This is a post from August 2009. Again, it’s from one of my largely ignored FaceBook Notes, but was originally posted on my Skepticality blog (now defunct). It’s still a topic I’m interested in, although I am no closer to making up my mind on it. This was the first of two posts on the subject, and I am posting both today. Read the second one HERE.
Scientific Naturalism and Free Will
I had never heard the term “contra-causal free will” before listening to Point of Inquiry’s D. J. Grothe interview with Tom Clark.
(Tom Clark maintains http://www.naturalism.org/) .
Following the podcast I registered at the CFI site, and engaged in a discussion involving Naturalism, Free Will, and Determinism.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a proponent of the supernatural. And I understand the we are but a product of the physical world which surrounds us, and as such we are bound by the rules for interactions with such world.
But, I objected to a particular statement regarding a given decision/act in a person’s life being inevitable based on everything which came before. I understand the underlying logic; unless we act arbitrarily (i.e. flip a coin), everything we do is based on the culmination of our experiences, physical make-up, and the constraints of the world around us.
So, for instance, when people say if they were to do it over they would have done differently, it’s not likely . . . unless they are privy to knowledge of the future. They acted based on the constraints and knowledge they had at the time of the decision. As such, if it were possible to go back to that given state, the same actions and decisions would be repeated. To have it be otherwise would indicate an agent outside the individual.
But this has implications beyond the individual action; it holds for every prior action as well, and thus one can go back as far as one wants. And no matter how far one goes back, one can only act within the restrictions of who they are, what they are, and the particular state of what they are composed of. Actually, I stand corrected; it has nothing to do with “who” they are, because they really aren’t.
This then gets into the idea of both the self and contra-causal freewill. Contra-causal free will implies non-caused actions or decisions. Regular free will is defined as the freedom to act irrespective of social or political constraints (i.e. what we generally call plain ole freedom).
Following a short discussion at the CFI site (see the comments under the episode entry at POI linked above), I went away to think about it. I’m still thinking.
I’m having a hard time reconciling the deterministic implications of Naturalism. Essentially, it says we are not masters of our path through life, and for that matter we might not even be “selves”. The self may be nothing more than an illusion of the brain which, after the fact, creates the illusion we have control and are independent from strict cause-and-effect which is really governing our thoughts and actions. Curiously, I had first read this in a Free Inquiry article from 1994 (by Adam L. Carley). I still have the article, but at the time I did not associate it with the free will problem, or realized its other implications.
If one believes in Scientific Naturalism, it’s hard to escape the idea of one’s life being determined from the moment of conception, and without much of a stretch, from the moment time began. Once on a given path, you are confined within that narrow unwavering path. Long before your parents were ever born, things were in motion which would inevitably result in you being born, and eventually lead you to read this post.
As I said, I argued we are more than that, but was challenged to explain what, and to do so without calling front and center the idea of a god, or soul, or anything else that is outside the confines of what we know of the physical world and law of nature we are familiar with. And I get it . . . if we are nothing more than a collection of atoms interacting with each other, chemical reactions, and constrained by the physical processes of this universe, how can there be a free will?
I don’t know. But the fact I don’t know does not automatically sway me to the Clark’s view. Obviously it’s not a new problem, with many minds far more capable than mine taking various sides. These sites touch on the major arguments both for and against, some dating back thousands of years.
As a skeptic, a believer in science, I was called upon to follow the evidence of the data (and there is some data); it was argued Naturalism should be the end result of such an examination. So I did a lot of reading, and like I said, I’m still thinking. So.. . do we have free will?
I say yes. I don’t know the mechanism, or “how”, and perhaps it’s nothing more than wishful thinking . . . but that’s it; I’ve yet to see a good explanation for thoughts. From a physical brain we get something without form, something that cannot remeasured, or even clearly quantified. We can certainly “see” the brain working, and even identify areas which are active during a number of processes. The fact I don’t know what a thought is does not mean I assume any special attributes to it (i.e. supernatural). If one prefers,one can substitute “ideas” for thoughts.
Consciousness may be an illusion, but we live under that illusion, we reason under that illusion, and we establish what we “know” under that illusion. At the very least we would be hard pressed to voice the limit of such an illusion. The brain may in fact be fooling us by creating this artificial construct (our self, our consciousness), but within that construct there may be some latitude.
The naturalistic argument states such reasoning is in itself the result of our physical make-up, but that to me seems like the argument for god; no matter what happens, it’s god’s will, and similarly in the Naturalistic model, at any one time everything you can conceive, think about, do, say, decide is nothing more than what you must do given your current state. Both arguments seem to me self-sealing; there is nothing left open for discussion.
Maybe the Naturalistic view is true, but to my mind it would surely diminish us; it would diminish the efforts of the artist, of the composer, of the writer, of the parent caring for their progeny. It would diminish this very conversation. The kind of free will Naturalism proposes, though valuable, is much less than what I envision. As I said, perhaps it is wishful on my part to imagine ourselves more than just deterministic agents.
Proponents of Naturalism state the value lies in the experience of life, and perhaps for them it is enough.
Me, I have/want to believe we are more than the predetermined (aside from quantum fluctuations) end result of the Big Bang. I want for my next thought to be more than the summation of the meals I ate, where I was born, and the logical progression of all other thoughts before it. I hope I am right . . . let me think about that . . .