Interior dialogue on free will

A: We do not have free will.

B: So what kind of will do we have then?

A: I don’t get the question.

B: Well, if you deny free will, it must be because you think the will is something else.

A: No, I think the whole idea of free will is a fiction, like “sunrise” or “the end of the rainbow”. It’s just a false judgment of appearances.

B: That’s fine- but to explain away the appearance of freedom isn’t the same thing as to explain away the appearance of a will. So what is a will?

A: It’s what people think makes them be able to choose this or that- even though they can’t.

B: So a will is nothing other than what makes people think they are free?

A: Yes.

B: But then a free will would be the free appearance of being free. This is incoherent.

A: All right, will must mean something, but I still think it means free somehow.

B: Does it seem reasonable to say that will is a kind of appetite, and that we can question whether this appetite has some sort of freedom? Even if “will” doesn’t exactly mean “appetite”, you’d still admit that we have desires and appetites.

A: Yes.”Will” doesn’t sound exactly the same as appetite or desire to me, but we really do have desires or appetites, and I deny that we have any real choice about which one we are going to follow. A perfectly formed science could tell us why some monks follow the desire or appetite to fast in the desert and pray while playboys follow the desire to live the high life. But they had no choice but to follow the desire they followed.

B: So what sort of thing is desire? For example, can we desire something that we are utterly ignorant of, or do we at least have to have some idea of it?

A: I’m not sure that “not being utterly ignorant of X” and “having some idea of X” are the same, but that seems right.

B: So the desire for X follows some awareness of it- though this can mean many different things. The desire for peace, for example, can be had even during war.

A: Right.

B: So you’re claiming that we have no choice but to desire the goods we desire?

A: Right, once we learn enough, we’ll know exactly why we see all these things as good. Just look at what evolution can explain about beauty, morality, altruism, etc.

B: But we desire these goods only so far as we know them?

A: yes

B: Now do we know everything we desire with absolute clarity, or not? If we want peace, do we know exactly what the peace will consist in, how we will get to it, how fast we can attain it, and all the other relevant details?

A: No.

B: But then our knowledge of these goals is vague and indeterminate, and could be fulfilled in any number of ways.

A: Right.

B: But if I truly desire, say, peace, and desire follows knowledge, then if the knowledge is indeterminate then the desire is indeterminate. But isn’t an indeterminate desire the opposite of a determinate desire? So isn’t this an undetermined desire- a free will?

A: I don’t know. I’m not sure that everything that is indeterminate is also free. Quantum events are undetermined, but I doubt they are free; so are dice throws.

B: But I’m not saying that every non-determined thing has to be free, but I would say it is non-determined. If desire follows knowledge, then if our knowledge is not determined to one course, how can our desire be?

A: Maybe there are more causes to desire than knowledge.

B: there almost certainly are, but this isn’t the point. We agreed before that desire is impossible without some sort of knowledge. You can’t very well say that when we desire peace we must know it, but then when we desire this or that particular means we need not know them. I don’t see how you can have an utterly determined desire unless you posit that we have an utterly clear knowledge of absolutely everything that must be done- which we clearly don’t have.

A: So are you saying that our freedom arises from our ignorance?

B: I don’t know if I would say exactly that, but there is some truth in that. “freedom” in a human sense requires that we don’t know exactly the way to attain a goal.

A: But we are not free with respect to this goal?

B: I don’t think so. If we had a perfect knowledge of the goal, and a perfect illumination of how to get to it, and a perfect rectitude of our will to attain it, and most importantly, if there were no intrinsic contingencies in the very natures of things that made goals uncertain, then we would not be free in the sense that I now say we are free.

More simply, if we stood face to face with the goal of our life, and knew it as such, then we would have absolutely no choice but to choose it.

A: Yes! that’s exactly what I think! I think this is exactly what science will show us!

B: Well then, I think we agree. The question only becomes now what is the goal and end of our life, correct?

A: Yes, exactly.

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28 Comments

  1. Edward said,

    April 22, 2010 at 6:31 am

    Why is it that once we start asking more fundamental questions like “Well, what is … exactly?” most of the popular philosophy done today washes away like sand on a beach. Ever since studying St. Thomas, I find that his idea on something is usually 1) much more in line with common sense except much more articulate, and 2) it usually offers a third way out of most of the classical (meaning early modern) problems of philosophy.

