June 29, 2018

On free will and free thought

In deliberating what to do, as well as in judging about factual issues, one takes oneself to be free to exercise one’s judgment, based on the merits of the case at hand. Now this is not compatible with believing that the thoughts that come into one’s head, or the movements one performs, are produced by causal chains which, being causal, are not responsive to reason. Introspectively one may of course have the feeling of reaching correct judgments on the basis of reasons, but this then is something one must admit to be an illusion (or delusion) since one has stipulated that these mental occurrences are causally determined. This is similar to dreaming that one has solved a mathematical puzzle or is able to speak Arabic: this does not entail that one actually has solved the puzzle or is able to speak Arabic, but is simply a mirage, an impression produced by neurological causes. (Along this line of argument, the neurologists who argue that thought processes are nothing but causal sequences of events are thereby cancelling their own conclusions, since these are presumed to be derived from empirical observation through the use of reasoning.)

4 comments:

  1. I think about this topic in the same way. The line of argument originates, I believe, with Kant, who uses it in the third chapter of the *Grundlegung* when he says that we "act under the idea of freedom." I believe that Henry Allison has argued that an analogous line of argument is contained in Kant's epistemology, where the claim is that we think under the idea of intellectual spontaneity.

    My own way of summing the point up is this: There is no self-contradiction in asserting that human beings have no freedom of thought or action; but to assert that "we" (including oneself) have no such freedom is analogous to, and perhaps in effect identical to, asserting that one is not making any assertion.

    In other words, even if we found the conclusion that *human beings* have no freedom of thought or action to be impossible to deny, we would still be incapable of coherently affirming that *we* have no such freedom. It follows from this that anyone who asserts the view in the third-person form is trying to deny their own membership in humanity (which, as an eminent recently deceased commentator on Wittgenstein—Stanley Cavell—might say, is a characteristically human thing to do).

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    1. I agree. Very elegantly put. Though as David Cockburn points out (below) I'm inclined to think the word "freedom" is here being used in a rather peculiar, philosophical fashion.

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  2. While my basic sympathies are with you (both LH and Miles Rind) on this I am inclined to think that articulating the matter in terms of ‘free will’ or ‘freedom’ may have a tendency to point things in an unhelpful direction. The crucial notion here is that of being, in Lars’ phrase, ‘responsive to reason’; not, as a reference to ‘free will’ might encourage, an ability to do think or do other than what one does. With that, is there not a need for some defence of the assumption that a chain’s being causal entails that it is not responsive to reason?

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    1. Yes, "freedom" might give rise to misleading associations. The evidence might be such that I could only judge in one way; as we might say: the evidence is compelling. The modality here is one bound up with reasoning, not with causation. To say "the evidence is compelling" is to evaluate it, not to formulate a causal hypothesis.

      Your last question is intriguing. Maybe part of the problem is that different things may be meant in speaking of a causal relation. Perhaps my being tired or distracted contributed to my making an error in the calculation. We may still claim that I was, in some sense, doing a calculation. The relevant sense of causality must evidently be one in which a causal condition is sufficient to bring about the result. (In which case, whatever I do will not be a judgment, a calculation or the like.) Will that answer your question?

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