Saturday, July 23, 2016

Another Go-Around With Free Will

Is free will a problem, for whom, and what does it take to solve it?

As previously noted, the problem of free will isn't much of a problem, but theists continue to be perplexed by it and horrified by the naturalist answer that there really isn't any free will. Their perplexity often results in torrents of poor philosophy and moralistic tendentiousness. This perplexed perspective is well-explained and exemplified by a recent blogger.

Towards the end of the essay, he gets to the crux, which is not whether free will exists or can be called an illusion, but how to reconcile the third person perspective (no free will) with the first person perspective (subjective free will).
"We are left with a huge problem that no philosopher has ever solved, namely, the integration of the first-person and third-person points of view. How do they cohere? No philosopher has ever explained this satisfactorily.  What can be seen with clarity, however, is that subjectivity is irreducible and ineliminable and that no solution can be had by denying that we are irreducibly conscious and irreducibly free. One cannot integrate the points of view by denying the first of them."
Philosophers may have no idea about this, but scientists do: demote the subjective perspective as the superior one that is irreducible and uneliminable. Our subjective states are notoriously variable, drug- alterable, and quite eliminable. Every sleep wake cycle is a big exercise in eliminability. They are also clearly a reducible state of their substrate- the matter of our minds and brains. Different people have subjective consciousness to different extents, varied by stroke, senility, and other physical impairments in ways that clearly show their reducibility, to the point of eliminability. So while their nature is of great interest, on personal and other levels, they are no philosophical bedrock. Quite the opposite. I think, therefore I am fortunate enough to have my wits about me still, but will not have them forever, or even through the night.

This is not to say that free will and subjectivity are "illusions". That is the wrong word, as this writer argues well (though in fairness, optical illusions are often so persistent that they also can not be shed, only understood despite their persistence). They are perspectives from inside a system. A special and unique position, but not philosophically superior to other perspectives that may have a firmer grasp of the larger context of what is going on, especially what is giving rise to precisely that subjective perspective in the first place- the physical brain. We can not shed the subjective perspective, as we might an optical illusion. But that doesn't make it a philosophically unanalyzable vantage point.
"...  All indications are that the problem of free will is simply insoluble, a genuine aporia,  and that we ought to be intellectually honest enough to face the fact.  It is no solution at all, and indeed a shabby evasion, to write off the first-person point of view as illusory."
If we take it as given that we have a perspectival problem here, such that the view from inside is different from that from outside, it seems incorrect, indeed cowardly, not to say narcissistic, to hide behind the sovereignty of the subjective perspective to say that it is irreducible and unanalyzable. When it is so clearly a product of the machinery of the brain. It is reminiscent of Ayn Rand so charmingly saying that "I will not die, the world will end". This is, sadly, another instance of theism leading people astray, as this is a theist writer, and free will is basically a theist problem- to think that there is a real "I", hidden behind and separate from the mechanism that is the neurobiology of the brain. It is the attachment to souls, to supernatural magic, and to unexamined beliefs and poor standards of evidence that get us into this particular mess, and into so many messes in philosophy and elsewhere.

It isn't just theism, though, but intutition, which is the fount of theism in the first place. It all hangs together as a perspective- I experience the world subjectively, and I feel via my intuitive consciousness to be a free, floating point- a soul, unattached to the material miasma of nature. And the only logical (and psychologically intuitive) sponsor of this kind of magic is a deity, likewise free and unattached, which has implanted this bit of divine essence into me. It hangs together with a denigration of nature as lesser and dirty compared to the Apollonian and the logos. It hangs together with all sorts of social-intuitive traditions like patriarchy, monarchy, and priestly hierarachy.

But is it true? And even if we regard these intuitions and their derived theologies as false once we wrench ourselves away from the subjective, narcissistic, intuitive perspective, might they nevertheless promote human dignity more than a naturalistic view? That remains an open question, with plenty of historical examples on both sides of the ledger. Yet the bedrock of philosophy, among many other pursuits, is that the search for and attainment of truth is not only a virtue in its own right and a part of our fundamental human purpose, but also operationally good and conducive to better individual and communal life.