Saturday, July 24, 2010

Not so fast ...

... Your Move: The Maze of Free Will. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.
OK. Well, here's my move: To begin with, one could argue -- and it seems a reasonable argument to me and sounder scientifically -- that while we are conditioned by our genetic inheritance and early experience, we are not determined by them. Since when do my experiences determine my subsequent behavior? They certainly influence it. Moreover, I don 't see that the notion of free will necessarily implies full and ultimate responsibility. My responsibility and my knowledge are both as finite as I am. My judgment is imperfect, and my choices may -- and often are -- flawed. Get real, professor.

(You may also know, contrary to popular opinion, that current science gives us no more reason to think that determinism is false than that determinism is true.)

Well, apparently Ian McEwan doesn't know that, given what he is quoted as saying in the final paragraph, that the "arguments [against free will] seem watertight." McEwan also says that "I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.” But by his logic he isn't taking on anything. That's just the way he happens to feel, and he can't help feeling that way because he has been determined from the start to feel that way. You're either free -- to whatever extent -- or you're not.


  1. I'm with you on this, Frank.

    I've always viewed what one is born with as a bank of potential from which one makes some choices, and from which others (such as genetically-tagged illnesses which may or may not manifest in time) one has no control. It's a mix of potentials, in other words, not all of which will be become kinetic.

    And I've always strongly believed, based on observation and experience, that biological determinism is bunk. The fact that we have consciousness allows us to make choices, to overrule situations that might be deterministic is they were viewed to be purely biological.

    For example, I have seen more than one person I know break the cycle of abuse—the father abuses the son who then abuses his own son, etc.—which if there were no free will would be impossible.

    Consciousness gives us the opportunity to evolve beyond determinism, purely and simply because we can imagine doing so, and then choose to follow our imagination and aspirations.

  2. Free will? Determinism? Ask Oedipus how he feels about those concepts! Actually, read Oedipus Rex and you have all the explication you need on the conflict between freedom to choose versus destiny already fated. Yes, philosophers and others have argued the issue for more than 2,000 years. However, to my mind, you cannot do better than focus on Sophocles' engagement with the topic.