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Free will

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Free will

#321 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 27th, 2011, 11:44 pm

Latest post of the previous page:

Gurdur wrote:No. At the risk of arousing your ire again, no.
Hello, Gurdur. Hope you're recovering well. I wish I could convince you that my ire really doesn't get aroused simply by someone disagreeing with me.
Gurdur wrote:Such statements are unhelpful to those who actually have pressing needs to understand their own thinking, and they're only vague claims with no applicable outworkings, and no base to them. This kind of obscurancy ("nothing left over that isn't part of the self") just simply doesn't align with everyday reality. In reality, there are constantly many parts of us we distance from our selves (deliberate spacing there), whether it's dead skin cells or parts of our thinking; and in the best of cases, we do that distancing to actually help ourselves. Whether to change the way we think, which people can actually do and sometimes do do, or to change the way we behave, and so thereby change the way we think. Obviously if one has a bad emotional pattern to one's thinking, it is part of "them", of their self, and yet they can and do sometimes manage to change and eliminate it, i.e. they change themselves. Essential for some.
I completely agree with you about the distancing. But I would make a distinction between the self as a kind of all-encompassing collective, comprising all the various functions and processes and events and states of the brain, conscious and unconscious, and interactions with the rest of the body, etc., and the self as a subjective experience. The latter is a rather flighty thing, I think, with our sense of self constantly changing, as different elements of our selves come into focus, and others fade into the background, or we consciously distance ourselves from them, as you say. But there are also elements of the self that are pretty much permanently hidden from our conscious experience, so we don't have the opportunity to focus on them at all, and yet they are important determining factors in the choices we make. And I do agree that people can and do change themselves. But only, in my view, when they are equipped to do so, when their own desires, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, etc. enable them to, when the circumstances allow them to, when they have access to the right kind of help, etc. In other words, a person's ability to change him- or herself is determined by things that are beyond his or her control.
Gurdur wrote:As for your claim about not being able to make free choices, again, it simply does not accord with reality.
The point I was trying to make, and I admit I wasn't making it very clearly, is that if one changes the way one sees the self [---][/---] less as a single, constant thing, and more as something that's complex and multifaceted and internally at odds and constantly changing [---][/---] it becomes difficult to envisage the self as a thing with agency, as we usually understand it, a thing that can do something like choose or decide. The idea of free choice becomes less meaningful in that context. But I would agree that it continues to be meaningful in the context of our own relatively stable subjective experience of the self.
Gurdur wrote:People have varying degrees of freedom as to making choices, and providing them with the tools and above all a knowledge of the possible options of different thinking and means to find for themselves even more options is essential for many; those in therapeutic need, for example.
Absolutely.
Gurdur wrote:People, whether you like it or not, do make free choices, and freedom is a continuity, not a sharp differentiation. The idea is to constantly increase one's freedom, and that is incredibly important to those who lack it.
Again, I agree.
Gurdur wrote:I do find it odd how you contradict yourself ...
I can't resist quoting Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
Gurdur wrote:... on the one hand, you claim no free choices, all is the self, etc., on the other hand you claim a malign or mistaken influence from the religious, when if what else you are saying is correct, then you cannot be blaming the religious, since they're all part of the great grand causality of it all, eh?
No, I wasn't contradicting myself there at all. First, there's nothing contradictory about identifying a particular event or change as harmful and not seeing the agent that (most directly) caused that event or change as morally responsible for it. I can bemoan the effects of the windy weather on my garden, "blaming" it in that limited sense, without feeling that it deserves resentment or anger or punishment. And in any case, despite my use of the admittedly pejorative word "religiots", I didn't say anything to imply that the influence of religion on the word "evil" was malign, or even mistaken. I happen to have a personal preference for the older, more everyday meaning of "evil", but I don't feel resentful about the way the meaning of the word has changed, and I am content to put up with the current meaning, complete with its religious connotations.
gurdur wrote:We've talked this a couple of times, and you object to my manner of challenging these statements; yet I regard such statements in much the same light as I regard homeopathy, that is to say, vague claims which really have no effective outworkings or applicability.
I'm not sure what "outworkings" are, and for me it's still too early to know what applicability these ideas might have, if any, but I'll readily admit to the vagueness. Still, I'm not trying to sell anything. I haven't invested anything in these ideas, and I'm not so wedded to them that I'm incapable of changing my mind. I'm still exploring them for myself.
Gurdur wrote:How much toleration do you yourself give homeopathic claims, Emma?
I'm not sure what you're asking here, exactly, or why.
Gurdur wrote:As said, we've talked these things, and one thing really strikes me; you push these claims often, but you have no interest in really examining them, you object when they are challenged, you do not try actually dealing with objections, and yet you show no such compunction towards others.
Hmm. I make that five things. :) I am very grateful to animist and thundril for their responses to your post, and they have both helped me to feel confident that you are wrong, in at least some of your charges. I don't believe that I "push these claims often". The topic has cropped up a few times, and I have joined in, and expressed my ideas as I understood them at the time (though they have changed over the years), but I don't "push" them any more than anyone else "pushes" their views when they express them. I know that I have a strong interest in examining these ideas, and although I haven't always got around to doing enough of the necessary reading, and progress is slow, I am learning, and gradually refining my views. I certainly do not object when my views are challenged. In fact, I love it when my views are challenged. I'd be thoroughly disappointed if my views weren't challenged. Animist and I do occasionally get irritable with each other, but it generally blows over pretty quickly, and it's all fairly amicable really. I did once overreact to something you said to me, Gurdur, but I subsequently apologised for that overreaction, and I also did attempt to engage in a friendly, cooperative manner with your objections to my arguments. I even thanked you for making me examine them more carefully. I'm not sure what you mean by my showing "no such compunction to others". What should I be showing compunction about?
Gurdur wrote:I am mainly after what accords with a humanist range of values; and humanism is an ethical choice. Constantly hearing such claims as "no free choices" and "no free will", without any scientific basis to those claims, and a rather poor grasp of causality (the complete ignoring of emergent properties, for one thing, the complete ignoring of how the self-observing, self-altering brain/self can actually change itself), well, you know, it gets up the nose, since it leads nowhere useful, it achieves nothing. I would be all interest should in fact there be shown applicable and useful results -- whcih there aren't, which is why cognitive psychology still exists and develops, or why ethics is an ongoing concern, or for that matter why we have political elections and democracy. I'm only too aware from the past we're not going to have any real discussion from this, merely yet again a restatement of claims, and that rather jaundices me, so I'll leave it at that. But seriously, your claims are not above challenge, just as mine are not, just as anyone's are not; and seriously, have you thought actually of trying to both make a more scientific basis, which includes rigorous examination and discusssion, and also making the claims more applicable in outworkings for the (wo)man in the street?
Oh, how on earth am I supposed to respond to that? Gurdur, you present me as a pretty dreadful person in your previous sentence, and now you say more things that are frankly insulting, despite the fact that you and I haven't had a discussion for some time, and the last one we had didn't really end too badly, all things considered. And you're jaundiced by my response to your post before I've even made it! Sheesh! If you had been a little friendlier, I would have loved to have had a discussion with you about emergent properties, or the ways in which the self-observing, self-altering brain/self can actually change itself. But can you honestly blame me for feeling somewhat disinclined to engage with you right now?