    So does free will properly arise from a lack? Or is this not the same as saying that it exists merely because the means and objects of our desire are not perfectly known?

    • April 22, 2010 at 11:46 am

      The great push of modern times was to find one system that would answer all questions. More than one system of everything had its day. This all started to fade after the first world war, and its on its last legs now. Universal systems were a fools errand. St. Thomas never intended to make such a universal system, but he gives us is a certain sketch of the whole: a sort of preview of the whole show that still leaves room for big surprises, but yet still sketches out the general beginning, middle and end of what we are looking at. The point of seeing the sketch is the same point as seeing the movie trailer- you’re supposed to go out an do the infinite work of filling in the details- a work that can only be completed in the beatific vision. Sciences of all kinds and arts of all kinds have a role to play in this anticipation of beatitude, but all of them are pretty much toys for viators. They are only anticipations of what we are looking for.

      The human will is a perfection taken absolutely; but it is not born in possession of its last end but must attain it by its own effort and the efforts of others. Freedom can be considered either as the perfection of the will absolutely, or as the state of being born without the possession of its final end. Both are conditions of human freedom, but taken in this second sense, it is a certain lack.

  2. desiderius said,

    April 22, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Dr. Chastek:

    “A perfectly formed science could tell us why some monks follow the desire or appetite to fast in the desert and pray while playboys follow the desire to live the high life. But they had no choice but to follow the desire they followed.”

    Well, if I might play Devil’s Advocate here on the side of those who, I believe, this little parody is aimed at; such a one might easily contend that this ‘will’, ‘appetite’, ‘desire’ &c; is nothing more than the sum of the chemicals in one’s own brain chemistry.

    This, I dare say, would virtually render ineffectual (or, at the very least, present not so trivial a challange to) the argument buried in that little play at semantics featured in your above dialogue that parodies individuals bent on notions of scientism (or generally reductionist theories).

    • April 22, 2010 at 11:24 am

      What you suggest is a response to the argument, but its not a sturdier or more deadly form of the argument. It’s hard enough to explain that freedom is merely apparent and not real; now you raise the question of a guy who argues that even desire and appetite are only apparent and not real. I can at least understand what it means for a guy to think he was free when he wasn’t- that his freedom was a mere appearance and not a reality. I have no idea what it means for a desire to be merely apparent and not real. If you tell me “you only think you are free”, I’ll hear you out; if you tell me “you only think that you desire”, then I have no idea what you are talking about.

      • desiderius said,

        April 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm

        Dr. Chastek:

        I agree to the extent that the counter-argument submitted is hardly devestating, if at all compelling.

        However, I must disagree with your overall response.

        Suppose, arguendo, that just like how the sequence of DNA defines the individual biologically, so too the manner of how that very individual thinks (which is, to say, his thought process is simply the phenotypic results of his defining DNA code). Thus, whatever desires that very individual experiences arises all because of this.

        This is not unheard especially in light of how there have been scientific studies conducted that have attributed the cause for a person being obese, a drunkard, &c; all due to that person’s underlying genetic code generally thought to be responsible for precisely how that person is.

        I humbly submit that, therefore, that, quite possibly, just like in the foregoing, many other ‘desires’ previously thought to be an act of will might be none other but the direct end result of one’s own set of genes which ultimately gave rise to them.

        I am rather in a rush to words at the moment due to matters requiring my immediate attention, so if you would kindly indulge what may very well be poorly articulated thought in the aforemention, I’d be truly grateful. Yet, I hope nonetheless that you might at least have seized the basic essence of my thought here concerning ‘will’ quite possibly being merely the end result of one’s biological makeup as defined genetically.

      • April 22, 2010 at 12:27 pm

        But there is no problem on anyone’s account of desire or appetite in calling it a totally chemical thing: that’s why we can sell chemicals called “appetite suppressants”. But how does this make appetite or desire merely apparent? More to the point, everyone agrees that desires can be caused by physical states. But to explain desire away with freedom one needs to explain not that desires are physical, but that they are merely apparent. What would this even mean? If some scientist ran a scan on you and told you “you only appear to desire this this bowl of M+M’s, but truly you do not”, but you knew you were, then you would infallibly know that there was something wrong with the test.

