What I want when I want to be free

I would very much like it to be the case that I am free.  But what (I've been wondering) is it that I want?

I don't just want to have choices-- to be able to choose A or B.  Sure, it would be nice if I could have chosen chocolate, though I chose strawberry, but really, so what?  I'm not too distressed by the idea that I'm a strawberry-choosing marionette.

The best way I can explain what I do want is by analogy with divine agency. We have this idea of a deity who has thoughts about what he wants to happen.  He sees that the current course of events will lead to outcome A, but he wants B to occur instead.  He doesn't intervene as a result of the past; it's all about B--he wants it, so he intervenes.  And he's effective.  His intervention changes the future so that B will occur instead of A.

It doesn't seem like this sort of agency and impact is too much for a person to want.  The way things are going,  let's pretend, it appears I will not wake up in time to catch a plane tomorrow morning.  I want to catch my plane, not miss my plane.  So I try to alter the future--I set my alarm.  I do that because I want to catch my plane, period; not because of the past.  Before I intervened, I was heading for missing my plane, and now I'm heading for catching my plane.  Thus, in this portrait, I have the power to alter the future on the basis of my own reasons.

All that seems eminently desirable--it makes sense to want to make a difference to the future, and to want your own reasons to be in charge. That's what I want, but can I have it?

There are two sticking points.  Can it really be true that I set my alarm for the sake of catching my plane, period?  If determinism is true, then the past made it inevitable that certain brain events would occur, and they would cause me to set my alarm.  You could tell the whole story about what led to the alarm setting, without even mentioning the plane.  That's not what I want.

The other sticking point has to do with the description of the intervention (setting my alarm) as diverting the future from one trajectory to a different one.  If determinism is true, there was always just one trajectory.  My thought about not missing my plane was on that single trajectory, and so was setting my alarm.

One strategy for defusing angst about free will is to say there's nothing really desirable about having it, but it seems obvious that it is desirable.  Having free will is getting to have things turn out differently in the future, owing entirely to your reasons. What's not to like?!


David Duffy said...

It seems plausible to me that our mental life is a naturalistic property of our brains, and as such determinism is true. This is at least a falsifiable hypothesis, that will succeed or fail sometime this century. But how does this alter our making of decisions and carrying out of actions? We've been making them throughout human history, and won't be stopping anytime soon.

There used to be a stereotype of
the fatalistic Muslim, a person who is somehow less proactive because of a belief in non-materialistic determinism. A Google scholar search finds it in fact alive and kicking.

For example, Islam and Shahidullah find fatalism associated with poor poultry knowledge and outcomes.

So, yes, we should act and feel as if our beliefs and actions are meaningful and effective (a quote from Cat's Cradle seems appropriate here:
"Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy").

Wayne said...

The responsibility that comes with it is pretty unattractive when it comes to freedom...

But even if we don't have free will, the illusion of free will is pretty powerful stuff too. So Lets say you live in a deterministic world, and you don't know that your actions are pre-determined. Maybe you have some suspicions, but it isn't any kind of assurance that the world is determined (kinda like the world we live in today perhaps.

What do you lose? You still don't know the outcome of your life or how it will plod through time, even though its determined. Id you did know this, that might be rather unsettling, but since we don't, its like watching a movie... the movie is pre-determined, but you enjoy it nonetheless. In fact we wonder sometimes, "How's it going to end?" as if it could end in a numerous different ways, when in fact, it can only end in one way... the way that the celluloid records... That illusion, is still a lot of fun, and just as valuable.

So is there something valuable about the illusion or deception of free will? I don't see why there couldn't be. People are entertained by magicians and reality TV, when they are just passing off illusions.

Faust said...

I think the issue here is just the problem of "I." We want our "I" to have "free" "will." This is how we think about it..."I" want to "have" "free" "will." We spend a lot of time thinking about the "will" and the "free," but I think we are better served thinking about what we really mean by having an "I."