Monday, July 9, 2012

Free Will

I had long avoided studying the concept of free will until I read a book called Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human by Susan Blackmore. In this book, Blackmore asked many of the best thinkers of the new science of mind if they believed in free will and consciousness. I was surprised that for the most part this set of thinkers explained away both free will and consciousness as illusions. What?

Rene Descartes said, "I think, therefore, I am." This statement was the axiomatic starting point upon which Descartes wanted to rethink all of philosophy. But according to Blackmore's collection of great minds, even Descartes' philosophical axiom is false. What?

Finally the issue of free will has become interesting to me. (I will address consciousness in a separate post.)

My childhood training on this subject included the Book of Mormon verse that God "created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are,"both things to act and things to be acted upon" (2 Nephi 2:14).

So my bias is toward a belief in free will. But a belief in free will is so natural and pervasive that even Descartes considered it to be the unassailable bedrock of his philosophy. Everybody naturally believes in free will.

The strongest argument against free will is called determinism which basically says that all effects have causes, and all behaviors and choices are caused by events outside the control of individuals. For example a person cannot choose not to yawn, sneeze, or have a bowel movement, etc. (I admit that I am oversimplifying here.) The problem with denying that free will exists, as is so commonly done in the scientific community, is that it follows that no one can be held responsible for his or her actions since they have no free will.

So I believe in free will for practical reasons, first of all.

In recent years the scientific vogue has been toward a reductionist emphasis that causes come from the bottom (subatomic particles) and work their way up through atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, and eventually to human beings who are controlled by the underlying forces.

I am going to be short and unscientific here: I believe that some forces come from below but I also believe that the emergent consciousness of human beings can, within many constraints, make choices that have effects that work their way back down the chain. So there is both upward causation and downward causation.

There is much here that judicial systems need to ponder but as far as I'm concerned, people have the power and agency to make choices. And the consequences of those choices have very real effects in the undetermined future.

So this boring topic of free will is important because the denial of free will leads to a denial of responsibility, and the belief in a deterministic universe may lead to feelings of helplessness and the futility of trying to build a better world.

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