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

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?


Category: Philosophy | Tags: , , , 3 comments »

3 Responses to “Free will (2): Decision making, cause and effect”

  1. H

    Using the icecream example:

    It’s not just a matter of knowledge; Disclosing all that is to know about the icecream.

    It’s a matter of understanding what the choice you are suggesting is within the context and viewpoint you suggest it be made.

    Both the results and intentions of actions (which are the basic modus of right and wrong in the most prevalent forms of moral philosophy) are intimately bound to the context in which they are made.

    This is I believe the most fundamental aspect of respect: context and/or viewpoint awareness.

    It’s also the fundamental difference between a childish way of relating and an adult way of relating,
    which is also one of the fundamental boundaries for responsibility for ones actions:

    One who presents himself as a child and is accepted as a child can relate in a childish way and will not be held responsible for his actions. He should also be treated as a child and hold none of the freedoms of an adult.

    One who presents himself as an adult, can be expected to relate as an adult and be held responsible for his actions.

    The problem is when two fundamental states of relating get confused.
    When one claims to be an adult but relates as a child, one treats a person relating as a child as if they where relating as an adult, etc.

    It’s an interesting subject.
    We should discuss it more when you have time.

  2. johan

    Thanks for your comment!

    Context-based consent, influence and communication is interesting. As you say, clearly it impacts whether I can be said to have influenced somebody in an unacceptable way or not. And it impacts what kind of expectations and norms we would apply to communication between people.

    I assume that you would agree that it is not always easy to tell whether people relate as, or are capable of relating as, “adults” or “children”, as you put it. Probably people could always be described as being on any point between these two extremes, or to be adults with respect to certain contexts and children with respect to others.

    It also raises the question what it means to understand a context and to communicate with respect to it/from inside it/while taking it into consideration.

    As I wrote, I don’t think the only problem is when these two states get mixed up, although that may certainly be a problem. I would maintain that any person, no matter how adult or respectful they are, could be influenced into losing their respectful perspective and doing something strange, unexpected, illegal or unacceptable, by the environment, by people (even though they may not mean to do so), by what we might call chance. During our upbringing, we learn to take responsibility, this seems to mean that we learn to be on guard against certain failures of our will, failures of what we might term self control. But such upbringing can never guarantee that all possible “failure states” are guarded against, with respect to a particular prohibited action. There could, it seems, always be a new and unanticipated mental state which could bring it about. And it seems like a very desirable thing that there should always be potentially new, unanticipated mental states!
    Or to put it in your terms: any one could potentially be reduced to a “child” at any moment, and we might not necessarily know, on the outside, that this has happened.

    Ideas of justice and accountability do not take this into account, since we don’t seem to know how.

  3. Monomorphic - The unfree will

    […] to suppress a certain thought and focus on another in a given situation – I made a “decision“. But this experience is only the experience of conflict. One part of me came to the fore and […]

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