  3. April 22, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    And again, I’m baffled at characterizations of arguments as “little play[s] at semantics” or, as one commenter called them a few days back “word games”. Is this a polite way of saying “You are bullshitting”?

    • desiderius said,

      April 22, 2010 at 1:43 pm

      I didn’t intend it as anything pejorative. While I appreciate what you were attempting to do, I for my part was attempting to express a possible responsio from a whole other perspective.

      As to your present reply to mine, I’ll revisit this when time allows. Thanks.

  4. April 22, 2010 at 1:51 pm

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    rev.robertwright@gmail.com
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    • tertullian said,

      April 23, 2010 at 9:10 am

      Kindly excuse this interruption, but in the interest of fair and balanced commentary in view of the above:

      “Christian Church and church (Greek kyriakon (κυριακόν), “thing belonging to the Lord”; also ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) (Latinized as ecclesia, “assembly”) are used to denote both a Christian association of people and a place of worship. In the phenomenological sense there are many such associations of people that call themselves Christian churches. In the New Testament the term ἐκκλησία (church or assembly) is used for local communities and in a universal sense to mean all believers.[1] Since heresy is seen as separating from the church, the phrase “all believers” is ambiguous, and churches such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church hold that that those who, though called Christians, are out of communion with them are not, in the full sense, part of the Christian church.”

      For Mass Times & Local churches:

      http://www.masstimes.org/dotnet/Default.aspx

      For Christian Programming:

      http://www.ewtn.com/tv/index.asp

      Thanks & God Bless!

  5. bruce said,

    April 23, 2010 at 5:02 am

    I don’t think the materialist argument against free will involves brain chemicals, nowadays. It involves complex patterns formed over a billion years of hunting food, procreating, recreation, being eaten- patterns that do exist in ecology as a science, and are used by sciencists.
    For a left Christian view, Walter Wink, ‘Naming the Powers’, Powers trilogy.

  6. Mike said,

    April 23, 2010 at 6:30 am

    “…dice throws…”

    But these are determinate. It is a basic problem in the physics of motion: gravity, initial velocity, orientation of the dice, elasticity, coefficient of friction of the surface, etc. etc. What makes the outcome seem indeterminate (and keeps casinos in business) is our inability to know all the requisite variables.

    If our knowledge were more perfect, we would see the outcome as necessary, and our will [in the form of bets] would be drawn to it without reservation.

    The odds would be crappy, however.

    • April 23, 2010 at 9:19 am

      Mike,

      True, but there is still no causality between all those factors and, say, my placing a bet of $20 that this throw will come up 11. The minute we get smart enough to figure out when the 11 will come up (and this will be extremely hard to do before the throw, methinks) then we will no longer be able to be lucky or not in games like this.

      luck is not the same thing as chance. The first is due to our ignorance, to be sure, but Aristotle and St. Thomas insist that there is a kind of phenomenon like this that is not based on the ignorance of the agent, but on the indeterminacy of nature. Just how far this indeterminacy extends is a matter for experiment; but it is allowed in principle by the reality of matter in natural things

      • Mike said,

        April 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm

        I wouldn’t mind reading what you have to say about the indeterminacy of nature as it relates to the quantum theory. Or have you already done so. When you shifted to this layout, you lost “search” capability.

  7. desiderius said,

    April 23, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Dr. Chastek:

    Coincidentally, I just discovered the following article:

    Brain Stimulation Can Alter Our Moral Judgments, Study Suggests

    excerpt:

    “A team of neuroscientists claim it is possible to influence people’s moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region called the the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ).

    The study offers ‘striking evidence’ that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, the authors say.”

    It would appear as though what I had proposed in my previously submitted responsio was not so far-fetched.

    Basically, if true, one may quite rightly posit that the decisions the individual makes may in large part be primarily due to reasoning arising from one’s biological make-up (specifically, in this case, brain topography).

  8. April 23, 2010 at 8:33 am

    It’s not far fetched, but it seems like one could perform the same experiment on a much smaller budget by comparing the moral judgments made by a man when sober and drunk; normal and high; or even well-rested and very tired. I think David Tye made the same point about that same experiment.

