More on Free Will

August 6, 2010

Our sense of free will depends on consciousness of choices. Sartre’s notion of being condemned to freedom depends on understanding that a choice is unavoidable. This could simply be whether or not to stop for a drink on the way home.

Galen Strawson presents what he calls his Basic Argument that “appears to show that we can never be ultimately morally responsible for our actions.” The Basic Argument applies independently of arguments over the truth of determinism.

If you’re interested, check it out in reader-friendly format here:-
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/your-move-the-maze-of-free-will/

Having quoted Nietzsche’s contempt for the notion of “causa sui”, Strawson quotes from a letter he received on the subject from Ian McEwan.

I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.

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7 Responses to “More on Free Will”

  1. Many of these arguments go nowhere. If we say that ‘noone is ultimately morally responsible’… what then? How does this admission change anything? For example, we might well say that a criminal is not ‘ultimately morally responsible’ for his crime; however we can also say the same for the judge who sentences him.

  2. I agree with Ian’s point, to a certain extent. I think he draws a false analogy with the ‘dog’ and ‘car’ examples, as it is possible to imagine certain instances where he could not reasonably be held responsible for those occurances (e.g – mechanical failure caused by shoddy workmanship). Aside from which these occurances are not his personal actions, ‘will’ never even enters the equation.

    If anyone has ever done anything, it was because of an act of will; the ‘freedom’ or ‘non-freedom’ of this is of no consequence. We consider the act of will, and evalute it according to the situation. We also consider our own relation to it; insofar as we consider a type of emotive evaluation, which is in itself as ‘free’ or ‘determined’ as the act we are considering.

  3. ukdonjp said

    But surely it is precisely acts of will that the new neuroscience brings into doubt (see John-Dylan Haynes’ experiment, for example).
    That’s why McEwan’s angle is interesting, i think – it retains responsibility in the absence of will.

    http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/04/mind_decision

  4. It is not the acts of will that are brought into doubt, but the idea of ‘free-will’, there is a difference. When I say ‘acts of will’ I am not trying to imply that ‘willing’ is an ‘act’ that one engages in; Schopenhauer put it quite well when he wrote “I am free to do what I will, but I am not free to will what I will”.

    The quoted text from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ precedes a another passage in the book where Nietzsche also derides the idea of strict determinism as a misuse of ’cause and effect’. In this I agree with him, as ’cause and effect’ is really only a matter of convention. Were we the size of electrons, to speak of cause and effect would have no meaning whatsoever, as nothing would ever appear to be in direct contact with another. We could not tell which was the cause and which was the effect, as nothing would ever be where it appeared to be.

    I suppose what I mean is that I agree with Ian in principle. That is to say, I agree whole heartedly with the assertion that there is “…no necessary disjunction between having no free will… and assuming moral responsibility for myself.”. Also, it would be worth clarifying what we mean by ‘free’. For I do not see that the term ‘determined’, can be derived apriori from the term ’caused’; and neither can I see that that it must stand in opposition to the term ‘free’.

  5. ukdonjp said

    Thanks Ronald for the comments. Let me give your last comment a little thought …

  6. ukdonjp said

    Ronald, i’m not sure i’ll ever be able to give your points enough thought! What you say about the relation between the notions of causation and determinism cuts right to the heart of the issue. I wonder whether we will ever get any further than Schopenhauer, who seems to have things about right in that pithy quote.

    Sam Harris’ latest book has opened up this topic to the blogosphere. I’ll follow the discussion and attempt to make more sense of it …

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