brain) causing thought and behaviour.

    3: Argument from introspection or the phenomenological argument. (Buddha, Spinoza, Thomas Nagel and Sam Harris make this argument.) Essentially, the “experience” of having free will is an illusion. When one pays attention, so it is claimed, to conscious experience, one does not observe this “free will”.

    If any one of those arguments is successful, then game over. However, 3 must, necessarily, fail for free will to be saved because if one has no experience (evidence) for free will, then there is no evidence for free will at all.

    For example, if humans never reported a belief in free will, then one would never form the belief that humans had it. In a sense then, free will is, perhaps, only believed, because humans transmit the meme of free will.

    Posted January 24, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I think (and I think you agree) that the generally accepted idea of free will — a wholly uncaused chice arising from nowhere in the present instant — is incoherent. If you read through my posts you will see that the view I favor rests on a close examination of what it could possibly mean to be “free” in a meaningful sense, and that the most desirable interpretation of that — which is that our actions are the result of our acting as a nexus of deliberation, evaluating our own interests and preferences and acting thereupon — is not in any way incompatible with physics and neuroscience.

    I think consciousness, however, is over-rated in discussions of both free will and intentionality, and is unnecessary for either. We make unconscious deliberations and choices all day long, but that does not make them any less “ours”. The key is to expand the boundary of “self” to include, well, ourselves.

    As Dennett said: “If you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything.”

    For this reason I don’t think the Libet experiment has anything to say about our freedom, because it focuses too narrowly on conscious awareness.

    Posted January 24, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  3. “I think (and I think you agree) that the generally accepted idea of free will — a wholly uncaused chice arising from nowhere in the present instant — is incoherent.”

    Right.

    “which is that our actions are the result of our acting as a nexus of deliberation, evaluating our own interests and preferences and acting thereupon”

    As a description, that is true. We agree with that. We could call it voluntary rational action.

    “I think consciousness, however, is over-rated in discussions of both free will and intentionality, and is unnecessary for either.”

    That is an unusual claim.

    Consciousness is, however, essential. Where do people get the idea of “free will” in the first place or what is it that sustains their belief?

    Nagel put the point more or less as follows: when we inquire into the source of our values, preferences and beliefs we eventually run into a fog of mystery.

    “For this reason I don’t think the Libet experiment has anything to say about our freedom, because it focuses too narrowly on conscious awareness.”

    We see it as part of a cumulative case argument against free will and, as we said, an example of a general principle about the nature of thought and behavior.

    At this point, we are more interested in the moral and legal ramifications.

    Our prediction is that in the coming years, progressives are going to use arguments of the kind that Waller or Harris makes in order to justify progressive legal reforms.

    However, the conclusions they have do not follow from the premises.

    Consider Alex Rosenberg who argued that the one thing science has to say about politics is determinism and determinism, in his view, leads to “left” or liberal conclusions (he does say that capitalism leads to “right”).

    Firstly, this claim is poorly argued – probably incoherent given Rosenberg’s nihilism.

    Secondly, one could argue that the lack of free will leads to more “right” legal reforms.

    For instance, one of the reasons that we should punish people is not because they have free will but because they don’t. Punishment will, presumptively, help determine their future behavior or the behavior of others.

    Posted January 25, 2018 at 1:42 am | Permalink

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