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Free will

#322 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 28th, 2011, 2:59 pm

animist wrote:Duress - yes, that might certainly be a relevant defence sometimes (as obviously in the cases where bank managers have been forced to rob their own banks), but it does not get one out of everything - to quote from Wikipedia: "Exceptions: Duress is no defence to murder, attempted murder, or treason involving the death of the sovereign. In general, courts do not accept a defence of duress when harm done by the defendant is greater than the court's perception of the harm threatened. This is a test of proportionality."
Seems like a good test (though I wouldn't single out the sovereign in that way). But I have now gone back and checked what your original point was. You said that if the legal system were reformed in the light of ideas like mine, "you would have to make decisions which would seem very much like those now done on the basis of moral responsibility: for instance, if I were coerced by threats into a physical assault on a third party, how responsible (and therefore punishable, if you'll pardon the expression) would I be?" And what I should have said, straight away, was yes, we would have to make decisions that would seem very much like those now done on the basis of moral responsibility (or what I'd call legal responsibility), and this is a good example of such a decision. In the example of assault that you gave, the test of proportionality would apply. If someone's boss threatened to sack him if he didn't throw acid in someone's face, then that would clearly fail the test; it wouldn't count as duress. If someone threatened to kill someone's child if she didn't spike someone else's drink with chloral hydrate, say, then that would stand a much better chance of passing. But I should imagine that there are lots of difficult grey areas, especially where someone believes a threat is greater than it really is, or where a crime has more severe consequences than the person coerced into committing it believes it will have. If the difference between passing and failing the proportionality test is that one allows a person to get away scott free and the other sends him or her to prison for a long time, then there's a hell of a lot riding on it.
animist wrote:On your first point, you simply do not know how people would react. If I were threatened in the way I mentioned, obviously my first thought should be to tell the police rather than go along with a seriously illegal act (which might be worse than the threat), and the belief (if I had it) that I might plead duress would not be a strong inducement to commit what anyway would be a repellent act. Yes, I might go ahead with the crime anyway, but the knowledge that I would be convicted would likely be a deterrent - it all depends on circumstances.
Yes, it does depend on circumstances. You're right. I was letting my imagination run away with itself, and envisaging a particular and extreme kind of threat. But I still have a few problems with the whole idea of deterrence as justification for punishment, for reasons that seem to me to be separate from the whole free will/moral responsibility issue. I'll try to gather my thoughts on this together sometime, maybe in a different thread.
animist wrote:And, leaving extreme violence behind, how about blackmail? It would be no defence to plead as a defence that I was blackmailed into a criminal act, and that fact that the blackmailer was ipso facto also guilty of criminal behaviour would be little comfort to me. The point surely is that the law does need to show that no-one gets above it by some spurious plea ...
It seems to me that all this comes back to the issue of free will and responsibility in the legal sense, which are senses that I've accepted. If we are going to deal with the perpetrators of crimes, we need to have a way of identifying who those perpetrators are, when a crime has been committed, whether it falls into one category of crime or another. And we need to have sufficient evidence to prove that someone is guilty of a particular crime. (Which might mean that someone who is guilty will get off because of lack of evidence.) There's no getting away from all that, and I don't think I've suggested that a change to the legal system in the light of the kind of "thought revolution" we've been talking about would mean getting away from all that. For me, it is the next step that's significant. Once a person has been found guilty of a crime, what then?
animist wrote:... the more I think about it, the crucial concept is indeed blame and culpability, not the nature and extent of punishment, which is so open-ended that - as you imply - few people in difficult situations like blackmail will consider it in detail. But none of this is a dilemma for the legal system (the dilemmas are for the individuals); the thousands of cases which come to court show that deterrence does not always work, but the thousands more potential cases which never in fact occur show that it does often work.
I'm not sure that I understand that. How can potential cases that don't occur even be counted? How can such nonexistent things show anything?

