Archive for May 2011

Free will (2): Decision making, cause and effect

May 24th, 2011 — 10:26pm

When we claim that an act was carried out as a decision made freely, we implicitly seem to say that the acting subject is fully responsible for the action at hand. In other words, if I suggest to you that you should buy blueberry ice cream and not vanilla, and you go ahead and buy the blueberry ice cream, it is still your responsibility to have done so, were it to lead to prosecution or adverse consequences. Of course, if I have some important knowledge about the blueberry flavour that I have not disclosed, such as it being poisonous, some of the blame may fall on me, out of convention. In this case we may assume that I have tried to manipulate you into doing something you would not have done, had you had full knowledge.

The act of “making a decision” or “making a choice” is an essential part of the model we have of human beings as individuals with their own will and their own choice. If one disregards situations where people try to betray others in some sense, such as the above example (using a preliminary, intuitive conception of “betray”), the act of making a decision firmly grounds all responsibility in the subject, even though various influences, sensory impressions, emotions and so on may have led to the decision.

But if we look at decision making and acting more closely, we discover that a great deal of our behaviour is not rooted in reasons that we are aware of or understand. If we are aware of the reasons, they may be something else than what we think they are. The thoughts “I am doing this because…” or “He did that because…” only apply to a vanishingly small fraction of everything that we may categorise as Actions.

In fact, causality is a tricky problem in general, and not just in the human mind. The world is a never-ending stream of sensory stimuli, and out of this stream, we isolate things that we call events, objects, individuals, delineations, contrasts, causality. We know, as physicists, that heating water ultimately causes it to boil. But this does not mean that we have identified a causal link between event A and event B, in the way that we can identify an electric current with a measurement device, and say “see, there’s 5 Volts in this wire”. The causal model is our best guess, and clearly, there cannot be a final seal and confirmation that the model is the only true one, and the complete one. It merely stands all the trials we can come up with. Details that remain unchanging in the trials, because we did not think of testing them, or because we are not even aware of them, will not be part of such a model.

Suppose now that we do things, on a daily basis, and the majority of things we do we do not know the reasons for, or if we know the reasons, they are incomplete, falsified, or not revealed to us, because of an inner battle between different aspects of our mind. Suppose also that impressions of different kinds may influence our decisions, possibly in ways that we do not understand. For instance, seeing the color blue may lead us to walk briskly, because of some association we made years ago. It seems clear then, that attributing responsibility to the subject, for all of her actions, is a practical thing to do but not a fair thing to do. It may be that we can in fact subject anyone to a series of influences that lead them to carrying out a certain action, if we know enough about their mind, and we can control the environment sufficiently well. Is this not what artists do with their audiences?


3 comments » | Philosophy

Free will

May 17th, 2011 — 12:48am


Free will is an important idea in ethics, politics, metaphysics and philosophy of mind, since it allows for many important conclusions and principles to be derived. For instance, the fundamental reasoning of a court (at least on some level, historically) that holds somebody responsible for a crime, is that they had a choice whether to commit the crime or not, and by choosing to commit it, they exhibit their deplorable moral character, warranting a punishment. We can see this in how in modern times, psychiatrists are able to declare someone unfit to take responsibility for their actions, which greatly impacts what kind of punishments may be meted out.

Free will can also be used as support for Cartesian dualism, the idea that the body is somehow essentially separate from the soul. Some people would perhaps argue that “we can perceive that we have a free choice, therefore we have a free will, therefore the soul is separate from the body”.

Without having gone too deeply into the literature about the topic, I will posit an idea. Clearly, it is not the case that the mind is perfectly separated from the body, since physical trauma, drugs, stimulants etc, can influence our thinking. On the other hand, the mind is not immediately joined to the body either. This is in the sense that there is no “happy button” or “sad button” that I can press on my skull, or a phrase I can hear, that immediately provokes the feelings of happiness or sadness. Such feelings come only in response to complex stimuli over time. And the mind may reconfigure its responses to a certain stimuli: we may decide to be brave in the face of fear, or sad in the face of something that used to make us happy. We may find a new understanding of some object. So if two extreme ways of thinking about the will are that it is 1) perfectly coupled with the body/surrounding world, or 2) perfectly decoupled from the body/surrounding world, maybe the most accurate way of thinking about a mind is as decoupled to a very high degree, but not perfectly, from the world.

2 comments » | Philosophy

Back to top