Archive for February, 2013

Definition: free will

2013/02/05

I was listening to a skeptical podcast – the Legion of Reason, out of Calgary – and the topic of free will reared itself. It’s a fascinating topic, because (as in this case) many people who agree with me about atheism, humanism, and loads of related social positions disagree very firmly about the appropriate attitude to free will.

I would like to clarify and expand on what I have said recently on this blog about free will. First, though, I thought I would start by exploring the definition.

Like my previous definition posts, I will present how I see it free will, and point out some of the ways that people differ.

First, note that the term “free will” is made of two words. So let’s start with a simple definition:

Free will is the unconstrained (free) exercise of one’s intention to act (will).

No problem so far. But what counts as a constraint?*

This is where people differ. For me, unconstrained means that, when I have a desire to act (whatever the reason for or source of that desire), I am able to follow through.

When I want to stand up, I can. I am not tied down; I am not too weak.

When I want to go bungee-jumping, I can. I do not have a subconscious aversion preventing me from taking that last step; I do not have overly-protective parents hiding my keys to keep me from driving to the jump site.

Constraints can take the form of physical bonds, financial shortfalls, or even irresistable psychological compulsions (addiction is an interesting area for examining edge-cases in free will).

Other people – the “libertarian free will” crowd – consider that any reliable causal predictor of a decision is an intolerable constraint, undermining freedom of will. The most popular expression of this is the claim that determinism undermines free will. That is, if the universe really does operate according to immutable, universal laws of cause-and-effect that completely determine the behaviour of everything in the universe, then everything we do is physically “constrained” to a single possibility (whether or not we can ever know that possibility in advance).

I find this position odd for two reasons: the “chain-link” and the “character”.

First, even if my actions are determined in advance, it may still be the case that my intentions (part of the physical universe) are the proximate cause of my actions: I stood up because I wanted to stand up. Sure, I may have wanted to stand up because my bladder was full, which was because of all the tomato juice I had consumed earlier, which was because of that unfortunate incident with the skunk, and so on and so on to the beginning of our clockwork universe. But the immediate reason I stood up was because I chose to. It was an exercise of my will. My will is a crucial link in the great causal chain that led to the event. To me, the idea of freedom is how that link that is my intention relates to the link that is the outcome, not how it relates to all the other links.

Second, it baffles me that mere predictability is considered a defeater for free will. Just because someone can guess what I’m going to do does not make me less free. If my child cries out in pain, I run to help them. That behaviour is predictable. In fact, part of being a good parent is letting my children know deep down that I will react that way. Does that mean I am not exercising my free will when I choose to help them? Of course not. Is my obedience to traffic laws a subjugation of my free will? No, it’s an expression of it. I try to cultivate a character that leads me to behave well. This entails being predictable in a wide range of situations.

I know that there is some psychological monitor inside all of us that doesn’t like the idea of any constraint – real, practical, or metaphysical – on our behaviour. When I hear libertarian free-will advocates declaiming, I often have to step back before I see again why their arguments fall flat. But it bugs me that so few people seem to see that the aspects of freedom which are important to them in daily life do not depend on libertarian free will. It bugs me that they never seem to see the conflict between virtue – the development of a character that consistently chooses to follow predictable patterns of virtuous behaviour – and this idea of completely acausal decision-making. I think my approach above not only captures my own aesthetic preferences regarding the definitions of free will, but also the way we tend to apply the concept to our real lives. We are not worried about whether some unknowable causal chain irrevocably caused us to want to do what we did, but rather whether we were able to do what we intended.

I think the above works, regardless of whether one sees the “will” as part of the physical world (materialism) or existing in some separate realm (dualism). I also think it is essentially independent of the question of whether a god exists or not.

Though I’ve looked at free will in this way for several years, I don’t know if I’ve ever articulated this particular position. So I would like to know if you can see any obvious holes in the compatibilist position I am promoting here. Do you? If so, please let me know!

On the other hand, are there any other compatibilists out there who agree with my position? Or libertarians who find the above arguments thought-provoking?

Any theists or folks familiar with theological approaches to free will? What do you think? My impression is that most theists are libertarians, but I have heard that Calvinists and perhaps some others are determinists, and so may have some sort of compatibilist approach to free will. Or they may just deny that we have free will.

Footnote:

* I may address what is meant by “intention to act” at a later date, or in the comments if people want to bring it up. For now, I’ll just assume it’s fairly obvious.

