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Free Will, What Is It Good For?

December 19, 2009
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What does having a concept of free will give you?

For classic theologians like Augustine, it gives you the opportunity to blame humans rather than God for evil.

In the same vein, although less overtly theological, is the idea that free will allows you to assign individual responsibility and dessert.

Last, it might be useful to escape determinism.

I don’t think it does any of these very well. But is it good for anything else?

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2009 8:25 pm

    What’s the concept of free will good for? Making atheists.

    I know I couldn’t reconcile the contradiction that exists between the concept of free will and determinism (theologically speaking) –to the point of ultimately questioning the whole notion of theism.

  2. Christina permalink
    December 19, 2009 8:54 pm

    Well…what is it bad for? What do you mean by “good”?

    Which determinism are you talking about?

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 19, 2009 9:03 pm

    I don’t think that free will will do the work people want it to do—and I think most of the things people want it to do aren’t necessary anyway.

    The determinism I’m talking about is the idea that given the same set of conditions, the same things will happen.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 19, 2009 9:09 pm

    I guess I didn’t explain what I meant by “good.” By that I mean this: why would one want to utilize the concept of free will? What’s the payoff?

  5. Josh permalink
    December 19, 2009 10:29 pm

    ‘Free will’ is useful for rationalizing the meritocratic ideology, so there is a belief in a mechanism that allows us to blame people and their choices for their positions within society while simultaneously obscuring the impact of the social structure on life chances. The payoff is that the status quo remains largely unchanged as the power dynamics of society are reduced to the individual level.

  6. December 19, 2009 11:30 pm

    Are you talking about Augustine during the writing of De libero arbitrio? Your characterization is awfully flat for a guy with as intricate and evolving an understanding of the will as Augustine had. I don’t exactly get what your point is in this post. As Christina said, what is it bad for? Or on the other hand, what is determinism good for?

    And after all of that has been answered, we still need to ask ourselves if this sort of approach is at all helpful for theorizing about these things in the first place. My sense is that it’s not.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 19, 2009 11:38 pm

    Josh, that’s basically my view.

    Evan, I’ve studied Augustine’s view on these matters at length. He wavers on the matter of free will, and ends up with what is basically a self-contradictory position. When he wants to defend his god’s omnipotence, he all but negates free will (we’re so corrupted by evil that we can only accept grace because his god somehow prompts us to do so). When he’s engaged in theodicy, he falls back on free will in order to protect his god from responsibility for evil. It’s obviously more complicated than this, but that’s what it comes down to.

    The purpose of the post was not to make a point but to ask a question. If the concept of free will is dubious at best, as I believe it to be, for what reasons would one rely on it? What would we lose by getting rid of it?

    Asking what is at stake is often a great approach when dealing with ideology.

  8. Christina permalink
    December 20, 2009 1:06 am

    Why are you approaching free will from the stance that we must either gain something from believing in it or cast it aside? What would qualify as gaining something, or losing something as a consequence of this belief?

    I’m confused: you say belief in free will allows escaping from determinism. You say you don’t believe in free will. But Josh said that free will obscures “the impact of the social structure on life chances.” You agreed with his post. But believing in “chance” means he is not an adherent to the determinism philosophy. So which are you agreeing with?

  9. fuzzytheory permalink
    December 20, 2009 3:32 am

    The idea of free will is an excellent cover story that glosses over both the systemic and targeted manipulation of agents, such that they believe that their actions are originary moments of a rational consciousness as opposed to highly constrained and heavily shaped predictable behavior. Examples:

    “It was my choice to buy this prada bag.”
    “I’ve rationally decided to go off-grid and not support the consumer capitalist…etc.”
    “I’m not racist, and I’ll go to Africa for a year and save it to prove this.”
    etc.

