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February 13th, 2013:

Might We Have Free Will?

I hope no one is wasting time this evening listening to the Sith, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing much worthwhile.

. . .
Prefatory Notes:

1.  One thing I cannot stress enough: There is no, NO, non-trivial and logically consistent system of thought that does not rest upon postulates: unproven presumptions about existents within the system and relationships between them. These postulates are the foundational “givens” of the system. This is as as true of moral philosophy as it is of any other system. In reasoning about the nature of humans and their faculties (such as free will) you will always hit up on an unprovable assumption.

2.  Note this also: It is the nature of the human mind that, having formed a concept and then having found the concept logically problematic–or wanting in some other respect–it will seek a different angle, a change to the concept so as to get around the problem. This cannot always be done, but in the case of the concept of Free Will, I think the conventional concept is based on a misunderstanding and must be re-cast slightly if we are to maintain our belief that we live in a cause-and-effect (that is, a rational) universe and yet hold to the idea that real choice exists for each of us, and that we are indeed properly held accountable for the choices we make.

3.  My own belief, and starting premise, is that we are part of the physical universe and as such are systems made up of matter and energy like everything else in it, and that all of our constituent parts, whether considered as isolated or as subsystems, are subject to the same laws of cause and effect. The following is written from that point of view.

. . .

In the more common, or conventional, or traditional conception of “free will,” there is some faculty of human beings which serves as a prime mover–i.e., it is causeless–and yet, simultaneously, it is under the control of the human, the moral agent, the actor. This has been a problem for Western (at least) philosophers since the Greeks. Miss Rand, among others, tried to get around this by saying No, the faculty is not “causeless”–it is caused by the human will. But this begs the question (i.e., the argument already assumes that which is to be proven), because the “causeless” faculty under discussion is the will itself. The question, as always, is, How comes the Will to will as it does?

For religions which posit the existence of a “soul” distinct from the physical body, this need not pose a problem; for them, the Soul is the essence of what we are and the driver of what we do, and Free Will simply means that God or the gods allow the Soul to direct, or at least to strongly influence, the person’s actions as it will, without His or their intervention. And they are quite welcome to their understanding, their fundamental postulate; the following analysis is not for them, but for those who are trying to square a reliable principle of cause-and-effect with “Free Will,” whose existence is to most of us (I think) self-evident.

The “soul-body dichotomy” is implicit even in Miss Rand’s own insistence upon the existence of traditionally understood “Free Will” (though without any gods). And she spoke forcefully against any idea of “determinism” as applicable to human beings, because, in her view, not only would a deterministic view invalidate the very concept of logic, but also it would make morality “a sick joke.”

But we see that people “make choices.” One guy goes left at the
crossroads, the other goes right. What then? How can there be choice without freedom to choose?

Now note: I’m limiting the following discussion to include only entities which we commonly think of as possibly having some sort of “mind.” Humans, dogs, mice if you think so…; fish are an open question. * That’s to keep the discussion from becoming as long as the OED. (In a posthumous volume I will discuss the free will of creeping juniper, celery, and sacks of hammers. )

To the observer, whether external or internal, the actions of the entity being observed are not 100% absolutely knowable in advance. I know that you are about to go out, and that it’s raining, and that there’s an umbrella by the door. Still, I can’t say with absolute certainty that you’ll take the umbrella with you, let alone use it. This is the result of the fact that you do have a choice–a real choice.

That choice exists because there is no mechanism external to yourself that would prevent your taking the umbrella or that would force you to take it; along with the fact that you have the biological capacity to develop the motivation to pick it up or to leave it, and the capacity to exercise your muscles in accordance with the motivation. It’s the lack of absolute external compulsion, combined with your internal capacity to evaluate and to act according to your evaluation, which together constitute the availability of your choosing.

(Of course I may well know from previous experience that you ALWAYS–or, conversely, NEVER–in the past have taken the umbrella when it’s raining. But that only allows me to say that “knowing you, I know you will [or won't] take the umbrella”–you are not CONSTRAINED to take it, or not take it, by circumstances external to your physical self.)

. . .

Yet we often say, “I had no choice; I HAD to do it.” In this case, the entity finds itself FEELING constrained by the fullness of circumstance to act in a certain way. One person says, “I had no choice”; another, in a virtually identical situation, says, “I felt I had no choice.” And the latter formulation, I believe, is the accurate one, and it points out very well the real meaning we ought to attach to the concept of “choice.”

Contrast this with the genuine experience of being literally unable to act upon the capacity of choosing, because external constraints prohibit it. The two experiences FEEL entirely different. (I’ve been there.)

