Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Crux: Part Two

Warning: For those of you who, lulled into a false sense of infrequency by my failure to post much while in the midst of essay-writing a few weeks ago, haven't checked the blog in a while and are just joining us, I recommend you go back a few days and read the previous installment entitled The Crux before continuing. And now:

I want to start off by saying "Thanks!" to all of you who have so far contributed to the conversation regarding the philosophical matter at hand--I knew I could count on you! For those who have pending responses, I look forward to them eagerly. Can I just say that the possibility for such encounters as this--a meeting of my favorite and most respected minds contributing to a pot-luck banquet of deep thought across continents--is quite certainly the most fantastic benefit to the invention of the internet I have yet encountered. Wouldn't the ancient Greeks have been proud?

That said, I have exciting news! This week's topic of study in Metaphysics, coincidentally enough, just happens to be precisely our current area of inquiry--free will and its possibility relative to determinism, non-determinism, and logic in general! Isn't it fabulous when things coincide like this? Thus, with the reading for yesterday's lecture and the lecture itself, I now possess some valuable ingredients to add to our menu.

First of all, there are some useful technical terms, which of course aren't necessary but are nice to have sometimes just so we all know when we mean the same thing and when we don't. Plus, they make you sound so cool and philosophic. So, in case you were wondering:

  • A compatibilist is a person who believes free will is compatible with determinism--that is, that you could have free will in a deterministic universe. (My analysis of the two types of compatibilists indicates that they achieve this belief through funny definitions of either free will or determinism.)
  • An incompatibilist, not surprisingly, believes that free will is incompatible with determinism.
  • A libertarian is an incompatibilist who believes that we do have free will (and thus, believes that the universe is not deterministic).

But the really interesting addition is an organized outline of precisely the "logical possibility" question I've been trying to isolate, as set out in several slightly different formulations in the article The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility by Galen Strawson. You can probably guess from the title what his verdict is regarding logical possibility of free will, which he bases on something he calls the Basic Argument. That argument looks something like this:

  1. Our actions are a function of how we are, mentally speaking.
  2. If (1) is true, we can only be truly free in our actions if we are truly free in our mental state, to a certain extent.
  3. We can only be truly free in our mental state if we have chosen our mental state.
  4. But we cannot be said to be choosing our mental state unless we already exist mentally, already equipped with some principles of choice (P1)--preferences, values, ideals--in the light of which we choose how to be.
  5. So in order to be truly free in our choice of a mental state, we must be able to freely choose our P1.
  6. But in order to choose P1 we must have some principles of choice P2 in the light of which we choose P1.
  7. This sets off an infinite regress, because in order to be free you must make a choice, but in order to have a choice you must have principles on which to base it, but you must also have chosen those principles, and so on.

This is the issue. So my previous question about logical possibility of free will can be restated with respect to this line of reasoning by asking whether the infinite regress is vicious--that is, whether it means that choice and thereby freedom is logically impossible or not.

There's a slightly different formulation of this argument later in the article, with some useful conventions upon which to frame the discussion:

Suppose one is in a situation in which one must choose between actions A and B. One will make this choice based on one's character or personality or motivational structure--one's CPM. One's desires and beliefs will provide reasons for A and B. One's CPM tells one which of those reasons to side with, and thus which action to choose. So in order to have freedom over one's choice, one must be able to choose one's CPM. Posit a self, S, which is independent of and yet has control over the CPM. The problem is, S will also have some structure on which it must base its decisions of what kind of CPM to construct. So in order to be free, one must also be able to choose one's S. And once again we hit the regress.

This can be looked at from the other direction, in a sense (instead of going back from the final effect to original causes, you can go forward from the original cause to try to get to the final effect), by starting with an initial S (self, or soul, or whatever). Now, imagine this initial S has no predispositions whatsoever--because only then can its choices be truly free. Is it possible for an S without predispositions to make a choice between various possible sets of principles, in an intentional rather than a random fashion? The difficulty we have with this concept is that our choices always are based on reasons. But are reasons inherent to the meaning of choice, so that an absence of reasons makes the choice meaningless? I think that is the real root of the question. And it seems to me that you can have a meaningful choice without reasons. In fact, that's exactly the meaning of the word choice. Reasons are things that back up the choice that is made, but the reasons themselves do not constitute the choice. Does this make sense? (I'm not sure, but it seems to me it might.)

But it's one thing to be able to call something a choice, and another to call it a moral choice. Can you have a moral choice in the absence of predispositions? Well, the S would have to start off knowing about "right/good" and "wrong/evil". Does knowing what dispositions and actions are "right" constitute a predisposition of itself? I think not--being disposed to do the "right" would be a predisposition, but knowing what the "right" is might not require a disposition to do the "right"; at least, so it seems to me. So I guess the proposition I'm making, without being entirely sure whether it's sound or not, is that something can be without predisposition, but can still have comprehension of good and evil, while maintaining a free choice between doing the good and doing the evil, but remaining morally responsible for that choice. If that is possible, then we have our leap from freedom into the land of determinism. If that leap is possible, it doesn't matter if the whole rest of the process is determined, because at that point a free choice has been made.

So, what do you think? Make sense? See a hole? Let me know! Thanks again for humoring me and brightening my life (whether you happen to be a philosophical type or not). Much love.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must admit, I'm a little confused. Its possible that you posed an answer to this question elsewhere in that massive chunk of writing, and I just missed it or didn't understand it, but: how does one make an irrational choice? I mean, how do you go about the process? From what you've said, you -could- have found a drop-point into deterministic free will, but I won't even address that yet. I'll simply pose the question "How?"

To make a choice suggests a process. The act of volition in choosing an action, performing it, and carrying it out. It seems if one does this its no longer 'irrational' for the same reason giving limits and boundries to the Supernatural makes it Natural.

