Do we have free will?
October 25, 2006 3:11 AM   Subscribe

What is the most convincing argument you have ever heard, read or devised for the existence of free will in humans? If you can't think of one, can you think of a test for proving its existence?

I know this is a very presumptuous question, but for those who don't believe in free will, well I know you will forgive me because I didn't have any choice in the way I wrote the question. ;)
posted by vizsla to Religion & Philosophy (60 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
War. IMO, no 'creator' would have wanted their beings to be engaged on horrors on such large scales.
posted by cholly at 3:23 AM on October 25, 2006


A pretty diffuse question - if there is no free will, is it not free for supernatural reasons (faith, karma, etc.) or because of biological ones (hormones, instincts...)?

At least if you go the for the scientific aspect, there will be no clear yes/no answer, just degrees of influence our nature has over our conscience.

So, which of these shades of gray qualify as free will?
posted by uncle harold at 3:34 AM on October 25, 2006


I think it's a muddled concept. Pragmatically speaking, we have free will, but since our actions are ultimately based off of chemical reactions and biological imperatives, that means we don't, in a sense, have free will.

This isn't a controversial statement, but it pisses a lot of people off because they think it somehow a) makes life meaningless b) means that they're stupid.

The point is, until we [i]find[/i] a pragmatic application, it's the same as Solipsism--futile. Even if Solipsism were true, there's no practical way you can apply that to your life at all, unless you become a serial killer (because they're not really there anyway). I think it's an important thing to think about, but not to get all tied up in a not about, too.

Again, that's not to say we're not complex. Think of, Spore--think of progressive, advanced gaming. I think there's a lot to be understood about mankind, humanity...hell, [i]existence[/i] in AI and videogaming. Think of advanced games, experimental games, where you assign an object or "organism" a bunch of traits, then drop it in an environment, and instead of systematically acting out a bunch of tasks, it reacts to whatever's there. Let's say you put 10 of these guys in there. Simply responding to stimuli, they eventually form a mutual language, form social groups, etc. etc. And this was all "free will," yet, I think you understand what I'm saying by now.

Like I said: what's important to take away from this isn't "well if we don't have free will how can we have altruisMM1!1one" or "if we don't hav efree will that proves god!11one;" rather, it's simply a memento mori that we should maintain and consult from tmie to time.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 3:37 AM on October 25, 2006


There appears to be a (~500ms) lag in consciousness. Libet's experiments show that our decision to move (a finger) happens after neural preparations for movement - the "decision" to move is made before we consciously decide to move. Unless you want to expand your notion of "I" to the whole body, and claim that the body has free will but we are not conscious of our decisions until the actions they predicate are in train, free will is an illusion.

Any arguments that bring in God, Creators, or supernatural spaghetti monsters, are, of course, invalid.
posted by handee at 3:37 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I've looked past the idea of logic and reason for proving free will. Rather, I simply believe in it for the fact that if there was no such thing, I would believe no different and being incorrect would not matter, as I could not be correct.

However, if free will does exist, I choose to believe it does. If there is free will and I convince myself otherwise, I would act without regard to my own safety or well-being. After all, if I am destined to die a certain day with no hope of changing this, there is nothing that would stop me until that happened. Or, perhaps I would live without any passion whatsoever, drained of any hope that there is any rationale to life at all.

I think there may be a form of destiny we are pulled towards, but our free will is what lets us defy that. We limit ourselves, and we are free to stop those limits. The thought of that, the hope that I can reach happiness on my own, and it is my choice to believe in or rely upon whatever I do, that drives me. Even if it is naught but a sweet lie, I would be happy to indulge in this thought regardless.

I believe in free will because doing so makes me happy. To deny it seems an alien concept to me, although if acceptance of destiny is as beneficial to someone else as it is to me, I am happy to accept that they are free to do so.

It is simply faith in free will, as much as the concept is disliked amongst those who seek cold logic and hard reason. It is convincing to me, and that is all that matters.
posted by Saydur at 3:40 AM on October 25, 2006


If there is free will and I convince myself otherwise, I would act without regard to my own safety or well-being.

I think this is pretty...gasp! Illogical.

Why would you do this? This is similar to the idea that if "god" didn't exist, life wouldn't be worth living and we'd all be callous mofos. I don't think so at all.

Don't confuse "no free will" with "destiny." All it means is a sandbox, a universe, full of stimuli with sets of loose directives and traits which respond in certain circumstances.

All that happens when you start thinking about it is that your body suffers a kind of Hawthorne Effect because now every time you make a decision, you'll think: "well, am I making a decision? or am I not making a decision? Or am I?" Your ambivalence would be due to having read a philosophic thread on this...still a support for "responding to stimuli" argument.

You say "reach happiness on my own," as if you wouldn't be otherwise. When your stomach growls, are you "not being hungry on your own?" We're talking about biological, inner functions, here, not something separate from the body. Leave oogabooga scifi/religion out of this.

I think this kind of philosophy is really tough; we're mortal, and our logic tends to hit a wall when we're unable to feel like we can validate our own existence. I think that's why you have such a great, surging feeling of...doubt, dread, curiosity, etc. when you think about death; I think that's why humans create a beginning and end to the universe; it's very hard to imagine outside of our limited box, but I think we can just barely do it.

ALSO: Careful with the word faith. It's so easy to make your argument vindicated by using the circular reasoning that is "faith." I find it funny how you will only apply it to certain circumstances.

I swear, OJs innocent! Take it on faith!
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 3:47 AM on October 25, 2006


If you believe in justice, i.e. responsibility for ones actions, you imply free will. If you deny free will, then crime must not be punished, on the premise that 'the universe' conspired to making the criminal act. Ultimately, choice to reject one thought in favour of another is an act of free will. Do you choose which thoughts to act upon? Every time you do so, you exercise your free will. And you are responsible for it.
posted by MetaMind at 4:05 AM on October 25, 2006


I don't think I've heard a good counter to determinsim - things logically seem to be either causal or random, neither of which can support free will, nor any combination of them, and there doesn't seem to be much wiggle ground between them for some third way that can support free will. Quantum physics doesn't seem to offer a Third Way either. But who knows.

