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Still Thinking about Free Will

December 26, 2009

Here’s a question for those who believe in free will, or anyone willing to imagine it: if you suddenly lost your free will tomorrow, what would be different?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    December 26, 2009 11:48 am

    Here’s one possible answer: I would become a radically dissociative, perhaps even schizophrenic, person. I would experience my life as a series of actions that just sort of happened, and to which I was a bemused spectator. It would probably not be very nice.

    Of course, that answer implies a conception of free will that it self-evident that we have it, and less evident that it is metaphysically indeterministic, as opposed to a conception that makes it self-evident that it’s indeterministic, and less evident that we have it. So it doesn’t necessarily do any of the ‘jobs’ you might want it to do, like theo-excuses.

  2. December 26, 2009 4:43 pm

    This question strikes me as similar to asking a determinist, “What would be different if tomorrow your thoughts and actions became substantially contingent upon a personal freedom newly acquired.” How does one begin to answer that? The answer could be as mundane as, “well, not much would change except that I would feel compelled to tweak my theory on human willing a bit”, or it could be as extreme as, “consciousness and action as I understand it to be would cease, and I don’t think that such a thing is even a serious candidate for consideration.”

    I think I’d have difficulty answering this question until I understood exactly why you were asking it. My immediate response, I think, is “hell if I know,” and I think anyone who believes they have a better answer than that is kidding themselves about how basic something like the will– free or entirely determined– is. I don’t know how you’d begin to try to understand something like that. It would be similar to asking a fish what it would be like to breath air tomorrow.

  3. December 26, 2009 4:44 pm


  4. larry c wilson permalink
    December 27, 2009 1:17 pm

    Since many of us hold a murderer responsible for the murder regardless of our belief in free will or determinism (predestination), it really does not matter.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 27, 2009 4:32 pm

    Larry: I agree that we can have “responsibility” without “free will.”

    Alderson: I’m not sure I follow your point; what you describe sounds like what I would be like if I lost a sense of self …

    Evan: Most people who believe in free will seem to think that animals don’t have it. Would you be more like animals in some way?

    If you reversed the question, I would have an answer. If I gained free will—in the sense of being free from determinism—my actions would be more random and make less sense. My actions only make sense because they’re determined by causal factors—I’m influenced by circumstances, ideologies I’ve been socialized with, bodily desires, etc. If I act in ways that is free from these causal influences, I think my actions would make less sense …

  6. December 27, 2009 7:19 pm

    If one were to move from a situation of complete determination to some level of freedom of the will, it would presumably only be as random or senseless as the newly gained freedom is. Do you take freedom of the will to be arbitrary because it’s independent? It seems that you’re forced into this sense of free willing, if a free will would diminish sense or order for you. But must something uncaused fit inelegently within a causal chain? Or… must something even be uncaused to be free? A sort of negative freedom might necessitate a break from the causal chain, but I don’t know if that exhausts the sense of freedom that we talk about when we talk about the will as free.

  7. designprof permalink
    December 27, 2009 7:22 pm

    I am also interested in the specific purpose of the question. Free will is too broad a topic to give a definitive answer. I think anyone who has become a parent has a good idea of what the loss of free will means.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 28, 2009 11:31 am

    Evan, I feel like you’re confusing freedom and free will. According to theories of free will, those are totally different things. A slave in chains can have free will.

    Whenever we use the word “free” we have to ask “free from what?” I take it that the sine qua non of free will is the freedom of whatever directs human behavior from determinism. Classically, this sort of freedom of human willing or human decision-making (or whatever) from determinism is what makes humans responsible for their actions. On this theory, a broken cog in a machine is not “responsible” for breaking the machine, because it could not have done otherwise—it is a slave to some sort of determinist process. By contrast, humans are not supposed to be slaves to these determinist process, which is why we can hold them responsible for their actions, unlike cogs.

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 28, 2009 11:33 am

    Designprof: the purpose in asking the question is that I’m trying to feel out what sense people make of “free will.” To me, it’s like hearing people talk about square circles—it makes no sense whatever to me, and I’m interested in hearing what sense others make of it. The specific question I posted in the post here asks what practical sense we can make of it. If having freedom is important to me, I should be able to articulate what I would lose if I lost it. Similarly, if having free will is important to humans—if that’s supposedly one thing that separates humans from animals—shouldn’t we be able to articulate what we would lose if we lost it?

  10. December 28, 2009 5:31 pm

    Evan, I feel like you’re confusing freedom and free will. According to theories of free will, those are totally different things. A slave in chains can have free will.

    Actually, I’m trying to push against what I take to be your conflation of “freedom” (in a free-of-restraints sense) and “free will”. My whole point is, in some sense, that “a slave in chains can have free will.” Your discussion of being “free from these causal influences” seems to stand in greater danger of equating free will with certain types of “freedom”.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 29, 2009 10:41 am

    What do you think free will makes you free from?

  12. fuzzytheory permalink
    December 29, 2009 3:21 pm

    I have a question. What underlying common assumptions behind free will and determinism ground both positions firmly, and irrevocably together? That is, what does the debate itself tell us about how we think about, and act in the world?

  13. December 29, 2009 5:40 pm

    What do you think free will makes you free from?

    Phrasing it in terms of being free “from” is what I mean by constraining yourself to a conception of negative freedom in particular. I’m not saying that isn’t valid, I’m simply saying that it is only one conception of the matter.

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 30, 2009 10:02 am

    Fine; what does free will make you free to?

  15. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 30, 2009 10:04 am

    fuzzytheory: yea, I want to think about the ideological work free will does, but I don’t think that can or should be done without a traditional analysis of the concept at the same time. It’s one of the things I do in my research: show how some concept is incoherent through a philosophical analysis, and then go on to show why, if it’s incoherent, people continue to use it …

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