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Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

keith's Avatar Jump to comment 1007 by keith


I don't think that we really understand each other. So much so, that I can't really tell if you believe in free will or not. So let me make my own position as clear as possible.

A year or two ago I saw a Big Think video with Steven Pinker and he was asked if free will existed. He said, 'In a deep philosophical way, no. But in our everyday lives, yes'. (I'm paraphrasing). At the time I thought this was a rubbish answer. It reminded me of how at the quantum level indeterminacy rules, but this doesn't scale up to how things work at our level. This also sounded like we either had something wrong, or that there was a huge piece of the puzzle missing.

But now I think I agree with Pinker. When you take Sam Harris's view, before we have a chance to develop a mind of our own, it has been made for us by parents, teachers, society, random experiences and our genes. Since we had no control over these formative years (How could we?) then whatever decisions we make after that are not our fault.

This same kind of thinking is often applied to the Iraq. Anything bad that happens there for the next thousand years will be laid at the door of the Americans, as though the invasion represented a year-zero event, back to which all evils can be traced. The Iraqis themselves are merely pawns in a game. This is to view things as if from space, or a god-like position. This is Pinker's 'deep, philosophic way'.

However, at a less dizzying height, in our daily lives, and at the subjective level, we appear to have free will. Now, some people say it is precisely that, a mere appearance of free will and the appearance is deceptive. We are all merely pawns. This must apply to everyone equally, since it can't be the case that some of us live in a determined universe while others don't.

Yet to most of us there seems to be a genuine difference between a normal, reflecting human being and say, a cow. Neither can evade the lives that were dealt them. But surely it isn't a mere detail that humans have created for themselves an internal space in their heads where they can reflect and ponder the consequences of intended actions. Cows don't do this. And maybe the mentally handicapped and very young children don't do it (much). This ability doesn't strike me as being a trifle. It's as real as being able to play badminton - which a cow can't do either. Yet reflection and pondering are swallowed up by the all-encompassing embrace of determinism when looked at from a god-like perspective. It is like one of those images that constantly flips from vase to old hag!

To return more closely to your points (which I may or may not have understood) I see free will as the ability to react flexibly to your environment. Threats and rewards are aspects of a person's environment, just as much as a physical obstacle that needs to be avoided. So if a government grant is offered for more science graduates, this may start the thought in some young person's head to become a science student. Was this his free thought? I find it impossible to say since everything we think is set off by what went before it or what is happening around us. Seen in this way, there is no such thing as a free thought, uncoupled from prior thoughts or external events. Yet you seem to associate free will with free thought, and I don't know what that could mean. Neither do I really know what a 'self-mooted choice' means, though my guess it is one that we have made without any outside interference. Again, I don't really know what such a choice would look like, being born out of the void of a self-made self.

Wed, 22 Aug 2012 16:10:12 UTC | #951144

Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

keith's Avatar Jump to comment 1005 by keith

Phil Rimmer,

Oh and the bully has more acceptable choices than the bullied, the cop more than the collared.

I have no idea if this was referring to my post. Since you didn't specify then maybe your using the cop and collared was pure coincidence.

The point of my example was that the would-be criminal hadn't yet been 'collared'. He could choose whether to commit the crime or not. In what way does the policeman have more free choice than that? But of course, once you are collared your choices have been vastly reduced. However, you could say the same about a man who had just had his legs sawn off. It is so obvious that it doesn't really need pointing out.

We all know that rich people have more choice than poor people because they can afford do more things. And we all know that a man with a gun pointed at his head has fewer options than he did when he was gayly frolicking in a meadow. As you said, this is about 'choice' but it doesn't begin to deal with the problem of free will i.e. that we can choose what we want but we can't choose to want what we want. This applies equally to the man holding the gun and the man with the gun to his head, the bully and the bullied, the cop and the collared.

Tue, 21 Aug 2012 20:05:37 UTC | #951120

Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

keith's Avatar Jump to comment 1002 by keith


You are obviously a "hard" determinist, who believes that our lives were determined at the big bang, on the basis that time only happens once, presumably.