I kind of like the religious one though - the idea that we have free will so we can choose to come to God. This appeals not for any logical reason, but simply that, as someone who makes stuff, I like the idea of a creator who isn't satisfied by making worship automatia, s/he wants the worship devices to have the option to not worship, thus it actually means something if the device decides to worship. Not an explanation or evidence of free will, just a Decree that it is so. :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:10 AM on October 25, 2006


Metamind: Sentences of justice fulfill many purposes - rehabilitation, deterrance, public protection, etc, not merely punishment. A proven absence of free will is not relevant to the majority of the reasoning behind sentencing criminals. This can be seen in what happens to offenders who successfully plead not guilty by reason of insanity - they are just as incarcerated, if not moreso, than those guilty of the crime.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:15 AM on October 25, 2006


Define free will. This idea means different things to different people.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:17 AM on October 25, 2006


(You could also redefine "free will" into "your will" if it's the apparent loss of identity that is bothersome. So what if you're theorectically entirely predictable, you're still an entirely unique snowflake, and any other snowflake in your place would not make your decisions - your decisions are uniquely the result of you, such that you would have be emulated perfectly for anyone/thing to be able to predict them. Your will is yours, regardless of whether God already knows than in 20 years time, you're going to smuggle a cookie to your grandson while his parents are getting dinner ready. :)

If you will is yours, what does it matter if it is "free" or predicable? Put like that, the word "free" starts to seem misused - as the crux is really predictability, which seems to have little to do with freedom. Predictable will would seem to be just as "free" as non-predictable will.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:27 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


More making-stuff-up re: predictability -
It is said "but if I could not have chosen any other way, how could the decision be free?". Rephrase that as "but the only way I could have chosen any other way was if I wasn't me - if the personality making the decision was in some way different to mine" - it describes the same notion, but suggests freedom instead of denying it - as an inflexibility of the choice is the natural and expected outcome of your personality being in the driver's seat.

You didn't create your personality (though you played a role), but that doesn't make it any less yours.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:44 AM on October 25, 2006


Some might argue that predictability isn't important to establish that we don't have free will. (e.g. quantum theorists)

I mean free will as in - I can decide whether to end this post with the word "Einsteinium" or the word "refrigerator" and either outcome is completely within my own control - i.e. it is not merely a product of the state of all historical variables (with quantum randomness thrown in for the physicists)

Einsteinium.
posted by vizsla at 4:50 AM on October 25, 2006


@Harlequin: Punishment isn't the only motive for judicial systems indeed, but that doesn't invalidate my point. However, it is part of it (mentally irresponsible people are not/shouldn't be put in prison but in a relevant institution - another debate).
How about raising children? A lot of their growing up is getting to understanding the consequences of their behaviour. This implies responsibility, therefore that they should choose not to do certain things, which supposes that they can exert their free will. A stubborn child is the ultimate proof of free will, don't you think? Choosing not to listen to its parent, knowing the consequences that disobedience may have...
Free will is the elephant in the room of human society! It is so much part of the fabric of our lives that one doesn't notice it anymore.
Bare in mind that free will does not invalidate determinism any more than determinism excludes free will. Oversimplifying the picture into two opposing world views doesn't help.
posted by MetaMind at 4:52 AM on October 25, 2006


"I don't think I've heard a good counter to determinsim"

Brian Greene and other physicists have written about time as a "frozen river." In this model all future events have already happened and our consciousness is merely creating the illusion of the "present" along with an actionable future - so much for the concept of free will.

From a religious stand point there is a some tricky footwork involved in explaining a God who can see all of time (knows the future) but still allows (or compensates) for humans who can change the future simply by conscious acts and efforts (free will.)

Religionists get all tangled up in free will, morality, etc... but I wouldn't go down that dusty road. Certainly if there is no such thing as "free will" then the universe looses a certain romantic, human-centric quality... but it sure makes a lot more sense.

In other words:
Human-centric / creationist model: old and busted
Soulless / frozen river of time: sexy new hotness
posted by wfrgms at 4:56 AM on October 25, 2006


I've yet to hear a convincing definition of free will that appropriately counters determinism. That said, I think it's because the two are in no way incompatible. Free will, even if just an illusive by-product of consciousness, is necessary for us to feel in control of ourselves. That it's generated by a deterministic mind is near to irrelevant.

Think of it like your computer desktop -- that's an interface illusion generated by a decidedly deterministic machine, but you couldn't use the hugely complicated computer without it. An impression of free will allows consciousness to interface with the hugely complicated body.
posted by bonaldi at 5:01 AM on October 25, 2006


Handee is right: at a very straightforard level, it's very possible that "we" don't cause anything to happen in our brains; rather, our brains decide and then we "decide" as a result. (This is called epiphenomonalism, by the way: the idea that conscious mental life is like the steam whistle on a train, or like sun glinting off waves on a lake.) Since your brain is a chemical system, it is more or less determinist--as determinist as anything in the universe is. (This is *more* extreme, too, than bonaldi's idea of the user illusion, because you do use your computer, but you don't use your brain. You aren't in your computer; you are in your brain.)

To me the interesting part of the question isn't "free will"; it's "we." It's the existence of conscious selves that makes free will into an issue. There is, definitely, a conscious self (say I), even if there is, probably, no "free will"; and in some ways which I can't fully explain it seems to me that the existence of the self demands a conceptual change in our attitude towards the brain, and that conceptual change might include giving the idea of free will a little boost. Certainly there is the sensation of free will and the sensation of chocie, and we have those sensations; and they are at least correllative with something parallel, but self-less, that happens in the brain.