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Re: Free will

#323 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 28th, 2011, 3:49 pm

animist wrote:taking the last point first, I am sure you'll agree that if something is logically impossible, the question of possibility in a biological or any other causal sense just does not arise.
I think I was attempting to look at the issue the other way round. :) If it appears that something seems possible in a biological (or any other causal) sense, then that calls into question the idea that it is logically impossible. And if the issue of logical impossibility hinges on the use of a particular word, then maybe the problem is with the word itself. (For example, if we believe that the word "blackbird" contains the clear implication that it is referring to a bird with black plumage, we might claim that it is logically impossible for a blackbird to be any colour other than black. But if we can demonstrate that the brown birds that hang around with blackbirds are very probably female members of the same species, then that supposed logical impossibility becomes rather suspect.)
animist wrote:I certainly cannot prove in an empirical way that it is is always possible to try (for one thing, it would be impossible in principle to prove anything continuing infinitely - or something akin to infinitely, given the finite nature of human life).
But can you explain a little more why you think that it is logically impossible for trying ever to be impossible? I still can't get my head round that idea.
animist wrote:I see what you mean in your conjecture about the physiology behind the trying action, but, if what you say is actually true, ie that brain damage might have seriously impaired the ability to "try", then I would argue that such damage would have impaired more generally any ability to will anything. This leads me onto why I think the idea of trying does imply an infinite ability to try. If I want something (as opposed to merely wishing for it, eg for the Moon) the implication is that I really and therefore actively want it, and the implication of that is that I will try to get it. So only if my ability to want is impaired can my ability to try also be impaired.
No, that doesn't follow. It may be the case that if your ability to want is impaired then your ability to try will also be impaired (although I suppose it's possible that one might still try to do something one doesn't really want to do, though I can't think of an example of the circumstances offhand), but there's no reason to assume that that's the only reason your ability to try might be impaired. There are all sorts of possibility. You don't have only the one want. You will have several wants, and some might conflict with the want in question, to the extent that they impair your ability to try to achieve it. Or you might want something, but at the same time be frightened of certain consequences of it. Or you might want something, but be absolutely convinced that you are incapable of getting it.
animist wrote:It seems to me that, not content with attacking the free aspect of free will, you are now attacking the very idea of a will itself. This tack also appears with your comments in your later post about the impossibility of there being a sort of self which is more than the sum total of the personality and is there to make decisions. Fair enough, but the concept of intentionality AFAIK is an important one in psychology.
Yes, you're right. And I am far from confident about the ideas I've expressed about the nature of trying. I was exploring the possibilities, but not because I felt they were central to any of my points. And as I said earlier, I was not trying to demonstrate that it is possible to be totally incapable of trying. I think your idea of one's ability to try being impaired is probably more useful. I do still think, though, that when a person doesn't try to do something, that failure to try will be a consequence of things that are outside that person's control. It might be, as you say, that the person simply doesn't want to do that thing, but even that lack of want will be beyond the person's control.
animist wrote:As regards your argument that a person long paralysed would simply stop trying because of failure, I can only repeat that this seems irrelevant in an argument about the possibility of trying; to stop trying would be a voluntary decision effectively. Of course, as you imply, trying might be an unpleasant experience as well as one which seemed hopeless as far as effectiveness, but the patient would nevertheless be deciding that the infinitesimal chance of success was just not the discomfort of trying.
Well, that's not how I was seeing it. What I imagined (and fortunately I can only imagine it, having never been paralysed), was that there would be some kind of negative feedback loop, so that the lack of response to the attempts to try would continually weaken the capacity to try, until the point where that capacity goes completely. So it would not be a voluntary decision, effectively or otherwise.
animist wrote:One can almost imagine a heart-warming story of a cripple whose doctor keeps urging him to try moving his limbs, even though this might be painful; the two end up shouting at each other, the patient screaming "I just can't try any more!" and the doctor responding "but JUST ONCE MORE!", and in a nice world, this of course would be the time it works!
Yes, but in that story the existence of a doctor who clearly believes that the paralysed person is capable of moving his limbs is an important element, because such a doctor is likely to have an impact on the patient's own beliefs about his own capabilities. If a patient believes that he will move his limbs if only he just keeps trying, then he is much more likely to keep trying. If, on the other hand, the patient is faced with a doctor who tells him that his paralysis is, without doubt, permanent, then the patient is much more likely to believe that trying would be useless, and much less likely to keep doing it. Unless he's the sort of person who thinks, in such circumstances, "I'll bloody show him! I will walk again." Similarly, if someone has been repeatedly told that he's a useless waste of space who is never going to achieve anything, and if repeated attempts to achieve something have already failed, then he is, I would think, much less likely to keep on trying than he would be if he had been told that he had a spark of greatness in him and that one day (mark my words, son) he would do great things. Unless, again, he's the sort of person who gets spurred on by such negativity, because he wants to prove someone wrong.

