Thursday, August 25, 2016

Free Will

368 days until the first day of classes.

My recent discussion about the fact that I have interests that a person with good desires would not have – interests that motivate me to spend time playing computer games – brings up the issue of free will.

Can I choose to play (or not to play) a computer game? Or is it the fact that the forces of nature have conspired to put me into a state of playing a computer game?

Neuroscientists looking inside my skull, at least hypothetically, can follow the electrical signals as they travel around my brain until they send a signal down my arm to my hands as I log into my game, and be able to say, “I knew he was going to do that.”

Judging from the Philosophy Bites podcast, there seems to be a great deal of concern among philosophers that advances in neuroscience will threaten belief in free will. The worry is that this, in turn, will undermine moral responsibility. How can an agent be held responsible for an action that he did not “freely choose?”

Or, perhaps more accurately, Nigel Warburton, the interviewer for the Philosophy Bites podcasts, has these concerns, since he brings them up often in his interviews.

Or, perhaps even more accurately, Nigel Warburton thinks that his audience has this concern (and he may be right since Philosophy Bites does have a fairly large audience).

For my part, I do not think that people have “free will” in the sense that many people seem to be worried about. However, to be honest, I cannot even imagine what they are talking about when they talk about free will. What is this thing supposed to be?

Certainly, as I write this blog post, I am making a choice. The forces that motivate that choice are my desires. The term “desire” describes something about how the neurons in my brain are structured and how electrical signals travel along that maze of dendrites and axons – just the types of things that neuroscientists (at least hypothetically) would be looking at. Furthermore, those desires are the cause of an interaction of genetic material with its environment – a mixture of “nature” and “nurture”.

There is no room for “free will”.

But what is it that is supposed to be missing? How would things be different if I had this capability called “free will”?

I have the power to do what I want to do. Indeed, it is precisely my desires – my desire to write a philosophy blog post or my desire to play a computer game – that is causing my actions. If “free will” were to exist, then is it supposed to be the power to do something that I do not want to do – and would choose not to do even if I could? If this is what free will is, then I do not understand why it is important. I do not understand why I would even want a capacity to do that which I would not want to do – an ability to choose what I would not choose.

I have already admitted that I believe I would be a better person if I wanted to play computer games less and write philosophy posts more. However, this fact does not change the fact that when I do play computer games – when I log in to take the role of Bounder Reisenbread patrolling the bounds of the Shire – that I am doing what I want to do. Not only am I doing what I want to do, but I am doing it BECAUSE I want to. It is my desire to log in and play the role of Reisenbread that makes it true that I have logged in and am playing Reisenbread - which is what I was doing a short while ago.

Or, as is currently the case, it is the fact that I want to write a blog post on free will that I am currently writing a blog post on free will. I am doing what I want to BECAUSE I want to.

I can’t think of anything that a person would want from “free will” other than that, and I already have that.

9 comments:

Shmuel Warshell said...

Alonzo I'm not sure how to contact you so I'll post this here. I have a problem similar to the 1000 sadists problem (which I've read your post on). Let's say there's a world where 1000 people desire that a child be tortured. Desirism says that we should act on the desires that someone with good desires would have and a good desire is that which tends to fulfill other desires and not thwart desires. Now the desire to torture the child fulfills many desires- the desires of all the sadists. You could then say that the desire to torture the child is a bad desire but that would seem to lead to an infinite regress. A way around this problem as I see it is to say a good desire is a desire that if universalized will fulfill more desires than it thwarts. Applying this to the 1000 sadists case, the desire to torture the child is bad because if everyone had that desire than more desires are thwarted and less are fulfilled than if no one had that desire. I apologize if you've already explained this and I simply didn't understand.

FredT said...

The question of free will is bogus, it must be limited to that which we have complete control over. If we do not have control of something, we cannot have free will over that something. About all we have absolute control over is our ability to agree or disagree with a statement(assent or dissent) , our opinions, and perhaps the motivation to move, but not the movement. Until we have examined our beliefs in detail, and actually assented to those individual beliefs, they are not ours. Oh well, in the end we just die anyway.

David Jacquemotte said...