Put another way: what in a selfless body is a determined action becoemes, in a self, because of the presence of a self, a choice. It's the difference between a world of objects and a world of subjects.
posted by josh at 5:13 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I struggled with determinism when I was in High School. I asked my dad, an ordained zen priest, what he thought of it. Of course his answer didn't refute determinism because it didn't directly engage it on it's own terms. However, I found his answer very meaningful, even today.

He said that you become convinced of free will when you actually use it, e.g., when you force yourself to sit in meditation for a long period, like 7-14 days. During that time, he says free will becomes apparent. Basically, I took that to mean, we all have free will, but less then we think. And when you encounter an act of free will, you have no doubts about it. For some reason, I always imagined people who throw themselves on grenades to save their friends have this sort of realization.

A very zen answer, true, but an interesting one nonetheless, at least to me.
posted by milarepa at 5:23 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I refuse.
posted by The Confessor at 5:34 AM on October 25, 2006


Heavier than air flight is a pretty good argument for free will. As a race, we've only been able to do it for a little more than 100 years, after millennia of imagining it, and trying, badly, to do it. It requires all kinds of improbable pre-conditions be satisfied, that are so intricately related towards the purpose, that any slight deviation due to randomness causes the enterprise to quickly fail.

Birds are able to do it by biological selection of incredible shaping pressures. A bird capable of long flight is a remarkable creature, but sacrifices much, even as an individual, to the demands of flight, and any individuals that don't endure these sacrifices, quickly lose the ability, even though morphologically fit for nothing else. Even the strongest fliers find that mere gluttony in the happy accident of rich food supplies is enough to pull them out of the sky, and I have seen hungry robins attack a suet block several days in a row, only to come to a point of being taken by a maruading cat when they are temporarily too gorged to fly.

The same constraints dog the man who would slip the surly bonds of earth, but more so. And yet, some human, somewhere, has always been in flight, for every single minute of the last 25 years, or more.

Point, if you will, to philosophy and dark machinations of the unprovable soul. I prefer the gossamer glint of sunlight on polished wings, and the drone of engines in the sky, as my continuing and concrete evidence.
posted by paulsc at 5:59 AM on October 25, 2006


paulsc: the opposite of free will is not randomness.
posted by bonaldi at 6:04 AM on October 25, 2006


If you deny free will, then crime must not be punished, on the premise that 'the universe' conspired to making the criminal act.

Except for in a deterministic world, having punitive repercussions would help, in theory, to reduce to the onsets of crime.

paulsc: the opposite of free will is not randomness.

Plus, I would think randomness makes us not responsible for our own actions.
posted by jmd82 at 6:16 AM on October 25, 2006


You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose free will.
posted by fixedgear at 6:18 AM on October 25, 2006


I would refer you to Daniel C. Dennett's Freedom Evolves. The book is entirely about this question, of how free will can exist in a deterministic universe. I'm only a few chapters in, but it seems that he's trying to say that non-deterministic things can show up as emergent properties of deterministic circumstances. I'm not explaining it well because I don't really get it yet... He does a much better job.
posted by vytae at 6:26 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


How about this: imagine that I punch you in the face. I think you'd be angry, and not (solely) because you think that punitive repercussions might make me less likely to punch you in the face in the future.

In other words, our concepts of moral blame and praise assume that some actions are freely willed, and these concepts are a) quite useful, and b) impossible to give up even if we wanted to do so.
posted by myeviltwin at 6:29 AM on October 25, 2006


Camus's Myth of Sisiphus.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:51 AM on October 25, 2006


things logically seem to be either causal or random

This is an insurmountable problem for free will, and is why trying to think of an experiment to prove it exists is like trying to think of an experiment that proves 2=4.

You might be interested in this thread I posted last month, and in the free will section at naturalism.org.
posted by teleskiving at 6:51 AM on October 25, 2006


I dont think theres currently a good criticism of determinism considering what we know about the universe. Of course, determinism might be an artifact due to our limited understanding. The real question you should be asking yourself is how well do you honestly think human understanding of the universe/life is. This is something of a rationalization of the agnostic approach.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:52 AM on October 25, 2006


I also meant to mention that there's no such thing as a test to prove the existence of something. We can amass evidence for the theory, and we can fail to disprove it, but neither of these actually prove the theory.
posted by vytae at 6:59 AM on October 25, 2006


I second the recommendation for Freedom Evolves.

There is also a much shorter book by the same author that covers his basic arguments about free will, but not all the stuff about evolution. It is called Elbow Room.
posted by thedward at 7:01 AM on October 25, 2006


Evolutionary selection for free will:

Morphological selection requires a commitment of resources to a particular functional form.
This allows efficiency in the particular behaviors.
However, over-specialized species tend to become extinct when conditions change.
An overly specialized species is very predictable.
Evolution allows other organisms to take advantage of this predictability.
Thus, a dynamic balance of efficient predictability and omnivorous adaptability characterizes evolution.

From Steven Pinker:
" And here is the key to why we have emotions. An animal cannot pursue all its goals at once. If an animal is both hungry and thirsty, it should not stand halfway between a berry bush and a lake "

Different choice strategies have variable efficacy under different conditions.
'Sit and eat' works well under times of abundance; 'snack and run' may work better if local resources are being depleted.
In a desperate besieged city, what would normally be considered psychotic behavior may increase survival chances.

The ability to consider multiple choices is a behavior requiring resources.
'Big and dumb' gets selected for under some conditions.

But it makes some sense that, given certain conditions,
the ability to choose the level of resources applied to making choices can be selected for.

This is something like a 'proof-of-principle' for something like 'free will,'
and we as humans are at least close to having this ability.

(I'm not entirely satisfied with this line of reasoning, but it's the best I've come up with, which is what the question asks)
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:05 AM on October 25, 2006


Free will is basically a sliding scale. It's not binary.

The test is what you can do or not do. If you really can elect it then you have free will with regard to that choice.

The money question is, how do you get more free will?

