Internecine War At Freethought Blogs: Philosopher vs. "Redneck" Edition: Free Will And The Real World Smackdown

As far as I have noticed, there has not been a blog war between any of the Freethought Blogs (or, er, since we all moved here anyway) so I was a little trepidatious of going and picking apart the every word of a quick comment on one of my posts by my new favorite blogger, Hank “Crazy Like A” Fox from Blue Collar Atheistparticularly when his comment represented to me a relatively familiar “blue collar” “common sense” challenge that the obvious truths of common sense are unprofitably lost in philosophical dissections counter experienced reality too significantly. But Hank seems raring for the challenge, writing:

Scrutinized and COUNTERED?? Dan, you madman, you think you can COUNTER my simple homespun redneck wisdom?

Do your worst, sir! Go ahead and be a phil-ossi-fer if you like!

Expect a visit from a couple of friends of mine, though. You’ll recognize them by the overalls and gappy teeth.

And banjos.

Dee-dee ding-ding-ding-ding-ding ding-dang.

So, to give my coming visitors something to be mad about, below the fold are Hank’s defense of free will and my replies interspersed. In the comment Hank is responding to I pointed to an apparent paradox in his position that one can be free if only one is willing to work hard to become free. I noted that since you could not choose to be willing to develop free will before you had free will this was a paradox in his position (by which I meant to imply his position was effectively undermined). Hank wrote in reply:

Two things always occur to me in any discussion of Free Will.

One is that the discussion of Free Will itself seems, in a significant way, to presuppose the conclusion that the thing exists. I have a hard time imagining robots carrying on such a conversation. The “this is me thinking about that” internal background says to me (yes, subjectively, but that’s as good as it gets in our own personal heads) that I’m not such a robot.

Whether or not robots could have the “subjective” and “internal” side of experience we have in consciousness is a distinct question from whether they could theoretically imitate (or even surpass) our ways of thinking purely by learning our various definitions, semantics, and syntax and generate conversations indistinguishable from ours. But even if they could formally emulate all these things, I share the suspicion that robots could not have an internal, subjective side of experience.

And I think it is interesting to raise the question whether without that side of experience, they could be inspired to analyze experiences that depend upon an internal subjective phenomenal consciousness in order to be understood or be (literally) felt as problems. They could possibly puzzle over what humans mean when referring to subjective experiences that they do not also have. But they could not be troubled about them the way we are—as trying to make sense of something actually experienced.

And since we have feelings that we feel naturally inclined to call “the feeling of acting freely” or “the feeling of making an unconstrained choice”, robots who lacked such conscious, subjective experience would lack such a feeling and so would not be curious to explain it (unless, again, they were trying to make sense of humans’ use of words for such feelings).

So, that is a really insightful point.

But it has little to do with either having or proving the existence of free will, all it tells us is what we feel like. Some people claim to feel God’s existence or to feel morally compelled, but that does not prove that either God or objectively binding morality exist either. (I think, in fact God does not exist. And I think that even though objectively defensible moralities can be developed and many of our moral feelings can often be vindicated, they are not proved by the fact that they feel strong. It is good (and maybe even necessary) that they feel strong when that helps us to function well. But whether or not they are appropriate feelings in any given case requires confirmation from rational reflection on them, I think.

Feeling free could be entirely an illusion. Or we could interpret correctly that we are free but misunderstand how we are free or to what extent we are free. I feel free (and I think from my reflective philosophical perspective I truly am free) when I get to do what I want. But what I want is something that comes to me and is determined for me by my brain in a number of ways by the basic biology of my organism, the particularities of my own idiosyncratic neuro-chemistry, my socialization, and my past experiences, etc. I could not entirely choose any of those things. And when I decide to freely act to get what I want because I rationally see it will be most satisfying to me, I cannot control that this is what rationally seems best to me. I am guided by my reason and my desires in these ways and these things guide me—I don’t guide them.

Even were I to deliberately guide them—say by practicing by will power to desire things I do not naturally like or by deliberately investigating arguments that might change my reasoning, I must first get the motivation to do these things from preexisting desires or reasoning processes (whether conscious or subconscious) telling me I should change my desires or reason differently.

This is all compatible with feeling my moment of choice as a completely unconstrained action in which I could have gone in any direction whatsoever. I am misinterpreting the feeling of doing what I want for a feeling of choosing the action at random, when in fact my act is chosen by desires and cognitive processes that are mostly functioning without my control. Only occasionally are their operations something I am observing consciously. And just as those cognitive processes hum along making decisions all day without my even thinking about them consciously, they are also making the decisions even when I am aware of, and paying explicit attention to, the competing ideas and desires that they are weighing.

Our cognitive processes are smart enough to eventually discover that they run based on a certain kind of logic and favor certain kinds of decision trees and weight various values and desires in particular ways, etc. They are able to then investigate whether they can ever make a choice that is not ultimately constrained by the logic and methods of ranking choices that were developed without any deliberate control or choices by themselves (or by the subjective consciously experiencing side of the mind) but rather through organic and social determinations and interactions.

It is quite possible that robots that could at least emulate (if not consciously experience) our thinking about the world could similarly come to investigate the limits of their own thoughts according to their own algorithmic determinations.

Second is a more general argument that there is a testing lab for all philosophical propositions that stands outside those artifacts-of-human-mind. Reality.

You pretty much have to alternate from the internal-philosophical to the Real-World-actual in order to examine your propositions for workability. That most of us do it without noticing, or that complex arguments can be advanced that deny any such Real World exists, presents us with a bit of a quandary. But again, I don’t think you can have the discussion without recognizing that the process itself is an argument for realness.

It is so easy to get bogged down in “yeah, but what about this? what about that?” that I generally avoid the subject altogether.