    The idea of “free will” is like “human nature” or “common sense”. It is a conceptual ideal of subjectivity that fundamentally shapes how we think we can act, within the parameters of what constitutes “free will.” As such, the very concept of “free will” limits, constrains, and organizes our subjectivity in ways that are actually counter to the ideal it espouses. It is a convenient fiction, but one that makes us vulnerable to certain kinds of manipulations and oppressions, targeted (I choose to wear a suit at work and I’ve freely willed it to be one that expresses my snowflake identity etc.: take my money!) and systemic (we all have an autonomous neutral subjectivity that ignores the specific contexts of race, class, gender, etc., such that any difference from this ideal subjectivity is seen as ‘not rational’ or ‘not working hard enough’ or wev: therefor don’t give the brown people jobs and pay women less). If we accept the concept of free will, then we can’t imagine or can’t make possible certain ways of thinking or ways of acting. My examples above may be terrible, but I am sure better ones can make the point.

    It is also a false dichotomy that the opposite of ‘free will’ is some kind of Laplacian determinism. No matter what way one conceptualizes how our subjectivity is, that very construction or imagining of our subjectivity informs to a large degree how we think, act, and our habitus. It might be better to think not of some romantic “human nature” ideal of our subjectivity being one way (free will) or the other (determinism), but rather what conceptions of subjectivity lead to what thoughts and behaviors, and which concepts of subjectivity lead to the least amount of suffering.

  10. December 20, 2009 7:27 am

    The idea of free will is an excellent cover story that glosses over both the systemic and targeted manipulation of agents, such that they believe that their actions are originary moments of a rational consciousness as opposed to highly constrained and heavily shaped predictable behavior.

    Well, sure, if you can find the idea applied in such extreme and unalloyed fashion. But many who employ the notion of free will also posit such things as the bondage or weakness of the will. That is, they recognize that there are constraints upon subjective action, and they account for it. Now, if every bit of such accounting is dismissed as contradictory the way that MfM has dismissed Augustine’s understanding, then of course you’ve conveniently set the matter up to make only the most extreme defenses of free will what we’re talking about, and this straw man can be easily dismissed. But as you say, fuzzytheory, it’s probably best not to think of this as one way or the other– free will or determinism. And I don’t think that’s how most people really think of it, unless they’re trying to score cheap points against one extreme or the other.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 20, 2009 10:34 am

    Christina, I think it’s pretty clear what I mean by gaining or losing. Is the concept of free will a vestigial concept that isn’t of use any longer?

    I don’t know if you’re being intentionally difficult with the “chance” comment or not. First, it seems pretty clear that it’s undeniable that chance (or whatever) operates at the sub-atomic level. But, statistically, that sort of chance doesn’t reach out to the level at which humans operate. So I believe there is “chance,” but that it’s only relevant at that level.

    Second, it seems to me to make perfect sense to talk of “chances” at that level without committing oneself to a view opposed to determinism. If I say that I have a 50% chance of flipping this coin and getting heads, that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in determinism.

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 20, 2009 10:42 am

    Evan, I didn’t dismiss every accounting of free will. I’ve asked you to tell me what your concept of free will is and what it gets you. You still haven’t answered that question.

    You suggest that you have a concept of will that is constrained (by sin?) but also in some sense free? What does that mean? Are you familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ writings on this matter?

  13. December 20, 2009 3:14 pm

    To be honest, I have not spent much time with the problem of free will and don’t have much in the way of fully formed ideas about it. I don’t take it to be a problem much worth fretting about insofar as what presents itself in human decision-making or “willing” is what it is. If it is purely mechanical then it is an extremely odd sort of mechanism; if it is purely an outpouring of voluntary spirit then it is also quite odd as volition– there seem to be clear constraints on it.

    While I would include sin as one of the constraining factors of the will, I imagine you wouldn’t. But probably we could find some common ground in recognizing the mundane finite and contingent nature of willful creatures to be a constraint. As a determinist, you would simply recognize these materially constraining factors as able to exhaustively explain actions in any given situation. I wouldn’t, and so would think of them as qualifiers to the freedom of the will rather than arguments against it.