Tune in next week.
posted by ewkpates at 7:47 AM on October 25, 2006


There are several concepts being routinely conflated in this thread.

"Free will : Determinism" is not the same as "Free will : Epiphenomenalism" is not the same as "Free will : God's will" is not the same as "Free will : External compulsion". (Forgive me if I've forgotten any of the common flavors of free will.) There are overlaps between the different oppositional concepts, but AFAIAC these are all distinct concepts and it doesn't do any good to conflate them.
..
Free will : Dterminism is, IMO, the easiest to put paid to. I think you can pretty much use Berkeley's argument: Do something, and you've demonstrated practical free will to the extent that it's possible to do so. I.e., even if determinism is true, it doesn't really affect us except to the extent that we maunder on self-obsessively about it.

In fact, I have often argued that strong determinism is essentially equivalent in effect to free will. It requires an involved argument, but in the course of it I also demonstrate the irrelevance of any hypothetical omniscient or omnipotent or omnipresent god. The short version is that the argument is analogous to arguing that wholes can't be part of themselves.

All that having been said, the mere broad logical possibility of free will is pretty irrelevant to a lot of people's lives -- see ewkpates. Of course, now I'm conflating "free will" and "freedom"...
posted by lodurr at 8:11 AM on October 25, 2006


A roommate was describing a Vonnegut book once and put forth an argument that I've run away with and turned into my own theology. I've subsequently read three Vonnegut books in search of it and haven't found it yet.

It requires that you be at least a Deist and is perhaps a bit more theological than you'd like, but logical nonetheless.

First, true scientific/physical determinism does indeed exist. IF you the the traits of every physical object in the universe and the laws that govern them [including quantum physics] - speeds, directions, temperatures, etc - you could trace forward and backwards their futures and pasts. You would see the destiny of every particle from Big Bang to the Big Chill or Big Crunch. We, of course, will never know all these variables but an omniscient being would. As Einstein said, "God does not play dice with the universe." Random occurrence in nature only appear random because of a lack of understanding.

Second, there is one random variable in the Universe. Life. Specifically, humans. There is no way, ever, that even with all the physical attributes of all the quarks in the universe could you ever come to the conclusion that on February 6, 1971 Alan Shepard would be chipping golf balls on the moon. It's just too random.

The [maybe?] Vonnegut argument goes like this then: If God is omnicient and good, s/he is incapable of doing the wrong thing. If God is incapable of doing the wrong thing, and in fact has to do the right thing, then God has no free will.

Perhaps then God created man so that s/he can experience free will and add randomness to the Universe.

I've added an addendum to it: that randomness - free will - creates something very special. Our perception of "the present." Perhaps it could only exist with the Universe unhinged from determinism and the next chapter always being rewritten away from the original Big Bang script.
posted by trinarian at 9:28 AM on October 25, 2006


I didn't have any choice in the way I wrote the question. ;)

I'm curious as to why. We're not doing your Intro to Philosophy homework, are we?
posted by trinarian at 9:30 AM on October 25, 2006


What is the most convincing argument you have ever heard, read or devised for the existence of free will in humans? If you can't think of one, can you think of a test for proving its existence?

The presupposition underlying your questions is that the answers to your question should be determined through the application of reason.

To justify that presupposition, you have to presume that human reason is a reliable indicator of truth. Exploring the consequences of this presumption can shed some light on your question.

Assume, for a moment, that mechanism (roughly, the belief that the body is all there is to a human being, and that all human actions can be entirely explained solely by physical laws) and determinism (here, the related belief that free will does not exist) are true. What reason would there then be to believe in reason? The human mind, in this view, is solely the product of natural selection. And it is well accepted in evolutionary theory that natural selection does not select for "true" beliefs, whatever that means, but rather for advantageous behaviors. Thus, there is no reason to believe that an organ which evolved to confer an advantage in one context (finding nuts and berries, tracking animals, keeping us alive) would produce "true" beliefs in a novel context (abstract and speculative philosophy, for example). In a strictly deterministic universe, it is perfectly possible that our cognitive facitilities are reliable for the simple, mundane tasks of keeping us alive, but highly unreliable when applied to theoretical matters. Since we cannot escape our mental machinery, we have no way to know. Accordingly, if you assume a belief in mechanism and determinism, you then have no reason to believe in the truths of reason. How would we know that our feelings of rational conviction are any different than the (assumed) illusory feeling of free will?

Because we cannot escape our mental machinery, there is simply no way of knowing. Therefore, any application of reason which purports to deny free will through an argument which includes mechanism is either self-referentially incoherent or an act of pure faith.

(In the above, I am attempting to paraphrase the arguments of Notre Dame's Alvin Plantinga. For a technical argument along the lines I have sketched, see Plantinga's paper Naturalism Defeated).

Now, consider an alternative worldview to the determinism and mechanism described above. Imagine a world in which God wanted his creations to understand the world and choose to do good voluntarily. The point here is that the choice to believe [or trust] in reason, in reality, and/or in God has consequences for our conception of reason. As Hans Kung put it:

The alternatives have become clear. Both affirmation and denial of God are [rationally] possible. Are we not therefore faced with a stalemate, with indecision?

It is just at this point that we find the knot which is decisive for the solution of this question of the existence of God… Denial of God implies an ultimately unjustified fundamental trust in reality. Atheism cannot suggest any condition for the possibility of uncertain reality. If someone denies God, he does not know why he ultimately trusts in reality.

This means that atheism is nourished, if not by a nihilistic fundamental mistrust, then at any rate by an ultimately unjustified fundamental trust. By denying God, man decides against a primary ground, deepest support, an ultimate goal of reality. In atheism the assent to reality turns out to be ultimately unjustified: a freewheeling, nowhere-anchored and therefore paradoxical fundamental trust… For this reason [atheism] lacks not perhaps all rationality but certainly a radical rationality, which lack, of course, it often disguises by a rationalistic but essentially irrational trust in human reason.