It’s possible that “There is a Real World” has to be something of an article of faith. But it appears — to me — to be the only workable conclusion humans have yet come up with.

I tend to suspect that, anytime we’re presented with a paradox, it’s because we’re getting bogged down in the imperfections of human semantics, or the assumption that what’s going on in our human heads is the most important or only consideration.

The only way out of these Gordian Knots of subjective mentation is … well, something on the order of Zen no-mind, where you stop attempting to insistently grasp the thing and sit back and try harder to just observe it.

I am not denying the real world. In fact, I will go one step further than you, I would not call the proposition “There is a Real World” an article of faith (at least not in the sense of “real world” which you mean here, i.e., the common sense world of experience). I think that it is actually an inference to the best explanation to think that we are not brains in a vat or minds in a Matrix or somehow deceived by an evil genius or a demon, etc. The best explanation of our experience is that we are not being manipulated to imagine a real world that does not really exist. I think that it would take an unjustified leap of faith to doubt the existence of the real world. I even think it is a foolish standard of knowledge which some philosophers use when they treat the small probability that we are systematically deceived as a basis to claim that we can never know anything (or never know anything with 99% certainty).

But believing in the real world is not the same thing as (a) accepting any particular account of what our real world experience of freedom is about or (b) thinking that the way things appear to us internally and subjectively in our consciousness is the only (or the best) way to think about them.

From physics we know that objects which strike us as solid are actually mostly composed of empty space. From biology, we know there are countless bacteria all in-between our human cells even though we are consciously oblivious of them. We also can infer that colored objects are not actually colored in themselves in the real world but that they look colored to us because of the ways that light reflecting off of them are interpreted by our eyes and brains.

So obviously understanding the real world does not mean accepting that things are ultimately best explained as identical with the way we experience them subjectively and internally.

Now, there is something to be said for not letting philosophical puzzles confuse us about realities or words which are understood very well for practical purposes in the life-world of everyday experience. Wittgenstein thought that many philosophical problems needed to be diffused by being shown to be pseudo-problems rather than solved. I am by no means a Wittgenstein expert, but he might be interpreted to argue it distorts perfectly good, practically effective concepts and confuses things when we take expressions or concepts out of the language games in which they function in readily understood ways and then modify them to try to make them fit an arbitrary, abstract conceptual scheme. Wittgenstein also claims that it is not philosophy’s purpose to change the world. And many philosophers agree with him in opposing revisionism. They do not think that it is philosophers’ place to correct common sense intuitions but only to explicate them and their implications and to show their internal connections.

I am somewhere in the middle on this. I think that philosophy should not define terms in ways that ignore all their practical salience. This is why I think it is a mistake to define knowledge as such an idealized thing that it is literally impossible to have any. I think that confuses things. For example, something meaningful is being said when we insist that we can know things through science, on the one hand, and that pseudosciences yield little to no knowledge, on the other. If we define knowledge so paradoxically that this plain truth is not acknowledged because “there is no true knowledge” on our definition, then I think we have revised too far.

But some revisions and corrections to common sense can improve our abilities to interact with the real world truthfully and fairly just as much as science’s constant amendments and complements to our common sense beliefs clearly do.

And free will is one of these areas. It is a serious issue to come to terms with that people are not as free as they feel like they are or as we want to believe that they are. We think it is unfair to morally blame someone who is drugged without their consent and forced to do something heinous. If it turns out that all the evidence indicates to us that everyone who does something heinous is effectively guided by a brain that may as well be drugged since they cannot fundamentally control it no matter how much they are told to, then it really matters that we be consistent and not morally blame them—or at least not blame them and treat them in the same way we tend to do now.

I once read a story about a guy who had molested his daughter and gone to jail before they discovered a brain tumor that inhibited his self-control. When they removed the tumor his desire for his daughter was gone. The tumor came back and so did his pedophile inclinations. If we really care about not blaming people who cannot have done otherwise than they did, then we really need to look at treating someone like that with more compassion and constructive attempts at behavioral and cognitive therapies or surgeries, and with less prison bars and hatred. If all of us, criminals and heroes alike, are similarly a function of programming (even if not in as drastically noticeable ways) that we cannot ultimately control then we all deserve more understanding and less vilification than is encouraged in our present morality—a morality which the free will defenders, including many retribution-hungry religious people, are sometimes passionately eager to protect, even if there is evidence that it is in fact unjust according to their own free will standards for blaming.

I am not against all corrective punishment or against protecting the public from dangerous people or for allowing people to rationalize their way out of responsibility. I just think that responsibility should be understood differently. Humans are responsible but more the way a hurricane is responsible for what it does. We can still be liked or disliked for being objectively the way we are. I can love that a specific person is an excellent model of a flourishing human being the way I can love any other excellent instance of a kind, regardless of whether she actually chose to be who she is (she did not). I can also dislike someone for being unpleasant or a failure in various ways but not blame them in the sense that I attribute these things to decisions that he could have made otherwise to be as he is.

This is a matter of being fairer and truer in our assessments of people and their responsibilities.  It is about finding the most humane and fairest techniques to help everyone flourish as much as possible and with serious, rigorous appreciation for the very real limitations–and possibilities—that their particular brain programmings allow. The fictional “completely free, totally unprogrammed” will is like the concept of God—it is an outdated superstitious obstacle to getting people to engage and improve reality more truthfully and more fairly. And, despite popular opinion, we can be good without them both.

Your Thoug—er, I mean, TAKE THAT, “REDNECK”!!!

Patheos Atheist LogoLike Camels With Hammers and Patheos Atheist on Facebook!

Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
7 Exciting Announcements About My Online Philosophy Classes
A Directory of Philosophers From Underrepresented Groups
Funishment
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X