Atom Wave: Free Will: Wanted Dead or Alive

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Free Will: Wanted Dead or Alive

You could find yourself in a fast moving truck. Or you could find yourself advancing on an enemy in the battlefield. Or you could find yourself married to a gorgeous woman. Or you could find yourself saying, “How did I get here?”
One of the great puzzles of science and philosophy in this age is the nature of free will. Do we have free will? Is it just an illusion? Is it somewhere in between?
In philosophy at least, it is frequently considered that we can have will that is not free. Philosophers typically debate if free will exists, but virtually everyone considers it to exist in some form. The snag is often annoying things like determinisms ranging from causality to biology. Philosophers remain divided about the meanings of these determinisms.
The Philosopher David Hume considered free will to be the power of acting or of not acting. In this sense, he considered free will to be a goal-oriented process.
Thomas Aquinas expanded upon this framework to include choice with the ability to choose between what may be worth pursuing and what may not be. His philosophy didn’t equate good with morally good. Freedom is than the ability to choose a means to an end. One problem with this method is that it ignores compulsive passions that severely limit one’s ability to choose rationally.
Theorists have not neglected the impact of passions on will. One of the solutions that they have come up with is that agents will freely only in the absence of external manipulation bypassing their rational controls. This introduces another anomaly to the logic, as it would not permit a “natural saint” freedom since he or she would not have the ability to choose a more selfish course of action.
Harry Frankfort invented an original solution to this matter. He defined free will as the ability to reflect on our desires and beliefs. I may want to eat a cake (first-order desire), but I may not want to get fat (second-order desire). In this view free will is dependent on the second-order desire. Frankfort is explicit that morals need not be connected to high-order desires, he considers it to be chiefly first-order.
In another camp of philosophy, perhaps more in sync with science; free will is considered to be subject to natural laws.
John Martin Fischer breaks it down into two mechanisms, guidance and regulative. An individual exerts guidance control over their actions as long as it is weakly reason responsive. This exists if there is sufficient reason for the agent to have another possible course of action. Regulative guidance is the ability of the agent to choose a different course of action in the actual circumstance.
Many do not agree with this premise, and assert that beliefs, desires, and other forces can casually affect the act of will itself. The metaphysical nature of this depth is debatable, but usually breaks into three divisions. The first one is that we control our will simply because it is our will. Proponents of the event-casual system say that we are still subject to determinate natural laws, requiring will to be deterministic and subject to the laws of probability. Finally there is the belief that the agent produces his own choices or actions, and that it can’t be further reduced. In that respect, we can’t choose our actions any more than say a falling stone.
In this view science would agree in some form. In the 1970’s Benjamin Libet of the University of California discovered that the brain signals actions before the person involved becomes aware of it. Using an electroencephalogram and timing subjects response times to an action, he found that the conscious brain is lagging the unconscious brain in commanding an action. This experiment has been reproduced over the years and verified. Dr. Libet himself considers free will to be limited and subject to our ability to veto actions already in our mental pipeline.
In the end asking about if you can make free decisions may be the wrong question. A better question would be why you made the decision.

New York Times

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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