No, it is not a matter of indifference whether we affirm or deny God. The price paid by atheism for its denial is obvious. It is exposed by an ultimate groundlessness, unsupportedness, aimlessness, to the danger of the possible disunion, meaninglessness, worthlessness, hollowness of reality as a whole. When he becomes aware of this, the atheist is exposed also quite personally to the danger of an ultimate abandonment, menace and decay, resulting in doubt, fear, even despair. All this is true, of course, only if atheism is quite serious and not an intellectual pose, snobbish caprice or thoughtless superficiality…

No, there is no stalemate between belief in God and atheism. The price received by belief in God for its assent is obvious. Since I confidently decide for a primal ground instead of groundlessness, for a primal support instead of unsupportedness, for a primal goal instead of aimlessness, I can now with good reason perceive in all disunion a unity, in all worthlessness a value, in all meaninglessness a meaning of the reality of the world and man…

Fundamental trust in reason is therefore not irrational. It is rationally justified. The last and first reality, God, is thus seen more or less as the guarantor of the rationality of human reason.

- Hans Kung, Does God Exist?, pp. 569-574
.

Coherentism is a theory of epistemic justification which says, roughly, that beliefs are "true" if they cohere as closely as possible to the web of beliefs you already accept as true. It's an alternative to the discredited theory of foundationalism. (The major problems of foundationalism are discussed in the link on coherentism above). From a coherentist point of view, our beliefs regarding free will, the validity of reason, and the existence of God are all tied up in one insoluble knot. Since belief in free will,reason, and a benevolent God are self-referrentially coherent, rather than self-referrentially incoherent, as a rejection of those same beliefs would be, belief in free will, reason, and a benevolent God are more "true."

Bottom line: a belief in the truth of reason is either a matter of pure (if pragmatic) faith or else it is arguably irrational if held in conjunction with a rejection of God and, by extension, free will.

On preview: That was kind of long, so I'll try to sketch it out for simplicity.

A. Mechanism ---> No reason to believe in reason
B. Theism ---> Reason to believe in reason
C. Belief in theism is more "rational" than belief in mechanism.

A. Belief in theism is more rational than belief in mechanism (see above)
B. Theism ---> Free will
C. Mechanism ---> Not free will
D. Therefore, belief in free will is always more rational than belief in not free will.

It's not a tight or pure or irrefutable syllogism, and it contains a lot of assumptions, I admit. But coherentism implies that syllogistic reasoning can never be used the way that most people want to use it, so there you go.
posted by gd779 at 10:48 AM on October 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


Your answer. Now, let's never talk about it again.
posted by louigi at 11:17 AM on October 25, 2006


"We are all robots, defined by our neural programming," said the Dog.

"Who makes that claim?" asked the Cat.
posted by Netzapper at 11:56 AM on October 25, 2006


I was just going to say that having free will and believing you have free will are indistinguishable propositions.

But gd779 and louigi's dinosaur comics said it so much better.
posted by vacapinta at 12:13 PM on October 25, 2006


This is like asking "Is there a God?"

Flagged.


I'm cool with that. Was bound to happen. ;)
posted by vizsla at 1:09 PM on October 25, 2006


Damn. That Hans Kung is kind of a moron. From what I can glean from the quoted text above, apparently even after 579 pages, he still has nothing of value to add.
posted by hincandenza at 1:30 PM on October 25, 2006


things logically seem to be either causal or random, neither of which can support free will, nor any combination of them,

Why can't you be a cause? It doesn't mean you weren't caused by other things - of course you were. But you can then cause other things. If you believe in consciousness, then free will is a natural outgrowth of that, because consciousness is an actual cause in the world. To imagine that consciousness has no causal role at all, you would have to remove any complex tasks that relied on the transmission of meaning. If a person can understand, think about, and respond to symbolic data, then the conscious part of consciousness is relevant - not just the chemical processes, because the unity of the chemical substance that is you has to process it. If you have ever sleepwalked you know your chemical processes on their own are not nearly as sharp - they can do a lot, but there is a difference.

To me, free will is not a problem once I accept consciousness, but explaining how consciousness works is quite puzzling (I never had a problem with the fact that we are the chemical combination in a certain pattern; the problem for me is trying to grasp how we can be a pattern - though, like much of philosophy, on some days it seems like a problem, and on some days it doesn't).
posted by mdn at 1:44 PM on October 25, 2006


Here's a pretty good article on the subject in case you are interested, but remember that this is just word play. There is no self to grasp on to any concept of free will anyway, that is the illusion. See past that illusion and you will be free.
posted by sneakyalien at 1:53 PM on October 25, 2006


gd779: it contains a lot of assumptions, I admit.

For one thing, it seems to me that it is not "rational to believe in reason". We've no hard evidence that our senses can be trusted, for example, and it seems impossible for us to ever have such evidence. That said, if you accept the evidence of your senses, reason becomes rational from there, and one can easily decide to trust the evidence of one's senses without supposing any theistic ideas. Occam's razor, for example, suggests that one take the simplest workable theory among several options (in this case, the idea that the senses can provide some degree of true evidence of the world is by definition simpler than the idea that the senses can provide some degree of true evidence of the world because of the existence a God). Accepting the existence of reality as I sense it is a "leap of faith", in that I am accepting an axiom that cannot be proved or disproved, but it's a much smaller leap of faith than assuming the existence of some sort of God.