We can assume all day long that there is such a thing as moral disposition without predisposition, that we are 'dealt' an S without rational disposition, possessive of only what you called the Moral Disposition (Claiming to set up a universal Truth of Right and Wrong, big words!), and what do we get? (Not that I'm agreeing with these yet, by any stretch, just going with your assumptions)

We are painted a picture of an irrational Self, concerned at base with only a broad defintion of what is Right and Wrong, and all of this is simply "Dealt". I can agree with that completely, by definition the Self that I have outlined is very much predisposed to concepts of Right and Wrong from an irrational source. But that does nothing to answer our, "How?"

Apply your suggested concept to our "Boy in the lake" scenerio. How do you react? I'll make the assumption that the "Right" mode of conduct you're implying is to save the boy. You know the verdict of the situation even as he is exposed to it, because he is predisposed to a unviversal concept of how he should behave and should not. Not in specifics of course, but you have some vague "idea" that saving the boy is the right decision even though you can't rationalize it. (You could argue that in many cultures this is hardly the case! That depending on your upbringing, natural events surrounding your life and thus linked inexorably to its chain of rationality, you will get a wide variety of people who would not aggree that this is the Right/Good answer to the problem. This shoots your universal idea of Right and Wrong conduct inherant to all human beings to the wind. Unless of course you're willing to say that everyone who has chosen a different moral path than you is inherantly wrong and have lost their way. Also big words!) If he acts on that Right mode of conduct, which was not predisposed, his actions are therefore "Free"? I fail to grasp it.

If his choice was predisposed, if he was simply "Born" with the right conduct bred into his being as firmly as his bones, how is that an example of Free Will at work? The only "choice" then lies in obeying or disobeying his created nature. We can't assume that all beings have the same created nature, from all evidence provided in humanity, this seems to be the OPPOSITE of the case.

And to put another shiny layer on the argument, from a different angle- if these dispositions are simply "Dealt" at birth, inherant in a human creature, how do they differ from that of an animal? You might as well say a fish has Free Will in weather or not it choses to swim by means of locomotion. Unless you introduce a Supernatural element that in some way acts upon the Ego/S, that S is just as much a part of the natural progress of creation as anything else.

Food for thought!

Countersigned: The Devil's Advocate

6:09 PM  
Blogger The One With Many Names said...

I guess the distinction I'm trying to make is between knowing the Right and being predisposed to choose the Right. So I agree precisely with your statement that the only choice lies in obeying or disobeying one's created nature. My question is, does it make sense that one would be able to decide to disobey one's created nature, and if so, could that decision be considered an act of free will according to our definition of the term?

As far as the question of being dealt this created nature is concerned, and how this allows us to differ from animals (in the which statement I'll grant, for the moment, the assumption that animals can be assumed not to have free will, an assumption I typically prefer not to make), I am by no means arguing for a purely Natural basis of this free will. So if an S exists which is able to possess a created nature which it can choose to obey or disobey, I think it's pretty clear it would have to be Supernatural. This S would then, true, have to find some way of interacting with the Natural or physically-based CPM, or whatever you want to call the next layer down. And perhaps such interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural is impossible or inconceivable, but that's not the question I'm currently trying to isolate. At the moment, all I'm looking for is the logical possibility for a supernatural S to both have a created nature and be able to choose to obey or disobey it. If that concept makes sense, I believe I can get all the rest to follow. If it doesn't make sense, I can proceed no further on the path towards free will. But for now, all I'm interested in is the first step.

Now, as to whether or not we can assume all beings have the same created nature, that is, the same inherent concepts of Right or Wrong, I agree that this is a debatable assumption. However, I don't think the assumption is as blatantly disproven by observations of humanity as it might initially seem. I would at least argue the possibility that humanity does reflect a universal concept of Right and Wrong, even though the concepts of Right and Wrong as manifested in different cultures might provoke precisely opposite actions, as you suggest is possible with the "boy in the lake" dilemma. I would posit that the differences in suggested "right" action within different cultures stem, not from a basic difference in the conceptions of Right and Wrong, but in different interpretations and applications of identical Right and Wrong concepts based on different histories and environments.

I certainly do not want to claim that anyone who has chosen a different moral path than me is inherently wrong, because I have no basis on which to claim that my own moral path is inherently superior to any other. In fact, it is my perception of the universality of the Right and Wrong concepts upon which I base my belief in their authority, and I think if it could be conclusively proven that there were cultures whose basic concepts of Right and Wrong (and not just the circumstantial manifestations of those concepts into cultural conventions and social mores) differed from those of other cultures, then all justification for either culture to claim superiority for their own such concepts would be nullified. But I don't believe this to be the case.

In one circle and set of circumstances abortion might be considered the "right" action, while in another circle it might, in identical circumstances, be considered "wrong", but this is not because one circle believes killing other people is Right while the other believes it is Wrong, but rather that one circle interprets abortion as the killing of another person while the other circle does not. I would thus present the hypothesis that apparent moral differences are really differences of interpretation of the circumstances, which cause applications of the universal concepts of Right and Wrong to be made differently even when the identical concepts are being held.

What do you think?

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Due to some incredibly important events that have taken place in my life, I may not be forthcomming with much by way of Philosophical ramblings. I've got so much on my mind now, well... I just don't know if I'll be able. Please excuse me! But for those of you looking forward to more commentary from me, I'll try interjecting here and there when I feel I can.

Thank you for your understanding,

5:11 AM  
Blogger GrandpaFred said...

I wonder if you have ever either read or watched Joseph Campbell in a series of television interviews he did with Bill Moyers? Is there a library there that might have these? How do you feel personally about "Free Will?" Do you feel that you have it or that others do? Just some musings...

11:37 PM  

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