Monday, 25 August 2014

On the Freedom of the Will

Many problems in metaphysics are particularly troubling because their concerns are as close to us as anything can be, yet certainty about their answers might be impossible to obtain. Among these problems we find the issue of identity; is mind no matter, and what is matter (never mind!)? Might our mental faculties be governed by immaterial minds? Experienced things such as the outside world and time are also incredibly difficult problems, though their closeness to us is immediate. The aim with some of my blog posts is just to put some fairly basic thoughts together on this sort of problems of metaphysics or other areas of philosophy. This blog post deals with free will.

I am a keen believer in free will, but whether the doctrine of free will is true or not is quite a tricky question, indeed. Certainly, the disbelievers must carry the burden of proof, because they argue that something does not exist which everyone experiences every day (barring, perhaps, some pathological cases). However, once the idea of causation is taken seriously, one may begin to doubt the actuality of free will, because if every action in physics has a cause in physics, electrical impulses and chemicals in my brain caused me to write this sentence (or caused me to think that I was writing it).

Moreover, there is evidence from neuroscience to suggest that we do not become aware of our intentions to act before the physical signs of how we will act have presented themselves. I think much of this evidence is obtained by presenting a person with some choices and monitoring brain activity. On the other hand, maybe this only says something about the relationship of consciousness and free will. The evidence would certainly be more impressive if choice were predicted, the prediction shown to the choose before his choice, and the chooser then unable to change his choice. It seems beyond incredible that a person in such a situation would be unable to change his decision, though as far as I know this has never been tested.

From my psychologist friends, I have learnt that belief in "free won't" is a big thing in some circles. This view has it that actions are initiated and that such events are beyond our control, but once we become aware that an action has been initiated, we can nevertheless control what we do by vetoing the action. This amounts to a version of free will, since the vetoing may presumably continue indefinitely. The resultant lag in choice of action may be thought of as a slight handicap to free will, however.

There is an interesting link between free will and epistemology. If we have no free will, epistemically good reasons for any belief become tricky. Since we have no choice in whatever we believe, what reason is there to expect beliefs to be well-reasoned? Maybe beliefs satisfy something altogether different from epistemically sound argument. If there is no free will, the door is thus left ajar for solipsism, though perhaps not too much if evolution has weeded out genes which opted for epistemically hard-to-justify beliefs. But how could we really tell that there is any reason to believe in such tendencies or even in evolution if there is no free will? The falseness of solipsism offers some support for the truth of free will.

In my judgement, free will beats determinism on introspection, on epistemology, and on fancy testing, but free will is defeated on causality and naïve testing. On these reasons, I find it easier to believe that there is something special about living things (or at least about humans) that gives them an ability to initiate action independent of physical fact. While this does seem very odd indeed, I find it easier to believe than the alternative which violates basic epistemology, thought experiments about sophisticated tests, and the most common everyday experiences.

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