“Free Will” arises from the fact that a being possessing the faculty of “will” is not completely constrained from without to behave in a certain manner. It–the being, the entity–is constantly faced with choices. “Shall I turn east or west? Shall I hunt for a job or go on welfare?” It is the system of internal mechanisms, considered in their totality as the system of which the acting being consists, which both enable and require that being to act as it does in any given situation.

Thus, in what I believe is a much better conception of “Free Will” than the common one, it is the whole man, not some human subsystem or ancillary system, that has “free will” or the ability to “choose”; and this “free will” lies in the perception of the observer, whether he is some other person external to the actor or is the actor observing himself, and not in the disconnection of some subsystem of the acting entity from physical reality and the laws of cause-and-effect which make that reality available to human reason.

There is a real capacity to choose, and there is real free will, in that it is only the acting individual himself who picks and then acts upon one particular alternative among the ones, plural, available.

. . .

PS. Contra Miss Rand (and many, many others), this viewpoint specifically does NOT disallow judgments about the morality or responsibilities of persons, which are based on observations of the whole person and what he does or has done.

PPS. One of the delights of growing older is discovering that other, brighter guys than oneself have long since made similar observations and come to similar conclusions. :>)))

PPPS. Lengthy discussion on this issue yesterday and today at

http://www.samizdata.net/2013/02/16650/#comment-292671

Eleven Questions with Douglas Carswell MP

Douglas Carswell is the Member of Parliament for Clacton, first elected as MP for Harwich in 2005.  He found prominence by calling for reform of parliamentary expenses before the 2009 expenses scandal, and leading the campaign to eject Michael Martin as Speaker of the House of Commons. A Eurosceptic and libertarian, Carswell is a strong advocate of greater localism, and has worked with Daniel Hannan to promote their ‘localist agenda’ in the Conservative Party.  Douglas was kind enough to answer the eleven questions.

1. Who was the greatest political leader in the Western world?

Ronald Reagan.  Watch this to see why;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXBswFfh6AY

Reagan was what a great Conservative leader should be.  Small state and pro freedom.  Ambitious for what his country can yet do.  Optimistic and upbeat.  Yet, unlike so many of the managerialist “leaders” the West has today, he had a sense of philosophy and principle.  He knew what he stood for.

2. If you could change, introduce or abolish one law, what would it be?

I would repeal the European Communities Act 1972.  Leaving the European Union would not magically fix all our problems.  But being self governing once again means we can at least begin to address many of them.

3. What advice would you give to a sixteen year-old today?

Learn to think for yourself.

4. Who do you most admire?

My parents.  They spent the best years of their lives providing medical care to poor people in Uganda who would have otherwise gone without.

5. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of your country?

Short term pessimistic.  Long term optimistic.  Things will have to get worse before they can get better.  But once we have freed ourselves from the failed Big Government way of thinking, the future will be good.

6. If you think voting for establishment parties changes little or nothing, what is the one thing we can do as individuals to cause real change?

Join an establishment party – and make it anti-establishment.

7. When will we finally say good-bye to the state?

We will never not have some sort of central authority.  But that said, the West’s Big Government model is bust.

We have an expanding welfare system living off an ever diminishing wealth producing base.  It does not work – hence the Western financial crisis.  Sooner or later there will have to be large real term reductions in what we spend of government.

Add to that the fact that the digital revolution means we can do collectivism without the state.  It means good bye to large tranches of officialdom.

Maths plus technology mean that government is going to have to get a lot smaller.

8. Should free people have the right to keep and bear arms openly or covertly without government permission, sanction or registration?

Why do libertarians always make a stand on the wrong issues?  And then wonder why they keep losing?

Let’s get the state out of the class room and out of people’s wallets, not sound like an off shoot of the Michigan Militia.

9. What annoys you most about current politics?

Libertarians picking the wrong issues to fight on.  And then losing.  And then picking an even more obscure range of issues to prove their purity as libertarians.

Thanks to the internet, there is a massive opportunity to make small government thinking mainstream.  Let’d go for it.

10. Gold standard or fiat currency and interest rate control?

The first has folded.  The second is folding.  The later will fold.

What we need is a system of currency competition.  The failure of the post-Bretton Woods Monetary system and digital technology mean that we will move to a world of competing currencies, including not only commodity backed money, but private currencies too.  Amazon has recently announced an Amazon currency.  Watch for more developments like that.

Fundamentally, we need to move to a world where the state does not seek to allocate credit or determine the price of credit.  Many of the economic problems we see in the West have been caused by the way that central banks have misallocated credit over the past thirty or so years.

11. Do we have an obligation to help the poor?

I believe we should choose to help people less well off than ourselves.  And that means that each of us should do precisely that, not leave it to officialdom or the state or some distant “they” to do it.