Reconstituting Free Will

23 Apr

Reconstituting Free Will:  Toward a new Theory of Choice and Determination in Human Affairs


John Horgan enters the fray of free will debate once again.  Here’s what he has to say in a blog post for Scientific American.

I spent this morning pondering whether I should attack neuroscientist Sam Harris for attacking free will. … But Harris keeps intruding on my thoughts, in part because he keeps emailing me about his writings, and especially his new book Free Will (Free Press, 2012).  Also, I admit to a certain voyeuristic fascination with Harris. I wonder, what crazy idea is he going to peddle next? Some of his righteous rants give me a perverse pleasure. I’m simultaneously irritated and titillated. I get the same feeling listening to Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum. … But I don’t know anyone who admires the ideas of Limbaugh or Santorum.  Harris’s memes, in contrast, are infecting the minds not of right wing and religious cranks but of smart, knowledgeable people. Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, when he hosted a recent talk by Harris at Caltech, praised him for “cutting through all the obfuscation and getting straight to the point” about free will in his new book. The neurologist Oliver Sacks calls Free Will “brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive.” Michael. Oliver. Really?

Maybe Harris does sound like Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum at times.  Maybe his statements do seem like “rants” or the “peddling” of “crazy ideas.”  Nevertheless, for the fact that his ideas are catching on with people both in the general public and in intellectual circles, that doesn’t mean his points are entirely off the mark and/or are merely exercises in glitzy marketing and media spin.   Agree with Harris or not, buy into his arguments or don’t buy into them, he may be onto something with his discussions viz-a-viz “free will” … and that’s why people are listening to him and picking up on his ideas … not for their being “infected” by his “memes” or being manipulated into a position of denying the principle out of hand, but for real substantial reasons having to do with the fact that “free will” (as it’s commonly understood through human perception and conceptions) just doesn’t make sense when you stop and reflect on it as a metaphysical principle.

“Free will” as an object of intuitive experience and our unvarnished perceptions of the world is a philosophical chimera, and people are beginning to recognize that fact in their daily lives within today’s world. … It’s a contradiction. Through its agency as a “true cause” people are supposed to be able to make real change in the world, and yet it itself is postulated to be indeterminable and stand-alone as a faculty of human capabilities and potential (in an ontological sense).  It’s supposed to operate in the context of being an “uncaused cause”, and yet what potency can it actually have outside of the demarcations and determinations of the naturally ‘causal’ universe? … For such reasons, then, free will (as it’s commonly understood as existing and operating) can’t be real. … It must be an illusion.

But if it is, then what of human freedom and contingency in world affairs and history? … How can they exist without “free will?” … How can there be “choice” and “agency” in human affairs in a true and real way if “free will’s” not completely and absolutely ‘free’ in a metaphysical sense? … The answer I think comes down to definitions and degrees of freedom in nature.  Self-movement, an epistemological concept from philosophy, takes place in a systemic context.  Something is only as ‘free‘ and ‘self moving‘ as the system in which it exists allows it to be.  Free motion, at bottom a product of randomness in nature, is a function of both systemic determination and self-organizing principles.  In other words, there’s no level or manner of freedom that’s completely free on principle; it’s all more or less couched in the language of determinism. … Ergo, whether we’re talking about the element of ‘freedom‘ in human experience or the relative ‘self-motion‘ of physical-natural things, they are not completely unbounded processes, but are only “free” in as much as they individually play-off the determining influences of their larger scale systems.

In other words, to bring this conversation back into the realm of human affairs, “free will” isn’t as much about unbridled, self-determination as it is about this counterpoising of individual will or agency against the determining influences of human life (i.e., laws of nature, biological principles, evolutionary psychology, and the metrics of social science).  … And that provides us a much better picture of what (so-called) “free will” is rather than more classical renditions of the concept … and especially many ‘commonsense‘ notions (sic) people have about “free will.”

So why is this important? … Because much as ideas like “purpose” and “meaning” need an overhaul in modern philosophy due to their spiritualist trappings, the notion of the freely-acting “will” is in equally bad a shape for its religionistic overtones and overtures to being a faculty of the “spiritualized” soul in human beings. … In other words, traditionally-accepted ideas of “free will” only represent more ghost-in-the-machine-style explanations of reality and odes to religiously-oriented metaphysics, and they need to be reconsidered and re-outfitted as ideas for the improvement and betterment of the principle, if the idea of human agency and self-determination is to have a future in helping us better understand the world and ourselves.

It’s well past time, then, that science and modern philosophy refit the idea of “choice” (alias free will) for our modern world, even if we haven’t quite figured out whether we want to completely scrap it as an idea or not or just retool it for the times.  It wouldn’t take too much to re-brand a theory of “choice” for the 2st century on scientifically, modernly acceptable, and rationalistic terms; but to allow it to remain couched in the metaphysics and theologies of the past only harms the principle in ways a Sam Harris -style edit of the idea could only portend to do.

An outdated metaphysics of “free will” only stunts the development a renewed theory of “choice”, for the 3rd millennium CE.  It’s time to set the idea anew instead of keeping the metaphysical artifacts of the past.


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