More Ruminations Over Free Will

Wow – I should have proofread this… Talk about scatterbrained… fixing it now…

I’ve been scratching my head over this stuff for a week now here on the bleg, but this and related questions have been coming up in my mind as long as I can remember. I’ve always in the past skirted the issue with a little mental trick I’ll tell you about here. I’ll probably keep doing it in the future, too (as though I have any choice in the matter. Groan.) But here just for a moment, I’m going to publicly peek behind the curtain.

And, excuse me if I do it in multiple posts and in fits & starts. I’m more than a bit scatterbrained this week.

I guess I’ll start by throwing this link out there. It’s ok to skim past the part where he agrees with my thinking that the “unpredictability” of quantum mechanics is hardly an optimistic harbinger for the possibility of free will. If all you mean is “not mechanically pre-determined”, then perhaps. If you mean what we intuitively think of as free will – then it doesn’t get you very far.

I’m not sure of miller’s reasoning behind the suggestion that free will and the illusion of free will are the same, but it is this suggestion that I want to point out from his link. My own reasoning leads me down two converging paths that point to a similar view.

I’ll content myself in this post by talking about the first path. It should lead us to more than enough rabbit trails on its own. That first path is this: the “folk” definition of free will is made in terms of experience. I may not know art, but I know what I like. I may not know what free will is, but I know how to exercise it. If it be shown, as some recent research and no small amount of reasoning about commonly known facts of human cognition has suggested, that free will is an illusion, then it remains a daunting exercise to show that this illusion does not meet the definition that we can all intuitively agree on for the fact of free will. Only if free will can be rigorously and acceptably defined in terms other than the experience of it can the two be differentiated. If, and only if, they are meaningfully differentiated does the “illusion” of free will imply the falsity of the notion of free will. Right?

Well, as far as I can reason it out, that’s right. If free will is defined, for instance, as “the experience of choosing, not under duress”, and while not under duress, a causal chain of neurological firings brings about an illusion that can be described as “the experience of choosing”, then the two are the same. Personally, I prefer this type of definition and will likely stick with it, but there is something unsatisfactory about a world where the illusion and the actuality are the same. It would seem more economical to discard the concept of free will as useless at best, false at worst. And, like most people, the illusion is a comfort I’m not keen to abandon.

So, if we are to distinguish free will from the experience of it, how do we do so? Without torturing you with the various dead-ends I pursued, let me just say that every definition I could conceive reduced eventually to experience. But I did find a glimmer of hope by making a definition in terms of causality. I’m sorry to say that I believe this only moves the problem elsewhere, but I’m happy to explore it a little bit, since that “elsewhere” is also an interesting place, if a touchy one for many of us.

If you define free will as the ability for an individual person to determine their own actions – then that is a tad different from the mere experience of determining. In other words, if it could be shown that with the same “causal chain” in place – a person “cued” identically between prior brain states and sensory stimuli is capable of producing more than one action and some hitherto unexplored quality of “self” – divorced from the “causal chain” – was capable of determining which of the multiple possibilities was instantiated… then we could define free will in this way. Then, and only then, would the illusion of free will be divorced from the actuality of free will. And, as I hinted earlier, It’s more satisfactory to see it this way than to allow for a conflation between the actuality and the reality – but only if we don’t learn that free will is illusory. In other words, it might be better to have illusory/experiential free will than no free will (by this other definition) at all. There are other problems. We risk a brain / mind duality that threatens to make the situation even scarier… but like I said – fits & starts. I’ll come back to this.

3 comments to More Ruminations Over Free Will

  • Thanks for the reply. I think you well-articulated several points that I wasn’t exactly clear about myself.

    I would not categorically state that free will is the same as the illusion of free will. Obviously, it depends on what definition of free will we are using. Under the most common definitions, there is no apparent difference. In particular, there is no difference under the experiential difference. An illusory experience is still an experience.

    I wish I had included the experiential definition of free will among my examples. Experience is an essential property of free will; if you’re not experiencing it, you would not think of it as free will.

    Of course, people also seem to want the experience to represent something which is real. The trouble is that it’s difficult to say what it represents without running into self-reference. In other words, the experience seems to represent an experience. The experience of free will seems to represent the ability to determine your actions through force of will–or as you put it, through “some hitherto unexplored quality of ‘self’”. But “will” and “self” also seem to be best defined experientially. What is the difference between a “self” and an illusion of “self”?

  • Thanks for the comment … By the way, I didn’t mean to just shrug off the major point of your article about the physics angle… I just wanted to focus on the other angle. It looks like you are anticipating some of the ramblings I had planned for the next post on this, though!

  • [...] up where we left off, we had bookmarked the experiential definition of free will (that which reduces to “the [...]

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