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Re: Free will

#324 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 28th, 2011, 3:58 pm

animist wrote:
Emma Woolgatherer wrote:But perhaps I need to have a better idea of what determinism means to you.
that is what I was trying to explain, but I really don't think we are going to see it the same way. Did you watch the Dan Dennett videos?
I thought I had, but I don't remember this, so I'll have another look at get back to the thread later. It sounds as though this might be a useful avenue.
animist wrote:I do not see randomness as any sort of life belt - have you explained why you do? Randomness means being out-of-control, and my freedom, such as it is, depends on my self-control; to me it is as simple as that. So I seem to see things in exactly the opposite way from you.
Yes, maybe. I'm beginning to wonder whether I ever feel particularly in control, and if I don't, whether that lack of control is something that particularly bothers me. Hmmm. Not sure. In any case, what seems to bother me much more is the idea that I am being controlled by someone or something else. Perhaps, for me, freedom is a purely negative thing.

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Re: Free will

#325 Post by animist » May 28th, 2011, 6:58 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:The whole point is that we are not motiveless natural forces; it recalls the Basil Fawlty sketch (mentioned by Dawkins) about "punishing" the car, and FTM the historical whipping of the waves by King Xerxes after his defeat in a sea battle. It is the very fact that we find these behaviours absurd which indicates the distinction between our intentional actions and the effects of impersonal forces.
Well, it indicates the distinction we currently make between those things. But there are fuzzy areas. In the Middle Ages, in parts of Europe, animals were put on trial for their "crimes". Now, we consider such things to be ridiculous. In England and Wales, we put ten-year-olds on trial for their "crimes". In Switzerland, Ireland, Nigeria and South Africa, they put seven-year-olds on trial for their "crimes". In Belgium, Brazil and Peru, where the age of criminal responsibility is 18, such an approach might be considered absurd. In the future, perhaps everyone in the world might find such an approach absurd. And perhaps, in the future, more people will find the idea of punishing adults for their crimes (i.e. deliberately harming them because they deserve it) absurd too. Who knows?
I see where you're going with this, but the practical difficulty involved in solving questions of at what minimum age people can be considered to have some moral responsibility should not be used as argument against the concept itself; I suppose it is an emergent property, to use Gurdur's word. As I said before, I consider myself rational enough to be held responsible (to a degree anyway) for my own actions, and the fact that someone else is probably not so does not alter my own case. Your argument about animals being put on trial just reminds us how far we have progressed from those dark days of ignorance. I have not researched this at all but I'm just remembering the goat of Esmeralda (called Djali) in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" being condemned with Esmeralda for witchcraft. I suppose they thought that the goat was the home of a demon and that its death was necessary to release the demon - so maybe they did not really think goats as such were necessarily evil. I don't know, all sorts of crap has been believed by someone or other, as I know you will agree, with fear the obvious source. What I am saying is that I don't think that condemning animals is in fact a fuzzy area, as you put it; it is (in the absence of evidence for demonic possession) simply wrong in every way. Animals are more like us in most ways than are inanimate objects, but this happens to be one area where they are significantly different. (BTW, the idea of demonic possession does seem to resemble GS's mention of evil "attaching" itself to people; sometimes the people possessed had supposedly voluntarily consorted with the powers of evil, other times maybe not). Intentionality does again seem to be a key concept for human responsibility, together of course with the ability to communicate and describe our own attitudes and motives; and this certainly does vary greatly between people of any age.

