Monday, December 26, 2011

In which I break my long silence about free will

Is there anything practical at all about free will? Perhaps I shouldn't worry about practicality; since the entire question is rather esoteric, its discussion is an exercise in theory. Yet, we all agree, no matter our philosophic prejudices and tastes, that the psychological phenomenon of choice exists and plays an important role in our experience of existence. We feel as though we choose - moreover, we really do choose. Our choices are valid and real, and are no less or more authentic if determinism is true than if it is false. Few - if any - have, while wrestling over a particularly difficult choice, ever solved the problem by appealing to free will or admitting determinism, The resolution of such quandaries never rests in our philosophical framework of choice. On the contrary, such a tangent in our deliberation would represent a paralysis, a fruitless meta-thinking or meta-deliberation that, even if it "answers" the age old question, "are my choices predetermined by my history, and thus beyond my ultimate control" will nevertheless bring one no closer to answering the question, "which college should I attend?" What, then, is the practical value, if any, of the question of free will?

I have stumbled across this question in my own quest to defend free will from its detractors. I have since been brought to a standstill, forced by the difficulties of the entire undertaking to remain mute. Perhaps the best defense, maybe the only defense, which free will still has is the retreat into mystery. I do not want to treat that defense lightly, although I recognize the skepticism that the word "mystery" might provoke. Mystery can be many things, including a charlatan's cloak, a puff of smoke to distract and obfuscate the awful emptiness of a concept. Perhaps it might even be said that the strength of the mystery is inversely proportional to the doubtfulness of the concept: the more empty and absent the god, the more that absence must be veiled, covered, and hidden in ritual- the more, in the end, it must be spoken about. We speak least about what is most evident, and words must fill in the gaps of uncertainties. Yet there can be something genuine and sincere about mystery, especially in doubtful matters; in a real sense, such matters do remain secret to us, at least as dignified unknowns at which it would be unwise to scoff without the most powerful of evidence.

Yet this defense - mystery - serves only to undermine the great difficulty of the position. At last, free will seems to be only a great, reverenced, venerable idea - a great idea, to be sure, and one that has animated much that is good in the human race - but little more. For an idea to be venerable is not for it to be true, and if it is treated as true only for respectfulness sake, it is perhaps time to reevaluate its place. And since practical matters are often easier to judge than the ethereal definitions and syllogisms of theory, perhaps it is best to look at the question of free will's practical place.

Most of our choices are made without any real deliberation; we act and react quite often in an automatic, unreflective way. It may be the case that these are often the healthiest choices. But those choices about which we deliberate, worry, and generally wring our hands, and about which the outcome of our deliberation is uncertain, are precisely those in which the psychological phenomenon of choice is most evident. At these times, it seems very possible that any of a number of futures are available, that we are really in command of a fate over which our will is a free master, that at the very least our part in the story is yet to be written and is awaiting our final "fiat." Of course, this is only the most hopeful and positive psychology of choice. We may just as well be paralyzed by the burden of choice; like Hamlet, our thoughts may lose the name of action. The uncertainty can puzzle the will. But in either of these cases, the practical psychology still affirms that we have freedom in the choice, even if that freedom is paradoxically the source of our inaction. Hamlet is not paralyzed by a lack of possible choices, but from the multiplicity of variables he must weigh: the veracity of the ghost, his mother's culpability, the eternal penalty of suicide.

In any case, this psychology of free will is quite simple, even if it gives birth circumstantially to quite complicated situations and decisions: we can act in any number of ways, the way we act is determined primarily by our self, and we could really have chosen to act other than we did. We often feel this way, although it further complicates the matter that we often feel otherwise: as when we feel pushed by outside forces, and so forth. And, as a matter of practice, we make these choices in isolation from our philosophical theories of the will.

It is precisely this isolation of our practical choices and the psychological phenomenon of free will from our philosophical theories of the will that brings to light the practical irrelevance of our theories. We do not need them to choose; we use them to explain choice within a broader philosophical system. I am certainly not arguing that these theories have no further implication beyond themselves, and probably the most obvious are moral and theological in nature. But as far as choice-making itself, it is a stretch to imagine how these theories could ever be relevant to our deliberations.

