Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When Freedom Emerges

The free will debate continues in yesterday’s NY Times.  The author argues a compatibilist view, choosing to define free will as
“a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.  We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.”
This framing of the issue has always been somewhat bothersome to me.  Because what he describes is not actually free will, but rather the process of will itself, the process of choosing which actions to take.  The mere act of choosing is not necessarily free at all.  My computer makes choices every time I touch the keypad.  

Yet what apparently makes choice free is that it be free from “unreasonable external or internal pressure”.  What the heck does that mean?  One imagines being forced at gunpoint, or suffering some physiological imperative.  Yet must we understand the complexity of human thought and feeling in such black and white terms?  We know for instance, that the unconscious is a profound influence on human behavior.  Is the unconscious an unreasonable pressure?  We also know that our cognition – the way that we think, is largely learned and thus limits the structure of our thought.  Is that unreasonable pressure?

It seems that what free will really is about is our attempt to rectify our conscious perception with our ability to choose.  We experience ourselves as deliberative creatures.  Yet we know that a vast degree of our thinking is subjected to unconscious, or cognitively constrained pressures.  The real question is whether any of our thinking is free from those pressures at all.  And considering that it is very difficult to determine what pressures have been applied to any given conscious thought, we should have little reason to believe that those thoughts are free at all.  We can't simply assume they are free because we don't know much about how they have arisen.

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