    Moral judgments are in the passions, and thus in the body. God and the angels do not act morally. Bodily changes make real changes in moral action, if for no other reason that they make a very marked difference in the passions.

    Again, I don’t what you are objecting to. I understand what you are saying, and it’s a fine argument, I just don’t see how it relates to the argument of the post, though you seem to think it does.

    Tangentially, I’m puzzled by the strange understanding that people have of chemicals, when they are the chemicals of a person. My chemicals are mine- I possess them and integrate them into my personality. It’s as though you view your own chemicals a essentially impersonal, even when they are yours. This is just odd. Maybe calcium in general is not essentially personal, but my bones are. There is no account of my bones that does not make them the bones of a person.

  9. desiderius said,

    April 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    “I understand what you are saying, and it’s a fine argument, I just don’t see how it relates to the argument of the post, though you seem to think it does.”

    I was, as said previously, playing devil’s advocate and arguing against your notion of “free will”.

    “My chemicals are mine- I possess them and integrate them into my personality.”

    On the contrary, if anything, the foregoing comments should have reasonably demonstrated that since one’s biochemistry essentially defines who that person is; I would be of the opinion that you don’t really “possess them and integrate them into [your] personality” but that they’re integral factors in determining your personality and, in a sense, ‘possess’ you and is precisely what’s responsible for who ‘you’ are.

    Therefore, how and what you ultimately decide to do (again, playing devil’s advocate here) is not due to some notion of ‘free will’ but, really, is all because of those very elements that make you who you are, which actually happens to be the end result of your molecular makeup!

  10. Joseph A. said,

    April 24, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    It’s meaningless to say that one’s biochemistry “defines who that person is” when the biochemistry itself changes in response to experience and external factors. It’s close to saying that clay itself exclusively determines what someone will mold it into – after all, clay has certain characteristics (formal properties?) that react in certain ways to external stimuli and manipulation, certain parameters that aren’t changed by the act of crafting. In the end, it’s more complicated than that.

    What’s more, I don’t see where your response to James contradicts him. He says that his chemicals are his, and are integrated into his personality. You object, but your objection seems to amount to saying yes, the chemicals are integrated into his personality. You add that his chemicals ‘possess him’ and ‘are responsible’ for who he is, in a sense… But in what sense? Are you saying that the chemicals ‘have’ a self? A personality? Because clearly SOMEone in the equation does.

    And that’s one problem with saying that ‘who you are … happens to be the end result of your molecular makeup!’ I don’t think thomists who say that the soul is the form of the body are going to take “your molecular makeup plays an integral role” in determining one’s self with much concern. As James effectively said, have a few drinks and you’ll verify as much.

    One last thing: Did you really read and understand James’ original post? His interior dialogue (which I thought was very interesting, by the way) was one that discussed “free will” being at least in (large?) part a result of ignorance worked into our desires, goals, and ends. You seem to be suggesting that James is saying something like ‘desires are a result of free will!’, which strikes me as very far from what James was saying – not even in the right direction. Then again, if I’m wrong James, please correct me.

    • Mike said,

      April 25, 2010 at 10:39 am

      I had thought it more like “desires =are= will.” And the will is free insofar as the intellect does not have perfect knowledge of the desideratum. Perfect knowledge would lead to determined will. As the slyly subversive final couple of exchanges hint at.

      • desiderius said,

        April 26, 2010 at 9:15 am

        “Slyly subversive”? How precisely did my comments deserve such a sinister characterization? Suffice it to say that if there is such a thing as “free will”, then it would appear as though it is not for any genomic reason that has made certain persons here the arses they are, but that they freely choose to act thus and rather than embrace open-minded, charitable (and, indeed, “Catholic” or, dare I say, “Christian”) principles when engaging such discussions; they rather behave uncharitably in such deplorably insidious terms.

    • desiderius said,

      April 26, 2010 at 9:08 am

      Did you even read the science article in question? Or do you typically interrupt a conversation without knowing precisely where the contention lies? Not to mention, ill-informed and egregiously ignorant of the subject matter at hand? Kindly read the articles previously submitted for reflection.