This lack of relevance means that, for the purposes of practical deliberation, the psychological phenomena of will and choice are of primary importance: that is, these phenomena actually do impact our deliberation. The feeling of being in control, of being able to make a choice, is far more important to our making a choice than whether that choice is determined or free. It is itself an important variable, so much so that it could be called part of our faculty of being able to choose. We have a consciousness, and whatever its constituents (be it reducible to purely material components, or to some spiritual or incorporeal force or soul, or to some synthesis of both) that consciousness will more than likely come up against some existential problem or question that demands its deliberation, choice, and action. Moreover, to do this, it will often engage in a number of activities associated with choosing: cost-benefit analysis, appeal to philosophical or religious principles, weighing duties, identifying rewards, and so forth. All these phenomena take on significance within a practical assumption that as an agent I can choose to act one way or another. This assumption is different in content and kind from the theoretical assumption that I can indeed choose different outcomes from the same causal history, because it makes no claims regarding the nature of choice itself beyond my ability to make them. Furthermore, this assumption brings with it only a validation of the psychological phenomena of choice, which is necessary for choice itself and says nothing about any metaphysical realities or truths. It is affirming the appearances for appearances' sake, in the end perhaps constituting nothing more than the statement "I can choose."

But this lack of relevance has an even more important implication: without a practical tie to our actual deliberations (whatever those mechanisms might be), the theories also are unfalsifiable. The primary difference between determinism and free will hinges on the question of whether an identical causal history can given birth to different results, all at the behest of the will. But to test this would require the impossible: it would require the same will to somehow inhabit the same causal history twice to see if a different outcome were possible.

So, what role can an unfalsifiable theory with no practical application play in choice? Clearly, none, except in the accidental sense that one may choose to beat someone up over their view of free will or determinism (or that theological determinism, predestination). Why, then, have we come to believe so strongly in the importance of these doctrines?

I have reached a certain point of agnosticism over this question, and certainly over the grand question of free will itself. My present hypothesis is simply this: for some reason or conglomerate of reasons, we have come to convince ourselves that the validity or authenticity of our choices is dependent upon their status as "free" choices, where "free" is very specifically defined as "having been able to be otherwise even under the same causal history." There is perhaps something a little Kantian about this, for sure: the notion that freedom is synonymous with a kind of autonomy. But even Kantian autonomy aside, free will advocates have always had to search for some space, some breathing room in causality, in which the will may play its special role. There is always some analogue to the Lucretian "swerve," the seemingly ad hoc explanation that atoms merely move of their own accord at times, in any free will interpretation of reality; in some cases, only an appeal to God Himself is sufficient to procure this breathing room.

Another hypothesis (or perhaps a correspondent hypothesis to the above) is that the psychological phenomena came to be enshrined; that, through whatever process, the feeling of choice evolved into an assumption of control, even absolute control, interpreted as the ability to really make one's future. Undoubtedly this would be possible in the above scenario: the need for absolute control (and absolute authority) led us to assume a metaphysical depth to a psychological phenomenon.

Yet both these exaggerations seem in my mind to underrate the real role of the psychology of choice. They are searches for something far behind the choice, some metaphysical "I" laying beyond the choosing and which controls the choice. This "I" must have absolute control and be to some real degree unhindered by all the material and physiological concerns that make up the apparent "me," my body, mind - even, perhaps, my soul, for if a soul exists it too would be subject to its own spiritual history, however that may be imagined. But this extra "I" is a phantom, an unnecessary hypothesis that fails to recognize the identity of the "I" with my body, mind, and soul. There is a great degree to which I am my appearances; it is only the myth of dualism that seeks to separate my apparent self from some real "I." If this myth is abandoned, it becomes clear that the psychological phenomena of choice has its own authenticity apart from some theoretical free agent behind my choosing, because that phenomena is itself inseparable from me. In other words, the psychological phenomenon of choice stands on its own as a guarantee of the validity and authenticity of my choices; I am myself, embodied, a body even if I believe in a soul, and I exist in a particular environment with a history that is essential - not accidental - to who I am. I cannot reject that history. That history is part of my choices.

I should be careful to note that this is neither a wholesale rejection of what has been called "the theory of freewill" nor at all a wholesale embracing of everything called "determinism," though I will be the first to say that it has far more in common with the latter than the former. I suppose in a way it is an attempt to see beyond what I have come to see as an increasingly irrelevant dichotomy that has become quite puzzling to me. As far as theory goes, I am quite content - for the moment - to accept to mystery of the metaphysical groundwork of our choices, meaning by "mystery" to signify the ultimate hidden "truth" behind whether my choices might have been different. What I need for now is a working theory, and accepting the psychological feeling and phenomena of choice at face value - that is, to accept it both as real and as what it is, a feeling and a phenomena that may or may not betoken grander metaphysical truths - seems to fit the bill for now.