Friday, July 23, 2010

Do you have free will? Is that even a discussable issue?

Are our selves free willers, or determined selves? Galen Strawson discusses both sides of the issue in a great "Stone" column at the NYT.

That said, Strawson, the son of renowned British philosopher P.F. Strawson, missed one big issue or two.

Namely, how much of our actions are conscious, can "free will" even be spoken of sensibly at a level of allegedly unitary consciousness, can we, though, talk of subconscious subselves having free will, etc.

Anyway, overlooking Strawson's lapses, he does give fair play to both sides, while shooting down things like the New Agey myth that quantum mechanics has disproved determinism. (Certainly, if one is an Einsteinian "naive realist" on quantum mechanics, it's clear all QM did was made determinism more probabilistic at the ultimate fine-grained level. Even under other models of understanding of QM, reality can still be deterministic above the quantum level. It's like a state change, if you will, and to not "get that" is, to quote a peer of Strawson's dad, Gilbert Ryle, to make a category mistake.

That said Strawson ultimately argues that believing in both some form of determinism and in moral responsibility (which is where many people want to sink determinism) is possible, maybe even quite possible.
I can’t do better than the novelist Ian McEwan, who wrote to me: “I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.”

I partially disagree, answering with a mix of "Mu" from Zen Buddhism via "Goedel, Escher, Bach" and Dennett's idea of subselves. I don't think you can discuss this issue otherwise.

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