    My only concern with such determinism is that it seems to fail to explain in a very adequate way certain states of the willful creature- hating, or conscience, or pity, or excitement. Surely all of these things can be explained to a certain extent on a chemical level and in a manner subject to determinist standards of understanding. But I take these bases for thought or action to exhibit the presence of spirit. And this spirit is, in some very real sense, obviously free in how it presents itself to action. Reference to spirit is an explanatory reference of observable behaviors, too… it does not function here as a mythical gap-filler (at least not any more than any other idea, like determinism, would).

    In the end, I think a determinism positing that given the same situation, the same things will happen, is simply a plausible way to think about things. It makes enough sense, but there’s no way one could defend it on an empirical level, simply because you’re not going to be able to line up all of the conditions needed to get the same thing to happen in an experimental context. And even if you were to manage such a feat, you would still only be able to defend the experimental results to the extent that they suggest a certain probability of your theory being the case. For that reason, I don’t take a determinist standpoint to be any better a use of the observable materials we have at hand; in fact it seems to not make the best sense of things, as it fails to explain in any meaningful sense the spirited will of acting creatures. You can certainly run a battery of tests to elicit similar basic psychological responses from test subjects. But I don’t have the sense that physiological bases for what we generally think of as willed behavior have been demonstrated to account for a very impressive range of the phenomena that we’re interested in.

    Whatever utility you can make of that account of free will, you can tell me. I like to think that it’s simply rational theorizing that doesn’t “gain” anything except the most coherent picture of reality that can presently be constructed with good reason. In this sense it probably wouldn’t look that much different than a explanation of determinism that you might offer.

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 20, 2009 3:33 pm

    So for you the gain is that some account of free will (or spirit) has explanatory value for things that you presume can’t be explained by determinist theories. Although I would probably disagree, this seems like a legitimate type of argument in principle.

    But if the concept merely has explanatory value for you, does that mean that you don’t want it (or need it) to assign personal responsibility? I.e., you could give an account of personal responsibility that didn’t need “free will” to make it work?

    Or, if we jettison free will do we lose BOTH the ability to explain certain phenomenon AND the ability to account for personal responsibility?

  15. December 20, 2009 3:53 pm

    I might be a less helpful person to ask about that. I’ve never been one to take the Kantian “ought implies can” as all that compelling. I suppose that might make me an heir to some of the least appealing of Augustine’s thoughts, but it is what it is. While I do think that one’s free will is pertinent for explanations of responsibility or culpability, I honestly don’t think it’s one of my motivating factors for making an appeal to free will. I don’t take human responsibility to be something that finds its warrant in humanity, therefore any theoretical shortcoming in humanity (for instance, the lack of a will that is free) doesn’t seem to be overly troublesome for an explanation of responsibility.

    By way of explaining myself in other, perhaps more illustrative, words… I’ve always read Paul at face value on Romans 9:11-23. With a strong emphasis on verse 20.

  16. December 20, 2009 9:33 pm

    Kant has some thoughts about this. He thinks it’s important for explaining our practical phenomenology (the feeling of what it’s like to make a choice). I agree that there’s something there that requires explaining, and I’m pretty convinced that some version of free will has got to be an ingredient of the explanation, though Kant shows that it doesn’t have to be very metaphysically robust. (The texts I have in mind are the 2nd Critique & the 3rd section of the Groundwork.)

  17. December 21, 2009 12:45 pm

    Just ran across this through a link from Andrew Sullivan: “Free Will and Ethics”.

    It’s an interesting piece to read, defending free will for its ethical usefulness, although you seem to be thinking more in terms of usefulness for a theoretical defense of certain ethical views, rather than the rather practical usefulness that the author brings up here. Perhaps you would agree with the author as far as these studies go? I don’t know. Perhaps this article even instigated your post?

  18. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 22, 2009 1:28 pm

    I haven’t been ignoring you—just been busy …

    Evan, that is a really interesting article. What seems obvious—but which isn’t stated—is that the experiment seems to undermine the idea of free will. I.e., exposure to some set of ideas appeared to have some causal effects on behavior.

    I’d guess that the usefulness of having a concept of free will seemingly indicated by the study would be different if the participants in the study were all raised from birth to believe that “free will” was an illusion. That is, reading about people’s brains being determined by chemical reactions (or whatever) probably only has this sort of impact on people who didn’t know/believe that in the first place.