Duty and futility

2013/02/02

Oh, woe is me!

Anyone who has been watching me eke through the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge (put forth by Luke Muehlhauser) over the past year and a half may have noticed that my postings have become more and more sporadic.

I could claim real-world interference with my writing, but that would be a distraction. The fact is, I am rapidly losing my motivation.

I did not undertake the challenge expecting it to change my mind. But my experience of Luke’s writing and podcasting (+here) suggested that this challenge would put in front of me the most thought-provoking apologetics, rather than the appalling works I had previously run across. I had read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity before I had even heard of humanism and begun self-identifying as such; Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator as I was beginning to explore things and identify as a humanist; and most recently John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, which I reviewed in a series of five posts on this blog (1 2 3 4 5). Summary: apologetics in print have seemed as self-congratulatory and vacuous as the more degenerate online discussions of atheism versus Christianity (from either side).

Anyway, having appreciated and occasionally been challenged by the balance and pursuit of truth (as opposed to confirmation) that Luke exemplified, I had hopes that these authors he was pointing me to (none of whom, Christian or atheist, I had read before) would at least make me pause for thought, and perhaps puncture one or two of the more comfortable, self-satisfied conclusions I was happy to hold.

But I find that the atheist arguments are familiar and seem sound, and the apologists’ arguments are familiar and easily refuted. They set up straw men of real atheist positions, and subject their own arguments to only the flimsiest tests. I enjoy being proven right as much as the next guy, but it’s disappointing that this challenge isn’t more challenging. Is it because I actually do have the right answer already? Is it because I’m too close-minded to see the value in the opposing arguments, or the flaws in the atheist arguments? Either hypothesis is consistent with the superficial details of the experience.

 

I know that an open mind is necessary in order to grow toward truer belief. But I can’t help think of the prayer experiment I undertook with our Mormon missionary friends back in Edinburgh. They said to pray honestly for insight, I tried it, I got not message from Heaven. They said to keep trying until I got a message. But to keep asking the same question until the answer comes out the way you want is not the way to truth. So I ended that experiment. If I ever get reason to believe that it’s worth trying again, I will, but until then I have a reasonable conclusion based on honest testing.

I feel like the same thing is happening with Christian apologetics at large. I had a suspicion that there wasn’t any knock-down argument for God, based on my previous experience. I have tried out the best arguments, recommended by what seemed to me to be an open-minded, thoughtful source. And they’ve failed to stir my doubt-o-meter. Case closed?

Not quite. The problem is, I’m really just halfway through the Challenge. I still have a book by Swinburne and one by Craig to wade through, in addition to two further atheist offerings. And that’s after I finish the current book – a dense pack of essays ranging from transparently vapid to impenetrably opaque, without offering any illumination.

I can’t plead the excuse sometimes used in clinical trials – that people seem to be suffering or dying from one leg of the experiment – for halting early. I’m just really, really tired of wading through garbage philosophy, in the interest of fairly testing what is really a very low-probability hypothesis. (Christianity is only one of many popular theistic hypotheses of roughly equal prior probability; and all of them are but a subset of the domain of logically possible deistic hypothesis).

So this is my dilemma. I am engaged in an exercise that feels increasingly futile. And yet, as part of my duty to the pursuit of truth, I cannot reasonably beg off the remaining part of the exercise. So I should carry on. But, knowing that my state of mind is increasingly opposed to the whole endeavour, I’m not sure I can claim to be fairly evaluating the ideas I’m coming across.

I’m tempted to leave off – take an indefinite hiatus. But that isn’t really a solution is it? It’s just an escape.

I’m tempted to just skim through the remaining books. But that isn’t really an honest fulfilment of my original resolution to fairly examine the claims.

I’m honestly puzzled here. I think I’m procrastinating toward the hiatus solution by default. There’s always something more interesting to do/read/whatever than this. Perhaps I should skip to the next book (an atheist collection – perhaps a bit more palatable), to help get back in the mood for the project.

What do you do when you have a task that (a) has no deadline or external pressure to finish, (b) feels futile or pointless, but (c) you feel some sense of duty or responsibility to complete? Have any of you undertaken this challenge or something similar? How did you overcome (or succumb to) the hurdles you encountered?

Do you have any insight that would let me see the problem in a different light, perhaps resolve the dilemma more easily?