Kung is also being awfully free with his value judgments. His problem with "ultimate groundlessness, unsupportedness, aimlessness, to the danger of the possible disunion, meaninglessness, worthlessness, hollowness of reality as a whole", etc. suggests that he is starting from a worldview in which these things are intrinsically negative. I've struggled with these questions myself, and I've come to the conclusion that he's right: the universe is both meaningless and worthless, by any objective meaning of the words. Realizing this has been far from some kind of moral breakdown. On the contrary, it's been one of the most freeing, powerful experiences of my life. It's a real shame that Kung can't see past the negativity his own value system places on meaninglessness -- as Nietzsche pointed out, a meaningless world allows for (the perception of) the creation of meaning. Kung's world only allows for endless repetition of a single meaning imposed from above. If the world has no intrinsic meaning, mankind imposes meaning upon the world; if the world has an intrinsic meaning, the best mankind can do is discover it -- and Kung is claiming that we have already done so! How truly meaningless such an existence must feel! It seems to me as if he is the one whose worldview is more likely to lead to "ultimate abandonment, menace and decay, resulting in doubt, fear, even despair".
posted by vorfeed at 1:59 PM on October 25, 2006


Accepting the existence of reality as I sense it is a "leap of faith", in that I am accepting an axiom that cannot be proved or disproved, but it's a much smaller leap of faith than assuming the existence of some sort of God.

This would be a valid point, except that Quine established conclusively that it can't be made to work. Any belief can be squared with sense experience with equal rationality or irrationality, and the choices we make to chose one belief over another are not logical (except in the sense that they are pragmatically useful - but see my comment above as to why that doesn't imply that they're true).
posted by gd779 at 2:57 PM on October 25, 2006


Any belief can be squared with sense experience with equal rationality or irrationality, and the choices we make to chose one belief over another are not logical

You earlier claimed that "Belief in theism is more rational than belief in mechanism." If we accept Quine's argument, it is not so and cannot be so, because ANY unprovable axioms we choose to take -- whether God-based or not -- are equally irrational according to Quine. That is to say, "God exists and gives meaning to the world" and "I accept the evidence of my senses" are both equally (in)valid "reasons to believe in reason", since they are both fundamentally irrational axioms from which reason follows. This invalidates your "A. B. and C." argument above.

Again, my point isn't that belief in reason is rational. Belief in reason is not rational, but it can still be had without accepting theistic ideas. Kung's argument is begging the question. It is quite possible to make an "assent to reality" that has nothing to do with God, or theism, or anything more than simple trust in one's own senses. Given this unspoken axiom, mechanism is no more "self-referentially incoherent" than theism. Put it this way:

A. Mechanism ---> Belief in the evidence of one's senses is a reason to believe in reason
B. Theism ---> Belief in the existence of God is a reason to believe in reason
C. Belief in theism is not more "rational" than belief in mechanism, since both depend on an irrational axiom.

except in the sense that they are pragmatically useful

Exactly. I would say that a pragmatically useful belief is superior to a pragmatically useless belief -- their self-referential coherence being equal, of course. I showed above that mechanism and theism are equally self-coherent; I think it's clear that mechanism has proved itself to be much more pragmatically useful than theism. Thus, it's mechanism for me.
posted by vorfeed at 4:35 PM on October 25, 2006


gd779, could you please more fully explain how the Coherentists argue this link ?
Theism ---> Reason to believe in reason.

Thanks.
posted by vizsla at 5:21 PM on October 25, 2006


To see what present-day professional philosophers have to say on this topic, I'd recommend starting here:

A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will by Robert Kane

A next text would be Peter Van Inwagen's An Essay on Free Will, which explores the issues in greater depth and argues for one position.

And of course, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is always valuable for this kind of thing. Here's their entry on free will.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:18 PM on October 25, 2006


What is the most convincing argument you have ever heard, read or devised for the existence of free will in humans?

I think the experience of free will is just the natural outcome of self consciousness. Consider any self aware adaptive system that processes information. Even in a deterministic world, the conclusions of that process will depend upon the structure of the system. The system, being self aware, will be aware that the conclusion of the processing (the decision), could have been otherwise, and that this depended upon the state and structure of the system.

In that sense, our decisions are free, as they can be different, dependent only on our own states: Our previous experience, our desires and goals, our mood at the time etc. We experience them as our decisions, because we experience much of the process of making the decision, and that process depends critically on our own states.

In situations where our reactions depend only on external stimuli, such as flinching, we do not experience free will. This are "involuntary" movements.

Could I have chosen to stay in bed this morning, rather than come to work. Yes I think, if work was not important to me, and if I didn't have feelings of guilt about slacking. Or if I had been ill. But given that I am the way I am, it was unlikely. Perhaps if I had worken up feeling very depressed or upset I would have stayed home. But the fact is I didn't feel depressed or upset.

So is it possible that, feeling exactly as I felt this morning, and being exactly as I am, I could have decided to stay home this morning? I don't think so.

Free will seems to me to mean nothing more than the fact that decisions are partly depended on our own states, together with the awareness of that fact, and our experience of it happening.

I think that any self aware system that processes information in a sufficiently complex way will experience free will.

Of course this just shifts the problem of free will into the equally complicated problem of consciousness, so maybe not that helpful, but I think interesting.
posted by Touchstone at 1:55 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


gd779, could you please more fully explain how the Coherentists argue this link ?
Theism ---> Reason to believe in reason.


Vizsla: Coherentists, as a school, don't assert this. Coherentism is just a theory of epistemic justification, and whether or not a given coherentist links theism with a reason to believe in reason will depend on the nature of their existing beliefs.

That said, the argument is essentially as follows: Imagine a world in which we are not biologically determined automatons. Instead, imagine that we were created by a God (or Gods, I suppose) which wanted human beings to experience creation and then voluntarily choose good (and, by extension God). This is, of course, the classic Christian story, but it's a common element in numerous other religions. The specific religion isn't important: what's important is that, if God wanted his creations to voluntarily choose him, he would have to give them free will and an ability to perceive the world as it really is. Because if God compromised our free will, we'd be no better than mere robots or puppets, incapable of choice; and if God compromised our ability to perceive the world as it really is, then any exercise of freedom would be illusory anyway, as God would be forcing us to think a certain way. Either way, God doesn't get what He presumably wants, which is a child that voluntarily loves Him after understanding His actions as manifested through creation. In this framework, we necessarily have free will and an ability to reason correctly. Thus, a belief in free will and in the truths of reason coheres very easily with a belief in God: given theism, as sketched above, reason can be trusted.