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Re: Free will

#326 Post by animist » May 28th, 2011, 8:57 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:the thousands of cases which come to court show that deterrence does not always work, but the thousands more potential cases which never in fact occur show that it does often work.
I'm not sure that I understand that. How can potential cases that don't occur even be counted? How can such nonexistent things show anything?
badly expressed by me, but what I meant is that there is, I imagine, a large number of crimes which never happened because the person who would have been the perpetrator was deterred by the threat of legal punishment. Obviously the crimes that did happen are the ones that are countable, and they show the limits of deterrence. I don't think we are especially arguing anyway about whether deterrence works, or how far, but I think this point came into my mind from reading currently "The Black Swan" by Nicholas Taleb. One of his preoccupations is the invisibility (and therefore the ignoring) of these "nonexistent" events - but they are things which might have happened if people had acted differently

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Re: Free will

#327 Post by animist » May 28th, 2011, 11:22 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote: if we believe that the word "blackbird" contains the clear implication that it is referring to a bird with black plumage, we might claim that it is logically impossible for a blackbird to be any colour other than black. But if we can demonstrate that the brown birds that hang around with blackbirds are very probably female members of the same species, then that supposed logical impossibility becomes rather suspect.)...But can you explain a little more why you think that it is logically impossible for trying ever to be impossible?
it is a hunch which came from reading again our friend, the randy philosopher Nowell-Smith. He seems to take it as granted that trying to do the right thing is central to moral responsibility, and I assume this is because he thinks trying is always possible. This made me think about it, and yes it does seem so - on the assumption that we are talking about normal rational people in normal situations, not the clinically depressed or mentally ill people mentioned by Thundril. My wife also pointed out that she was incapable of even trying to swot for A-levels because she was almost literally paralysed by fear of them (if she had received sympathetic guidance, no doubt she would at least have tried actively to swot, and I suppose I could call her case one of willing too hard). So I can concede that it is not quite impossible for one to be incapable of trying, but I think the core meaning of the word does imply this. It is not quite like a definition of a blackbird (or a swan - black swan again!) or like the paradigmatic bachelor/unmarried man identity; the first two of these cases feature an empirical assumption which turns out to be false, and a decision is made that the property was not after all a defining feature, while the last case is simply two different ways of describing the same thing. This case is indeed more complicated, and it is more to do with what I think would be our unwillingness to normally accept as sincere the plea of someone that they could not try (allowing for the exceptions I have mentioned). So to repeat, I think genuine and active wanting implies willing, and willing involves trying; and these IMO are semantic and therefore logical entailments.
Emma Woolgatherer wrote:It may be the case that if your ability to want is impaired then your ability to try will also be impaired (although I suppose it's possible that one might still try to do something one doesn't really want to do, though I can't think of an example of the circumstances offhand), but there's no reason to assume that that's the only reason your ability to try might be impaired. There are all sorts of possibility. You don't have only the one want. You will have several wants, and some might conflict with the want in question, to the extent that they impair your ability to try to achieve it. Or you might want something, but at the same time be frightened of certain consequences of it. Or you might want something, but be absolutely convinced that you are incapable of getting it.
I am sure one could try to do something that one did not really want (for want of anything better to do, for example). But on your main point here, if I have several wants which conflict, then I can only will one of them and try to achieve that one. So I guess there is an intermediate term here between wanting and trying, which is willing. However, I have sort of covered this already (without always using the word) by clearly distinguishing between active wanting on the one hand, and mere passive wishing on the other. And yes of course, I might want something a lot but be frightened of it as well in some way, and this would impair my active wanting/willing/trying (as would my pessimism about the chances of getting it). I don't see any of this contradicting my main claim about trying.

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Re: Free will

#328 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » June 1st, 2011, 5:20 pm

animist wrote:Did you watch the Dan Dennett videos? He distinguishes between "inevitable" and "determined" (which makes sense to me) and he refers to the so-called "Laplace's Demon". I think this latter (though it is now rejected by scientists because it does not cope with randomness) is close to how I have always viewed determinism/predeterminism. If at some point in time one could actually know all characteristics of that moment, both with regard to human minds and the rest of Nature, then one could in fact know the exact future.
Right, I've now watched the video of Dan Dennett's lecture on free will at Edinburgh University, and I'm glad I watched it and it did help, even though I found it very frustrating. The distinction between "inevitable" and "determined" that he made so much of did not make an awful lot of sense to me. Though I wanted it to. It seemed promising, to begin with. But, to me, inevitability means precisely what you and he have described as determinism. A definition of determinism that Dennett said he accepts is "the thesis that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future" (Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford University Press, 1983). That's all inevitability means to me, in this context. It's just a word for describing the idea that, for any particular set of circumstances obtaining at any particular time, there is only one possible outcome. It doesn't mean that we are incapable of avoiding flying bricks, or any other anticipated events. If we see a brick flying towards us, then that observation, together with our (evolved) instinct to duck when we see a missile heading our way, all the details about the brick's trajectory, etc., is part of the particular set of circumstances obtaining at that particular time. So when Dennett points to the things that are evitable in our universe, it doesn't really help. It doesn't demonstrate, to me, that we have free will, in the sense that "matters".
animist wrote:But, the big but, this does not contradict human free will (or for all I know, animal and alien free will); to know something is not to control it, and humans and all the other creatures and inanimate forces have still to create that universe which the "Demon" predicted (this of course implies no automatic involvement in this future universe, which in fact might run up against Heisenberg and all that). I think language can often be confusing here; there are many meanings of "free", and to "determine" something means both to establish it in a scientific way and to influence or control it; but these meanings are of course quite different, and knowing what the future was would not entail being able to control it.
No. But I don't think that's what anyone is claiming. At least, it's not what I'm claiming. For me, what implies that we are unable to control the future is not that it's known or theoretically knowable, but that the future is (to a large extent, ignoring randomness) determined by present circumstances, which are in turn determined by the past, and it is already perfectly clear that we cannot control or change the past. (And by determined I do not mean merely influenced. I am talking about inevitability.)