    I think we can have a concept of personal responsibility without having any sort of account of free will—such a concept of responsibility won’t be the same as Augustine’s or Kant’s, but I think it would be better than theirs anyway.

  19. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 22, 2009 1:30 pm

    Duckrabbit, my memory of Kant’s argument is that Kant proposes a concept of morality and personal responsibility and then says we have to have freedom of the will to make it work, and then concludes that the will must be free. That is, his “proof” of the freedom of the will is pretty much this: “I have to assume it to make the rest of this shit work like I want it to.”

  20. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 22, 2009 1:31 pm

    As you can expect, I don’t really have a response to what Paul says in Romans, since I don’t take the Bible to be authoritative …

  21. December 22, 2009 5:58 pm

    I can see why you would think that, but I think that’s not Kant’s argument.

    For the first two sections of the “Groundwork” he’s working on the assumption that free will exists, and he permits himself the assumption because otherwise what he wants to say about the moral law doesn’t work.

    But in the third section of “Groundwork” he does actually give an argument for freedom of the will — the whole thing about the noumenal standpoint. And in the 2nd Critique he gives a somewhat different argument — something about how our freedom is a metaphysical prerequisite for our moral obligations, but our knowledge of our moral obligations provides epistemological foundations for the belief in freedom. (For reasons I don’t feel quite competent to explain.) Anyway, both of them are supposed to be not-metaphysically-robust “compatibilist” arguments.

  22. December 23, 2009 8:07 am

    As you can expect, I don’t really have a response to what Paul says in Romans, since I don’t take the Bible to be authoritative …

    Surely you can have a response to something that you don’t take to be authoritative? In any case, I wasn’t looking for a response, as I was submitting it in an attempt to describe my perspective rather than to justify it.

    But the passage from Romans could be useful for considering the plausibility of my point, even for those who don’t acknowledge its authority. You’ve suggested that some people embrace free will in order to explain moral responsibility, and I’ve presented one situation (amongst many other potential situations) where moral responsibility does not seem to rely upon human free will, and so is not liable to various critiques of free will on the basis of utility. Insofar as it offers a coherent picture of human free will and responsibility, it does the job of allaying your concern, whether or not you take the text to be authoritative or the theory to be convincing.

  23. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 23, 2009 9:58 am

    Duckrabbit, I may have had in mind the portion where he merely assumes it. I suppose if I pursue this matter I’ll have to review the other parts of the 2nd critique, although I have to say that I’ve never found Kant persuasive about anything. Really, I hate that guy. I’ve found Hegel 100% more persuasive than Kant, especially when it comes to Hegel’s critiques of Kant. But that doesn’t mean Kant’s not worth re-reading …

    Evan: point taken—you’re view may not depend on free will for responsibility, as you believe that people can be held responsible even when they’re not free.

  24. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 26, 2009 10:34 am

    Josh and Fuzzytheory: do either of you have citations for the views you describe here? I like your views, but I can’t remember seeing much in print that defends what you’re saying.

  25. fuzzytheory permalink
    December 29, 2009 3:14 pm

    Hey there,

    No citations, I just blurted that out on the spot. Sorry. But, basically, the ideas I had were taking Foucault’s ideas of the Subject from his later works on the Hermeneutics of the Self and his later published lectures and applying that hermeneutic/geneological method to the free will/determinism “debate”. You know, the basic premise being: Let’s set aside the truth of X and explore instead what historical processes make X the way it is in its present (or past) contexts and then how does X expressed in those ways shape how we think, act, etc. The last little bit about suffering there is throwing in some sort of Buddhist social justice angle: if we evaluate things based on what their productive consequences are as opposed to “principle” then we need to reframe what criteria for appropriate behavior means. I like a modified Frankenstein of Buddhism and social justice myself… but, ymmv.

  26. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 30, 2009 10:01 am

    I gotta get around to reading Herm of the Subject; all the books from that lecture series that I have read have been brilliant …

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