On the other hand, a belief in mechanism and in naturalism is, in some sense, inconsistent with a belief in the truths of reason, for the reasons I described in my first comment.

So the question for a coherentist is, which picture of the world fits together best as a whole? Since fish can rarely use their fins to fly, an organ designed to anticipate danger and find food is unlikely to be very good at deducing the "truth" in abstract philosophy. And if you believe free will is an illusion, then why not the feeling of certainty that comes from reasoning? In that picture of the world, I see no reason at all to trust in reason: therefore, desiring to retain my faith in reason, I conclude that any picture of the world which undermines human reason is self-contradictory and therefore must be wrong.

If that explanation isn't enough, I'd suggest you read Kung's book. He's a brilliant scholar by anybody's estimate, and he's thorough to a fault, so the argument is very carefully articulated there. (If some of his language seems unusual, you have to remember that Kung is German, and sometimes expressions work in one language but don't translate perfectly to English.)

That is to say, "God exists and gives meaning to the world" and "I accept the evidence of my senses" are both equally (in)valid "reasons to believe in reason", since they are both fundamentally irrational axioms from which reason follows. This invalidates your "A. B. and C." argument above.

vorfeed: This argument is attempted based on foundationalist presuppositions (the tip off, if nothing else, was the word "axiom"). Coherentism explicitly rejects this form of reasoning: it rejects the idea that certain beliefs are privileged in a way that others are not, that they are "foundational" or "axioms" or matters of faith.

Coherentism asserts, roughly, that self-referential coherence is what is important. The problem we're dealing with here is the infinite regress problem: if your chain of reasons is not infinite, and if there are no "axioms" which should be accepted on faith, then your chain of reasoning must be circular. Thus, begging the question must be accepted as an inevitability - the question is, while you beg your questions, will you do so in a way that is coherent or will you beg your questions in a way that is difficult to cohere? Or, at worst, will you actually contradict yourself?

In other words, Quine establishes that your hope for "trusting in your own senses" as a minimum axion is logically possible, but is capable of proving nothing at all. Once that is accepted, it becomes clear that syllogistic reasoning based on experience simply can not work, and a radically new way of conceiving of rationalism and reason is needed. Coherentism is one of the best answers to that dilemma.
posted by gd779 at 9:24 AM on October 26, 2006


Coherentism asserts, roughly, that self-referential coherence is what is important.

Yes. And I showed, in precisely the same way you tried to disprove it, that self-referential coherence is possible for mechanism. If theists are allowed to suppose a God and go from there, why are mechanists not allowed to suppose the evidence of their senses and go from there? You keep saying that they can't, and that doing so is somehow "inconsistent with a belief in the truths of reason", but you have yet to give a reason why this is true.
posted by vorfeed at 10:42 AM on October 26, 2006


vorfeed: The reasons are laid out in Quine's paper, which I linked to above. Sadly, they take some work to comprehend, which is why I'm not trying too hard to summarize them here, as there really is no substitute for reading and engaging with Quine himself.
posted by gd779 at 1:22 PM on October 26, 2006


On reflection, here is one possible way of summarizing Quine's argument: you're in good company, vorfeed. Some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, from Carnap to A.J. Ayer to Bertrand Russell, have tried to make ideas like yours work. In the end, nobody could do it.

So while the theory you're advancing isn't meritless, if you are willing to put in the time necessary to really think it through and read some objections to it, I suspect that you will eventually realize that your position relies on a vast foundation of pure, unadulturated (if pragmatic) faith.
posted by gd779 at 1:32 PM on October 26, 2006


With, maybe I was too hasty. As I think about your comments, I am wondering if they are not so much a failure to take Quine seriously, as I had assumed, but rather a failure to buy into Plantinga's argument. That is to say, I am now reading you as acknowledging that mere sense experience is not enough to "prove" anything, but still arguing that what your senses show you is that God doesn't exist, and that this belief coherest best with your existing beliefs. All of which is fine, as long as you reject evolution. For if you accept evolution, you accept that evolution selects for useful actions rather than "true" belief, and you have to acknowledge that avoiding dangerous animals, finding food and having sex are very different activities than speculative philosophy. There is now a gap in your chain of reasons: what reason can you provide to believe that being good at the former makes the latter trustworthy?

I see two alternatives to the position I've just sketched. One is that you have dogmatic faith in reason, period, full stop. The other, tricker, potential response is that you are a pragmatist who equates personal utility with truth. In which case, all conversation must cease, as thoroughgoing pragmatism makes true communication unreliable.

Does that help at all?
posted by gd779 at 1:48 PM on October 26, 2006


There is now a gap in your chain of reasons: what reason can you provide to believe that being good at the former makes the latter trustworthy?

Well, there's a pretty large gap in the theistic alternative as well: where does God come from? What reason is there for God to exist? Again, if the theist can answer, "God exists because he must exist in order for logic to work", as Kung has done, I don't see why the mechanist may not answer, "evolution makes one good at logic because it must do so in order for logic to work". One is just as logical and just as internally coherent as the other. If you're going to allow just-so statements such as these to stand in the one case, I don't see how you can justify barring them in the other. Really, I can't see how introducing a literally unknowable, ineffable being into a chain of logic causes any less of a logical gap than accepting the evidence of one's senses! For example, has coherentism got an answer for the God paradox, one that's internally consistent with the statements you've already made? Etc.