On reflection, I think what is being claimed by some free-will-rejecting determinists might almost be the opposite of the notion that knowing the future would entail being able to control it: which is that if the future is theoretically knowable, then it is clear that we cannot control it. If we really knew exactly what was going to happen, our inability to control it would be glaringly and horribly obvious. Perhaps Laplace's Demon is more of a tragic figure than a malevolent one. Omniscience would be a curse, and ignorance is bliss. And actually, that was one thing about Dennett's lecture that struck me as useful: the very simple, obvious idea that we all have incomplete information about the circumstances that are obtaining right now, or, as he put it, we don't know which world it is that we're in. So of course we behave as though there are many possible futures, many possible outcomes of current circumstances, because, from our perspective, there are many possible outcomes. It's kind of related to my lifebelt idea, but I think is a better way of putting it. If we don't know what the future is going to be, whether that's because it is practically impossible to calculate it, or because too much of the present and past is unknown and unknowable, or because of some element of randomness (emerging from complexity or percolating up from the subatomic level), then we feel that everything is open, nothing has been determined yet, everything is up for grabs, and that means that we are able to grab some of it, we can be part of what determines it. And if we feel that, then that feeling itself becomes a determining factor; it's part of the mix; one of the circumstances obtaining at a particular time. It's a kind of self-fulfilling wishful thinking. It sounds a bit like something out of a self-help book or a motivational speech: "If you want something badly enough, you can get it." "You make your own luck." Aphorisms like that are nonsense, but like a lot of nonsense, there's an element of truth in them.
animist wrote:People can use phrases like "prisoners of causality" as much as they like, but they mean nothing IMO, since one might as well use the phrase "prisoners of reason".
Well, I sort of agree with you here, but I still can understand why someone might use that phrase, and feel that way, if they believe that there is only one possible future. What complicates things further is that there is room here for confusion between determinism and fatalism, and the mistaken idea that things are bound to turn out a certain way "whatever I do". And fatalistic beliefs are themselves factors that determine outcomes. And even when the distinction between determinism and fatalism is understood, I think that sometimes it can be easy to be lazy and careless in one's use of language in a way that implies the latter rather than the former.

To get back to Dennett's lecture, what frustrated me in particular about it was that he spent so much time talking about evitability, and chess-playing computers, but very little time on what, to my mind, really matters. He argued that we need to see free will as something very different from free will "as we ordinarily understand it", something less magical, less miraculous (which seems reasonable to me), but didn't really explore that more down-to-earth free will in any detail, and seemed to assert that it was the kind of free will that implies that we have moral responsibility, without explaining why. At least, if there was an explanation, I missed it. At the end of the lecture, Dennett sums things up like this:

"Absolute free will (what Jerry Fodor wants) isn't worth wanting, actually [---][/---] we don't need it. The kinds worth wanting are those that give us moral responsibility. These are evolved competences for moral reasoning and decision-making. These competences are exercised in opportunities. Deterministic opportunities are as real as opportunities could be. We can do otherwise in the sense that matters for morality. Free will in the sense that matters is compatible with determinism. So a notion of punishment that looks both backward and forward is what we're looking for. It depends not on "cosmic" desert but on perceived fairness. If we perceive that the system is fair we will take responsibility in order to have the opportunities of political freedom."

All that seems very important, but if he elaborates on it in the lecture I can't find where. Perhaps he explains it in Freedom Evolves, which I suppose I ought to read. But according to Wikipedia, in his older book, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, Dennett asks why anyone would care about whether someone had the property of responsibility and speculates that the idea of moral responsibility may be "a purely metaphysical hankering". Which doesn't seem compatible with the notion that the kinds of free will worth wanting are those that give us moral responsibility. Ah well, perhaps he's changed his mind since 1984.

Anyway, I'll get back to this if I come across anything that makes it clearer to me. If you can point me in the right direction, animist, I'd be grateful.