I have no idea what this means. Is the fact that what happened after the Big Bang happened only once relevant? And if it is, why does my belief in determinism have to contain this belief?

Hard determinism is nonsense.

Well, that's certainly a very strong statement of conviction but it would have been of more use to me had you explained why it is nonsense. The fact is that I have no idea who you are, so why you expect me to be interested in the opinion of someone who could be a complete nutter I have no idea. Please explain why it is such obvious nonsense.

No, because coercion does not change your thoughts - it is forcing you to act against your own thinking. In other words, coercion is the expression of the free will of the coercer, but reduces the effective free will of the coerced.

Okay, let me put it simply. A man often beats his girlfriend up. He claims he can't help it i.e. that he has no free will. You ask him if he would still beat her up if there was a policeman standing beside her. The man says, 'Of course not'. 'In that case, you reply, 'you can help it. You do have free will after all. You just need a little coercion'.

Both 'I am going to hit her' and 'I won't hit her because there is a policeman standing there' are thoughts. Therefore a little coercion did indeed change his thoughts, despite your claim to the contrary. And both thoughts lead to actions. One leads to a punch and the other leads to the man sitting down quietly on the sofa. Your idea that the man who decides not to punch his girlfriend doesn't have free will while the policeman does because he coerces is amazingly naive.

Mon, 20 Aug 2012 21:54:14 UTC | #951081

Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

keith's Avatar Jump to comment 1000 by keith

I think the viability of free will as an idea depends on whether you look at it from close-up or use the bear-hug strategy. If determinism is true, and I think it is, then nothing escapes the inevitability of cause and effect, the ongoing knock-on effect of a set of dominoes set in motion by the Big Bang. This is the bear-hug strategy. If this is the whole story then everyone and everything has precisely zero free will.

However, from close-up things look very different and the bear-hug strategy really doesn't explain why most people intuit that the mentally ill, children and animals are less responsible for their actions than normal, healthy adults. If everybody has zero free will, then someone with a brain tumour that affects his behaviour can't have any less free will than zero. According to Sam Harris, he himself has no more free will than a retarded man with the mental age of a three-year old.

Yet through environmental factors, normal people can often be persuaded to act better than they otherwise might. The mentally ill aren't usually so open - because they don't understand it - to such coercion. This usually involves the threat of punishment or the promise of rewards. But surely this is precisely what free will means! But being open to coercion and being able to act in something other than an instinctive way is surely the definition of free will, at least Dennett's slimmed down version.

No sensible person is arguing that we can somehow escape determinism. Some lucky people achieve some 'elbow room' in which to reflect and ponder the consequences of their actions, others don't. This still all happens within the confines of determinism. Sam Harris would say that whether you achieve some elbow room is down to pure luck and thus beyond your control, and I think that Dennett would agree. But he would add that there is still a functional difference between someone who achieves some degree of elbow room and someone who doesn't, and to that degree, the former can be said to have free will.

Mon, 06 Aug 2012 20:54:35 UTC | #950461

Go to: Will your kid be taught that climate change is a hoax?

keith's Avatar Jump to comment 55 by keith

After watching various documentaries and hearing Paul nurse and David Attenborough weigh in on the subject I was willing to be sure that man-made global warming was real. So much so that I didn't even bother to go into it any further. I thought I'd just continue to recycle stuff, ride my bike and worry about the future instead.

The only thing that now makes me think that I should go into things more is that Matt Ridley, one of my science heroes, appears to have weighed in on the wrong side. Can someone explain this to me? Does Matt Ridley know what he is talking about when it comes to evolution but not climate science? Has he gone a bit nuts after the Northern Rock debacle? Is he too keen to stick to his 'everything is getting better' thesis, as expounded in his The Rational Optimist, no matter where it leads? Or is he just sceptical of the 'Hockey Stick' graph while conceding the main thrust of the global warming argument?

Fri, 24 Feb 2012 12:30:40 UTC | #921452

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