Also, I think you're misrepresenting evolution, here. Evolution selects for useful actions, but it does not limit beings to useful actions -- that is to say, it does not select against useless actions unless those actions preclude reproduction. This is why humans have many useless traits, like an appendix and a tailbone. Actions that have little or no bearing on evolutionary selection are not only possible, they probably make up a majority of human behavior. In short, we can be good at philosophy, or at any number of complex behaviors, even though these complex behaviors were never directly selected for. Or are you actually claiming that believing in evolution means believing that human beings can only trust themselves to be able to avoid dangerous animals, find food, and have sex, and can never be sure of anything more than that? I do not see how this can be reconciled with either observed reality or the theory of evolution.
posted by vorfeed at 7:51 PM on October 26, 2006


Very interesting discussion. gd779, an interesting argument, but I don't find it convincing.

there is no reason to believe that an organ which evolved to confer an advantage in one context (finding nuts and berries, tracking animals, keeping us alive) would produce "true" beliefs in a novel context (abstract and speculative philosophy, for example).

This seems obviously false to me. While evolution doesn't guarantee that we have the ability to generate true beliefs in novel contexts, it would clearly be a useful characteristic. Indeed, as the brain evolved to deal with more and more complex factors - predicting the movements of prey, language and social interaction, use and construction of tools, defence against hostile humans, etc, etc, a capability for reliable abstract reasoning may be the only "design" solution.

There is good evidence that we have such an ability. Our ability to correctly predict the motions of the planets for example. So it is a perfectly reasonably assumption that we have evolved it. Evolution per se gives us no reason to doubt our reason. Nor does it support it, we are where we were before evolution was thought of.

Secondly you argue that:
if God wanted his creations to voluntarily choose him, he would have to give them free will and an ability to perceive the world as it really is

This also seem to me dubitable. God could have given us only the abilities necessary for this task. We don't need to perceive the world as it really is, we merely need to perieve those things about it that are necessary to come to a free and informed awareness of God. This can't be everything about the world, since we don't normally undertand everything about the world. For example the awareness of any science is not necessary to come to a free and informed awareness of God, so there is no reason to suppose that God would have given us the ability to correctly reason in science. The same is true of abstract philosophy, etc. This argument gives us no reason to trust our abilities on anything that we can't establish as being necessary to come to awareness of God.
posted by Touchstone at 7:15 AM on October 27, 2006


if the theist can answer, "God exists because he must exist in order for logic to work", as Kung has done, I don't see why the mechanist may not answer, "evolution makes one good at logic because it must do so in order for logic to work".

This is certainly a possible response: as I noted, sheer dogmatic faith is one possible solution to the problem. You can have faith in tiny pink unicorns if you want, and if that's a foundational belief for you, and if it doesn't contradict one of your other existing beliefs, then I can't logically talk you out of it.

That said, I suspect you're having trouble seeing the contradiction in your thinking because you're relying on my rhetorical summary of Kung and Plantinga rather than reading the original sources themselves. It should be fairly obvious that a rigorous answer to these questions is going to take more time than I have and more text than I can fit into a single comment. If you're serious about using reason to find the right answer to this sort of fundamental question, you do have to put in a fair bit of work.

And on that point, you had this to say:

Also, I think you're misrepresenting evolution, here.

There's a certain amount of truth to that, which is why you should read Plantinga's paper instead of my paraphrasing. Plantinga's paper is actually a technical argument which relies on Bayes theorem to establish its claims. I left all the true analysis out of my summary, I was just trying to give people a general sense of nature of his argument.

Well, there's a pretty large gap in the theistic alternative as well: What reason is there for God to exist?

On this point, I would refer you to the work of Richard Swinburne (Oxford), Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale) and George Mavrodes (Michigan), among others. Once you get through with these writers, Plantinga's book "God and Other Minds" might be useful as well.
posted by gd779 at 7:30 AM on October 27, 2006


If you're serious about using reason to find the right answer to this sort of fundamental question, you do have to put in a fair bit of work.

Let me be perfectly clear: I read Plantinga's paper you linked to above, and it does not prove that philosophy could not have been evolved. The best he can do is suggest that the probability of it having been evolved is low. That is to say, since evolution doesn't directly select for the truth of the evidence of our senses, he claims that evolution doesn't serve as a warrant for the idea that our senses can determine truth.

When he says this, he's ignoring that the brain and its capabilities evolved in the world, through contact with the world, and that individual brains are also developed through contact with the world. Accurate neurological structures are generally more adaptive than inaccurate ones, so the idea that the neurological structures of the brain have a good degree of accuracy with respect to the world -- that is, that the evidence of our senses can be trusted -- coheres with evolution.

In other words, evolution suggests that the value of Plantinga's variable R (the reliability of our cognitive faculties) is high, not low, since it is unlikely that humans could have evolved fundamentally incorrect senses with respect to the environment in which our evolution took place. If we have reason to believe that R is high, Plantinga's argument fails. And this is even ignoring the arguments of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, who suggest that consciousness itself is an adaptive trait, and thus has been directly selected for.

Plantinga's mind-model is very Cartesian, but evolution doesn't really suggest that we have a Cartesian mind. In fact, it suggests the opposite: that the brain (and thus the mind) is not and can never be entirely disconnected from its environment. Thus, I don't see where Plantinga's evil-demon and brain-in-vat arguments uncover any incoherency between evolution and the idea that our senses can be trusted.
posted by vorfeed at 11:34 AM on October 27, 2006


Much of this discussion presumes something that's seldom questioned: That these are important questions.

I submit that the outcome of these discussions has no empirical effect except upon the being of the discoursants. Which is to say, the world doesn't give a whit about whether Coherentism or Mechanism are internally consistent, and neither has any real application to anything except the development of our own sense of self and place in the universe.

Philosophy of this sort is the precise functional equivalent of religion. It is unrelated to physics and biochemistry, and only indirectly related to neurology and evolution (and then, only insofar as it is their epiphenomenon). Which is to say, the only bearing it has on our lives is the manner in which it shapes the ethos within which we function.
posted by lodurr at 5:12 AM on October 30, 2006


According to Libet's experiment, we have the gap potential for saying no.
posted by Brian B. at 10:01 PM on November 2, 2006


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