Emma

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Re: Free will

#329 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » June 1st, 2011, 5:51 pm

animist wrote:I see where you're going with this, but the practical difficulty involved in solving questions of at what minimum age people can be considered to have some moral responsibility should not be used as argument against the concept itself ...
If you think that's where I was going, you were wrong. :D My point was simply that the distinction between behaviours we (currently) find absurd and those we don't is not a reliable indicator of any underlying distinction between those beings that possess moral responsibility and those that don't.
animist wrote:I suppose it is an emergent property, to use Gurdur's word.
Ooh, that reminds me. It was robzed who first talked about emergent properties in this thread. I confess I was rather dismissive at the time. I said that I thought that the sense of free will might perhaps be an emergent property (in the same way as consciousness and the sense of self might be), but that defining free will in that way entailed watering down the idea into something rather too subjective to have much philosophical heft. If anyone finds any convincing arguments for Free Will being an emergent property, though, I'd be genuinely interested to read them.
animist wrote:As I said before, I consider myself rational enough to be held responsible (to a degree anyway) for my own actions, and the fact that someone else is probably not so does not alter my own case. Your argument about animals being put on trial just reminds us how far we have progressed from those dark days of ignorance. I have not researched this at all but I'm just remembering the goat of Esmeralda (called Djali) in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" being condemned with Esmeralda for witchcraft. I suppose they thought that the goat was the home of a demon and that its death was necessary to release the demon - so maybe they did not really think goats as such were necessarily evil. I don't know, all sorts of crap has been believed by someone or other, as I know you will agree, with fear the obvious source. What I am saying is that I don't think that condemning animals is in fact a fuzzy area, as you put it; it is (in the absence of evidence for demonic possession) simply wrong in every way. Animals are more like us in most ways than are inanimate objects, but this happens to be one area where they are significantly different.
As I said, I was simply pointing to something that was once not thought ridiculous and that now is, and suggesting that our sense of the ridiculous changes too much to be a reliable indicator of anything. But actually I do think that our attitude to animals is a fuzzy area in other ways. There are plenty of people who attribute intentionality, malevolence, and all sorts of human characteristics to non-human animals, right now. There are plenty of people who punish animals because they think they deserve punishment, and not merely because they think punishment will improve behaviour. Just because we don't put non-human animals on trial for their crimes any more doesn't mean that we don't still have ridiculous ideas about why they do what they do.

Emma

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Re: Free will

#330 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » June 1st, 2011, 6:03 pm

animist wrote:badly expressed by me, but what I meant is that there is, I imagine, a large number of crimes which never happened because the person who would have been the perpetrator was deterred by the threat of legal punishment. Obviously the crimes that did happen are the ones that are countable, and they show the limits of deterrence. I don't think we are especially arguing anyway about whether deterrence works, or how far, but I think this point came into my mind from reading currently "The Black Swan" by Nicholas Taleb. One of his preoccupations is the invisibility (and therefore the ignoring) of these "nonexistent" events - but they are things which might have happened if people had acted differently
Yes, we ignore a lot of things like that. But not all of them. I think we frequently speculate about what-if events, and make assumptions about them. And deterrence in punishment is one issue where a lot of assumptions have been made. You imagine that a large number of crimes would have happened if people had not been deterred from committing them by the threat of legal punishment. I imagine that a large number of the crimes that have happened would not have happened if people had not been labelled as criminals and punished by locking them up with a bunch of other criminals. We might both be right. But how can we know? How could we estimate which number might be the larger?

Emma

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Re: Free will

#331 Post by Wilson » June 1st, 2011, 7:05 pm

We're all going over familiar ground here, but let me restate my opinion. While it's true that at quantum level, everything that happens is caused or determined (though maybe not predictable or inevitable, due to quantum uncertainty), that has nothing to do with real life. It's theoretical, and interesting, but its practical importance is nil. My contention is that it shouldn't even be used as an argument for social policy. You could even say that deep down our opinions on the subject are not really based on logic but determined strictly by forces that stated with the big bang.

So I ask again: What practical significance does this issue have? If we can't blame Pol Pot for killing millions of his countrymen, or Hitler, or Stalin, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or the BTK killer, is there any place left for believing in right and wrong? Well, we aren't wired by evolution to be neutral on guilt and innocence. Emma, I suspect that you are a very nice person and would never consider kicking a dog or a child, but if you did, you'd feel guilty about it; you wouldn't excuse yourself on the basis of the neuronal structure in your brain - which your views on free will should, logically, lead you to do. So deep down - emotionally, at least - you don't totally buy what you're writing.

So my take on this subject is that yes, at some level everything that we do is either inevitable or at least caused - but so what?

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Re: Free will

#332 Post by thundril » June 2nd, 2011, 1:13 am

Wilson wrote:So I ask again: What practical significance does this issue have?... .... yes, at some level everything that we do is either inevitable or at least caused - but so what?
So when political/religious 'authorities' try to rule that their moral rulings are absolute, we have a capacity to question their claims.

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Re: Free will

#333 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » June 2nd, 2011, 5:17 pm

Wilson wrote:We're all going over familiar ground here, but let me restate my opinion. While it's true that at quantum level, everything that happens is caused or determined (though maybe not predictable or inevitable, due to quantum uncertainty), that has nothing to do with real life.
But we're not just talking about the quantum level. I thought we agreed that everything that happens at all levels is either determined by antecedent events (and I suspect that that accounts for nearly everything that happens) or it's not determined by antecedent events, meaning that it's random, spontaneous (and even if that's true only of a tiny proportion of what happens, it means that what happens is not predictable or inevitable). If that's true, it has everything to do with real life.
Wilson wrote:It's theoretical, and interesting, but its practical importance is nil. My contention is that it shouldn't even be used as an argument for social policy. You could even say that deep down our opinions on the subject are not really based on logic but determined strictly by forces that stated with the big bang.

