Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Simple Argument Against Free Will

Why did you do it?

Because I chose to do it.

Why did you choose to do it?

Because it was the best available way to get what I wanted.

Why did you want that?

Because it helped bring about what I wanted most overall.

Why did you want that most overall?

Because that's the kind of person I am.

Why are you that kind of person?

Because that's the way I was made by God, nature, and/or society.

6 comments:

  1. This reminds me of R. E. Hobart's "Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable without It", http://www.ditext.com/hobart/inconceivable.html.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would agree up until the point of "that's the kind of person that I am".
    I believe that I can actually mould my character, and the type of person that I am can change substantially over a period of time.
    I used to be quite quiet and unengaged, but now I'm very outgoing and just a completely *different* person.
    Just because nature/God set me off in a certain way, with certain genes and certain tendencies from the beginning doesn't mean I can't develop myself and my identity as I move through life.
    Sounds like you would argue that each individual decisions like choosing what cereal to have in the morning is down to chemical reactions in my brain and nervous system, whereas I would say that is me exercising my free will. Sure I will have certain tendencies, like the way my taste buds are arranged might mean I like chocolate a lot more. However, I could quite easily choose to have the oatmeal over the chocolate any day, and I have done so in the past. You might say that is ajust a physical, chemical reaction as part of my neurosystem whereas I would say that is my self making a decision.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Jake

    That's a very interesting paper. Thanks for pointing it out!

    I would rename the title "Moral Responsibility as Involving Determinism and Inconceivable without It," since this is clearly what Hobart is arguing.

    @Michael Baldwin
    "I would agree up until the point of 'that's the kind of person that I am'. I believe that I can actually mould my character, and the type of person that I am can change substantially over a period of time."

    I thought about including a step along those lines. Robert Kane brings up what he calls "self forming actions" (or SFAs) on page 130 of A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (2005, OUP):

    "[T]hey would be the actions in our lives by which we form our character and motives (i.e., our wills) and make ourselves into the kinds of persons we are. All actions done of our own free wills do not have to be undetermined self-forming actions (SFAs) of this kind. (Luther's 'Here I stand' could have been uttered 'of his own free will' even if Luther's will was already settled when he said it.) But if no actions in our lifetimes were of this undetermined self-forming or will-setting kind, then our wills would not be our our own free wills and we would not be ultimately responsible for anything we did."

    I think this is a legitimate way to affirm free will while allowing for some (or even most!) actions to be determined, but find it hard to conceive of how a person could perform a self-forming action that doesn't come from their own prior character. The paper Jake linked above has a great paragraph titled "Self as Product and Producer" which makes this point.

    To make a change in the kind of person I am, it seems like I already have to be the kind of person who will make a change in the kind of person I am.

    I'm finding regress arguments of this kind very persuasive against even the possibility of (libertarian) free will.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I never thought I'd come to have doubts (to a serious or prolonged extent anyways) about free will. But that is the state I am in write now. Part of it is because I have not yet come across a persuasive definition of what “free will” is. I have a vague intuitive sense of what it is, but I can't articulate it.

    There are two things on your list I am unsure about, the rest I agree with.

    Why did you choose to do it?

    Because it was the best available way to get what I wanted.”

    Sometimes people choose to do things that they do not want (at least not directly) or that they do not expect to get something they want out of it.

    Ex: a child is told by his parent that it's trash pick-up day, so he needs to take the trash barrel out to the curb. Child does it grudgingly. Although, yes we could suppose that there is some unidentified, hidden, or ultimate desire that this action corresponds to.

    Why did you want that?

    Because it helped bring about what I wanted most overall.”

    I'm unsure about this one, because of things like say, spontaneous fun. In other words, in-the-moment things that people do.Walking along the park and unanticipatingly, spotting a large pile of leaves, and then running towards and jumping in it. Again, we could assume there is some overall category of desire such an action falls under, but I don't think that is necessarily the case.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ana,

    I've been similarly surprised. Last year I was convinced free will must exist and didn't understand what the fuss was about. Now I'm increasingly confident free will can't exist. Darn Schopenhauer.

    The basic argument that convinced me is something like:

    What we choose to do is determined by the kind of person we are and what situation we're in.
    We can change the kind of person we are, but how we do that is determined by what kind of person we are.
    We aren't in control of what kind of person we start out being.

    So, now, what we do is completely under our control…but, ultimately, what we choose to do is determined by the outside forces that made us who we are."

    … "Sometimes people choose to do things that they do not want (at least not directly) or that they do not expect to get something they want out of it."

    We often have conflicting desires, but what resolves those conflicts unless we have a higher-order desire about which desires are more important to us?

    Interestingly, some philosophers have tried to define 'free will' as the state of acting without conflicts in our desires. I don't think this is an appropriate label, but this state certainly desires some kind of label!

    … "I'm unsure about this one, because of things like say, spontaneous fun. In other words, in-the-moment things that people do.Walking along the park and unanticipatingly, spotting a large pile of leaves, and then running towards and jumping in it. Again, we could assume there is some overall category of desire such an action falls under, but I don't think that is necessarily the case."

    It may not necessarily be the case, but I can't think of any other answer.

    Notice how my questioning of free will doesn't make any assumptions about dualism, Theism, etc. That's why I'm having a hard time seeing how free will is possible, no matter how these questions turn out.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "We aren't in control of what kind of person we start out being."

    True; nature and nurture (and possibly supernature) shape us, and what desires we have, the way we think, and what we choose, have at least an ultimate grounding on who we are -- something which we did not shape, at least not initially.

    We certainly didn't choose our own genetic endowment, we were simply born with it. And if the supernatural contributed to our personality, we didn't choose that either. We also didn't choose what environment we were born into or lived in (during our infancy, at least). But, at a certain point, we can choose what environment we want to be in (e.g. avoid x type of people, associate with y type, ) though not perfectly.

    But then, our cognitive abilities are such that we can purposefully act contrary to that which is consistent with our natural (i.e. not feigned or contrived) character. For example, I'm pretty much a reserved person in public. But, I could, purposefully, walk into a store and say "hello, would you like to dance?", to every person I see. Very inconsitent thing of me to do, but, I could do it.

    In regards to choices, I mull over the idea, could we have chosen otherwise (for any particular choice, say green tea over expresso?). It seems to me yes. But either way, the subsequent question I ask myself is, if we could have chosen otherwise, what implication does this have on the free will issue?

    ReplyDelete