@Shmuel Warshell:
I can take a stab at this and if Alonzo wants to add or correct me, that would be fine.

You stated that the desire to torture the child fulfills desires. Actually, in this case, that is not true. The *act* of torturing a child fulfills desires of the sadists. But the desire itself (the desire to torture as a form of entertainment) tends to thwart many more desires. You're "way around this problem" is exactly what Desirism says. A desire is good to the degree it tends to fulfill other desires and bad to the degree it tends to thwart other desires. In this case, the desire to torture for entertainment is a desire that everyone in this scenario has reasons to inhibit, assuming they are not masochists as well.

By the way, there is nothing illogical about concluding that the sadists should try to give everyone a desire to be tortured or killed. But since we are presumably talking about humans, it is very unlikely that the desire to stay alive or avoid pain is malleable to the degree that something like this is possible.

However, we do have something similar to this in the desire to sacrifice oneself to save others, such as in war or when accosted by a robber. Society has been promoting this desire for a long, long time. We see it today in movies and how we award those who do such actions as "heroes". Not to say that these people WANT to die, only that the desire to save others is stronger then the desire to save themselves.

David Jacquemotte said...

@FredT:
What is this thing you are calling "you" or "we" such that we could have "complete" control over it? I don't choose my desires, but my desires are certainly a property of the thing I call "me". There is no kernel of "me" independent of my desires and beliefs which "actually" makes the decisions.

You said "About all we have absolute control over is our ability to agree or disagree with a statement(assent or dissent) , our opinions, and perhaps the motivation to move, but not the movement."

I have to ask, what is this "ability" to agree or disagree? That itself is a product of our minds independent of our consciousness. How would one "decide" to agree with something. Either you agree or you don't.

As far as "opinions", these are the same as beliefs, though usually considered less confident than "knowledge", which is another form of belief. The only difference is the amount of justification one has in forming that belief.

The question is, what is the purpose of moral judgments and language in the first place? If it is, as has been presumed for millennia, to give deserved "blame", "punishment" or "praise", etc. to past events, what is the point? This would be a giant waste of time and effort. However, if the purpose of moral judgments and language is to change the FUTURE, it makes complete sense. According to Desirism, we don't actually condemn people because they "deserve" it, we do it to try to prevent the event from occurring in the future. And it's not just so the perpetrator will think twice about doing it because he might get caught (though that is a great ancillary benefit), or someone else will rationally think they shouldn't do it because they might get caught. The *main* purpose is to inhibit the *desire* to do the act in the first place. This is how you prevent crime. By making everyone averse to committing it! However, this proves difficult because the population is constantly turning over. It is akin to hiring a group of people and training them to do a job, then they leave the next year. You have to start all over again with a new batch.

FredT said...

@David Jacquemotte
and what do you have complete control over?

Shmuel Warshell said...

You say "the desire to torture for fun tends to thwart more desires than it fulfills" in a normal society that's true. However in a society where most people have the desire to see others tortured, those desires will be part of all desires that exist. In this case the desire to torture others will lead to the fulfillment of all the desires to see others tortured. The only desire it thwarts is the desire of the person who doesn't want to get tortured.

Shmuel Warshell said...

Unless when you say "tends to fulfill more desires than it thwarts" just means "the desire, when universalized will lead to more desires being fulfilled" in that case we would just be arguing over the best way to express an idea.

David Jacquemotte said...

@Shmuel:
// You say "the desire to torture for fun tends to thwart more desires than it fulfills" in a normal society that's true. However in a society where most people have the desire to see others tortured, those desires will be part of all desires that exist. In this case the desire to torture others will lead to the fulfillment of all the desires to see others tortured. The only desire it thwarts is the desire of the person who doesn't want to get tortured. //

You are missing the point. EVERYONE in this society has reasons to inhibit torture generally. *NONE* of them WANT to be tortured. So there exists many and strong reasons to inhibit the desire to torture even if they all want to do or see it. You see, HAVING a desire is vastly different than having a reason to PROMOTE a desire. Morality is concerned with reasons to promote or inhibit.

Shmuel Warshell said...

I'm talking about a society where they have a desire that a specific person or group of people be tortured, not where they have the desire to torture in general.