So I ask again: What practical significance does this issue have?
I have touched on this in earlier posts, in the context of the criminal justice system and also more generally in the context of how we deal with all the people with whom we have relationships. I would like to revisit this at some point, but if I'm to avoid going over more "familiar ground", I'd prefer to wait until I've explored it in more detail myself. What I would say is that I, personally, have already found it helpful to think in this way, both when judging other people's behaviour and when judging my own.
animist wrote:If we can't blame Pol Pot for killing millions of his countrymen, or Hitler, or Stalin, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or the BTK killer, is there any place left for believing in right and wrong?
I wouldn't say that we "can't" blame Pol Pot, etc. And I would say that it is very often important for us to identify those whose actions are responsible (in whole or in part) for harmful consequences, and to do whatever we reasonably can to stop such things from happening again. I probably don't believe in right and wrong in quite the same way as a lot of people do, being a moral sceptic, but there are many reasons for that.
Wilson wrote:Well, we aren't wired by evolution to be neutral on guilt and innocence.
Many people would argue that we aren't wired by evolution to be atheists, or socialists, or feminists, or cosmopolitans, but many of us are.
Wilson wrote:Emma, I suspect that you are a very nice person and would never consider kicking a dog or a child, but if you did, you'd feel guilty about it; you wouldn't excuse yourself on the basis of the neuronal structure in your brain - which your views on free will should, logically, lead you to do. So deep down - emotionally, at least - you don't totally buy what you're writing.
Well, if that were true, and I don't think it is, it wouldn't really make any difference. If I had a brain tumour that interfered with my ability to control my worst impulses, something that many would see as impairing my free will to a degree that would mean that I wasn't morally responsible for my actions, and that was why I kicked a dog or a child, I would still feel guilty, especially if the dog or child suffered permanent damage. But even if that means that, deep down, I wouldn't buy the idea that I didn't have free will (and I don't think it does mean that), it wouldn't follow that that idea is wrong. My emotions, like anyone else's emotions, are not really a guide to important truths, or, for that matter, to practical policies.
animist wrote:So my take on this subject is that yes, at some level everything that we do is either inevitable or at least caused - but so what?
I don't know yet what all the implications would be. That's one of the things I want to explore. It strikes me as odd, though, that you are arguing that these ideas shouldn't have an impact on social policy, and at the same time claiming that they have no practical significance. You seem to be arguing that they shouldn't have any practical significance, rather than that they don't. Which makes me wonder whether the problem, from your perspective, might be simply that they have a practical significance that you don't like.

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Re: Free will

#334 Post by animist » June 2nd, 2011, 6:21 pm

I have to say - this lot is from Wilson, not me

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Re: Free will

#335 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » June 2nd, 2011, 8:06 pm

Oh, I'm so sorry. That's the trouble with putting in the names by hand. I keep doing it, and usually I check it and correct it before or just after I post it, but I didn't this time. I'd edit it now if I could but it's too late. Sorry, Wilson. Sorry, animist.

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Re: Free will

#336 Post by robzed » June 2nd, 2011, 10:57 pm

On a semi-related thought...

What is the test for 'free will'?

What is the test for who (or what) has moral responsibility?


-Rob

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Re: Free will

#337 Post by animist » June 3rd, 2011, 6:39 pm

absolutely no idea, robzed, about testing for either - that's why we go on and on about it all. This seems a good time to post a relevant passage from Milton's "Paradise Lost": it describes the intellectual antics of the devils once cast out of Heaven (that's THers after death!)

Others apart sat on a Hill retir'd,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason'd high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledg absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argu'd then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and Apathie, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false Philosophie:
Yet with a pleasing sorcerie could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th' obdured brest
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.

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Re: Free will

#338 Post by Wilson » June 3rd, 2011, 9:46 pm

What is your translation? I think I get the message that all is preordained by God, and good and evil illusions, but I've never been all that good at interpreting poetry.

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Re: Free will

#339 Post by Alan C. » June 3rd, 2011, 10:39 pm

Wilson
I think I get the message that all is preordained by God,
:laughter:
And on that note I'll say goodnight :sleep:
Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers.

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Re: Free will

#340 Post by Wilson » June 4th, 2011, 1:23 am

You do realize, Alan, that I was trying to interpret Milton's meaning, right? I'm a nonbeliever.

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Re: Free will

#341 Post by animist » June 4th, 2011, 9:13 am

Wilson pointed out that we seem to be going over old ground (with me challenging Emma on things she has no doubt already explained), and that reminded me of this passage. The devils are very human: unlike us they do know of God's existence and power, but these perennial philosophical problems bothered them and yet in some way helped them to cope with their predicament. Nevertheless, there could be no resolution, hence the repeated wanderings, and the Miltonic context is one of God's infinite power and knowledge contrasted with the weakness of finite beings, even fallen angels

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