The Seven Liberal Arts

The Seven Liberal Arts

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Free Will Does Exist

We get irked that the ancients tainted their science with philosophy, yet today make the equal error of tainting our philosophy with science. Then let us take the ancient wisdom and the modern science, the best of both worlds, and venture onwards. There's an article floating around proclaiming that free will doesn't exist, but that we should believe in it anyway. Most of it talks about how detrimental (or in some small ways beneficial) a belief in determinism is, while resting on the assumption that 'science has disproved' free will. This large but scarcely discussed claim comes whence: 
"Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person's brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion."

That is, there is something bringing forth a decision before the conscious decision… which sounds a lot like what we would call the subconscious. Basically, it is saying that we do not have free will because we subconsciously make decisions before consciously doing so.

Now I find this to be a bizarre claim. For one, there is no reason free will must only be conscious decision rather than decision in general with all that it entails. We've already defined free will, I had thought, as the ability to make decisions, and all that that implies, conscious or subconscious, so it doesn't make sense to deny the existence of free will by showing how it works. If "free will" involves both subconscious and conscious decision, you can't point to subconscious decision to say that free will doesn't exist.

Secondly, this argument seems only to apply to those who are acting immediately, and it falls apart when one considers the many instances in which a person has a decided plan far in advance to any carrying of it out.

But perhaps we are supposed to understand this scenario as having a broader application than immediate action. Perhaps the implication is being made that all of our conscious thoughts are simply the product of our subconscious, and since we think our decisions come from our conscious thought (that is in our control), but it has actually been shown to be under the control of the subconscious (which seems to be out of our control), consequently we do not have free will. But I still do not believe this must follow, because the premises have faults, namely that decisions come from conscious thought alone and that the subconscious is entirely out of our control.

Let us bring this back to our own experience. When you experience the process of thinking, do you not somehow sense that there is something in you guiding your thoughts before you put them into words? Don't you have a conception or idea before you formulate it? That is your subconscious, and it's still you. We might, as a proportion, say that subconscious thought is to conscious thought as conscious thought is to outward expression. Conscious thought is the inward expression, or formulation, of what is already there subconsciously. Now this might sound like what those against free will are saying, but my point here is that the subconscious is still part of you and so it is still you making the decision.

And it may be true to some extent that you don't get to choose your subconscious. That is why we would say you're not yet morally responsible, for those things beneath the surface, and as such for example cannot be blamed for what you dream of when you sleep.

But it is also true that your subconscious can be formed by what you decide to feed into or deny. To indulge in baser thoughts and desires will flood your subconscious with more of the same and incline you to end up choosing it more often; to deny and redirect them will make it easier to habitually do so outwardly.

But how is it possible, one might ask, to consciously form your subconscious, if it is your subconscious forming that conscious? It should be made clear that there is another step between conscious thought and action, for one does not simply act on every thought. There is deliberation, of course, of which I ought not pretend to fully understand.

And supposedly, herein lies the force of the anti-free-will argument: during the process of deliberation to act, the subconscious decides first, and the conscious only does so as if after the fact.
But it also should be said again, that the subconscious is still you, and so it is still you deciding. It is not an outside force that you have no control over, in which case you could perhaps be said to have no free will. And what should have been already implied in the original definition of free will was the entire process of decision, even if that ends up including both conscious and subconscious, not merely the "conscious experience of deciding to act."

But it does bring us back to the question of how one can consciously form the not entirely controlled subconscious, if it is really the opposite that is taking place. To this I must appeal again to deliberation, and the process of reasoning with I trust that you are familiar with. It seems that while consciously reasoning we may come to conclusions that were not in the subconscious at first, and thus the conscious is not merely entirely contained in the subconscious, but can introduce new elements that can then be referred back to the subconscious to form it. For example, it would definitely be unfair to assert that all atheists subconsciously know God exists. Maybe some do, but surely others do not. Yet, if one who does not reads and follows an argument and becomes convinced by it, the conscious now gains new information without influence of the subconscious.

Now, I do not know how well I have spoken, for I am not a psychologist or neurologist. But I came across this argument against free will and found some philosophical problems in it, in addition to having my natural reaction against an idea so destructive and contrary to experience.

It seems to claim that because we have causes of our decisions, we are not freely making those decisions. I do not know how having causeless decisions would be any freer, in fact that would seem even less free, if we simply behaved randomly, that is, without cause or reason.

That the decisions we make have causes should be clear even from regular experience, that we take the information that we have and weigh options and act according to what we decide, or sometimes by our own feelings. Could it not be said that our knowledge and desire of the good causes us to choose it, or our ignorance (incomplete or erroneous knowledge) causes us to choose something bad, or our reason's acquiescence to passion does the same? Nowhere does it appear that choices are supposed to have no cause other than our own will, considering that our own will is influenced by innumerable factors even apart from what is subconscious. Logically, the other option would be randomness, which seems even less to lend us freedom, for then there would be no reason guiding our decisions.

So, to summarize the objections to the objections to free will:

1. We've already defined and understood free will by our experience, and it is clear that as far as we can tell, we do have free will. Nothing is compelling us to choose one thing over another in our ordinary lives other than what we deem to be best. And if it ends up being that our subconscious decides things before we realize it (that is, before it translates into conscious decision), that should rather deepen our understanding of how free will works, than invalidate it as we move the goalpost to something that does not exist: a thing neither caused nor random.

2. The brief scientific argument that is made in the article seems only to apply to immediate action, and says nothing of planning ahead, unless also we are supposed to understand that the subconscious influences us even in our planning ahead, which I have taken to be the case and written my response accordingly.

3. Your subconscious is still you, so you're still making decisions. And while your subconscious influences your conscious, your conscious in turn influences your subconscious with new reasoned insights, or new information that you choose to expose yourself to, or indulgence in certain thoughts versus denial.

4. Of course our choices have causes, because we're influenced by things all the time, which help us to make our decisions. We act according to what we know or believe and what we feel and what we desire, not according to nothing, and definitely not according to indeterminacy (randomness). It is precisely when we have indeterminacy (many options without something, either within us or without, causing us to be inclined towards one) that we feel indecisive.

Perhaps the root of the problem lies with what we're using as a definition of "free." The most common appears to be without influence from another, not compelled or forced, able to act according to one's own wishes. Yet it would be strange and misguided to point to one's own wishes and say "that is influence," and then say we do not have free will. Likewise it should be strange and misguided to point to one's own subconscious and do the same. It should be clear that, in that sense, caused decisions are still free decisions.

In this essay I take the approach of translating "electrical buildup" into "subconscious activity." But perhaps the "neurons firing" aspect of the other article deserves its own post. In short, it should come as no surprise to the classical philosopher that material and agent causes exist. We already know that. What should not be ignored are the formal and final causes, all of which I may address more fully later.

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