      • Joseph A. said,

        April 26, 2010 at 1:16 pm

        I read the article you posted, and also well in advance of your post – it’s been making the rounds on the blogs I post on. I’d further add that the experiment just helps make one of my points: You’re talking about how our biochemistry determines all our choices. But the experiment showed one way for the environment to frustrate our biochemistry.

        If my comments were incorrect or off the mark, please feel free to expose exactly where, just as I attempted to do with your own comments. I suspect if you actually had a worthy response, that would have been your first move – rather than the frantic bristling.

        Or so my biochemistry tells me. ;)

    • desiderius said,

      April 26, 2010 at 2:59 pm

      Joseph A.:

      Again, you’ve failed to follow the ongoing discussion between Dr. Chastek and myself.

      As I had originally proposed then:

      “Suppose, arguendo, that just like how the sequence of DNA defines the individual biologically, so too the manner of how that very individual thinks (which is, to say, his thought process is simply the phenotypic results of his defining DNA code). Thus, whatever desires that very individual experiences arises all because of this.

      This is not unheard especially in light of how there have been scientific studies conducted that have attributed the cause for a person being obese, a drunkard, &c; all due to that person’s underlying genetic code generally thought to be responsible for precisely how that person is.

      I humbly submit that, therefore, that, quite possibly, just like in the foregoing, many other ‘desires’ previously thought to be an act of will might be none other but the direct end result of one’s own set of genes which ultimately gave rise to them.”

      • Joseph A. said,

        April 26, 2010 at 10:37 pm

        desiderius,

        I’ve followed the discussion just fine – hence my response, complete with quotes from yourself, and my criticisms of your views. I even expressed concern that you weren’t reading James close enough, and that “desires are a result of free will!” (or “‘desires’ previously thought to be an act of will’) seemed rather “off” from what James actually said and was saying.

        Either way, I’ll trust you to relate the above and my responses to your DNA for consideration.

  11. John said,

    April 26, 2010 at 12:53 am

    “A” said: “More simply, if we stood face to face with the goal of our life, and knew it as such, then we would have absolutely no choice but to choose it.”

    This sentence is a strange argument for the absence of free will: “we would have absolutely no choice but to choose it”

    Suppose the goal of our life were the “form” of the good. In that case we could choose what fits the form – or perversely reject it.

    Everything we write is straw compared with what we experience. Our writing is a one dimensional stream of symbols whereas our experience is a form. It might even be a form that is good if we could navigate to the place within where this form exists.

    • April 26, 2010 at 10:34 am

      I admit that it’s strange, but that’s because we have to speak about it using a language that was developed outside of its presence. We cannot but think of the term of our will using an image, which by definition will be just another thing that falls short of the term of our will: viz. a bright light, a cloud, a place in the sky, etc.

      “No choice but to choose it” denies the imperfection of choice while affirming the perfection in it, but our language has developed totally in a world where the two are always found together.

  12. John said,

    April 26, 2010 at 7:57 am

    “Basically, if true, one may quite rightly posit that the decisions the individual makes may in large part be primarily due to reasoning arising from one’s biological make-up (specifically, in this case, brain topography).”

    This is probably true. But it is trivial in the sense that any machine that calculates A + B = C will have states A and B within it then also contain a state “C”. The interesting point is whether a person’s mind might acquire a state over many years such that, barring electrocution of their cerebral cortex, they make the complex case of AzcD + YunGH = RfBds whereas other people make AzcD + YunGH = ThGbN. Do people have a “state of mind”, a form that is their mind, and does this state influence decisions?

    Is the state of a human mind a simple 3D arrangement of things or a more complex state?

    • desiderius said,

      April 26, 2010 at 10:14 am

      John:

      My statement was intended to overexaggerate the more Mendelian perspective precisely in order to introduce a hypothetical situation wherein “free will” would seem practically non-existent.

      This is the reason why it necessarily ignored epigenomic considerations (e.g., influences from the environment).

      “Free will” would not be the case in such a situation wherein all acts of the will on the part of the individual were ultimately the end result of genetically in-grained reasoning (at least, in the case of the strictly hypothetical situation I had constructed where Mendelian genetics dominated).


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