Volition and Choice

As mentioned yesterday, I’m thinking of starting an investigation into volition and choice. It is said for example we cannot choose to fall in love. What, if anything, can we choose to do? If we cannot actually choose anything what is left of ego.

Starting with Google, sources in this investigation will include:

  1. Plato’s Protagoras and The Laws.
  2. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics
  3. Paul’s letters in the New Testament
  4. And the what I might glean from the patristic writers from late Antiquity (Evagrius?).

Any other suggestions are welcome.

I’m off to pick up #2 daughter from her gymnastics class. I have to say it’s a wonderful thing when your kids can amaze you with their accomplishments. For a quite stiff and unlimber middle aged guy the flexibility of young aspiring gymnasts is mind-boggling. I’m bringing the first on the list with me to get started on this little project.

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24 comments

  1. jpe says:

    Sartre. He’s the king of free will. I can track down the relevant chapter of Being and Nothingness, if requested – it’s a beauty. From a more Christian perspective is Christian existentialist Paul Ricouer, whose early work deals largely with free will and such. They’re not expressly Christian, but he’s hardcore, so his work should be infused with Christian worldview. He’s also hardcore philosophy and tough to read, though.

  2. Seems you’d be wasting your time if you didn’t read anybody current, what with all we’re learning about neurology. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freewill#Neuroscience_and_free_will)

    Honestly, what’s the point in reading Plato and Aristotle on this matter?

  3. Mark says:

    JA,
    Looking int to it a little, I have (from the local library) picked up a book in their philosophy section on it. I’m away from home right now, but I’ll post the title later.

    The point of starting with Plato and Aristotle is that is where philosophy started and from an outside perspective philosophy has gotten a little off the rails lately, leaving the “seeking of wisdom” behind for esoterica.

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    I wonder at your (and mine) distrust of the old (new). Why do you distrust or think Plato and Aristotle are automatically obsolete? Just because it was long ago? or another reason. How have they “flipped your idiot bit”?

    jpe,

    I’ll look there (Sartre and Ricouer) as well if this projects turns over enough “meat”. 🙂

  5. Mark:

    Science spun off of philosophy to answer empirical questions. When we have an empirical question, I think it’s therefore silly to turn to prescience philosophers for answers. Obviously, free will is a complicated question and philosophers have a lot to say on the subject. It seems to me though that a lot of it has become empirical over the last few decades so the prudent way to begin one’s study is with a review of the science. If you wanted to know about planetary orbits, reading Plato would be absurd.

    Basically, I’m suggesting you get a grounding in the facts before setting out to read what some very smart but relatively ignorant men wrote thousands of years ago. There have been enlightening studies on consciousness and volition. Studying people with particular forms of brain damage has taught us a great deal. Start with Libet and read what the neuroscientists have come up with since then. Otherwise, you’re just playing games.

  6. jpe says:

    When we have an empirical question

    Empirical? Nah, it’s not empirical. Our neurons obviously create predispositions, but free will is a philosophical question sine qua non.

  7. The empirical data appear to show that the part of our brains which is conscious is notified of a decision rather than makes the decision. There are also empirical data that clearly show certain “choices” — particularly degree of religiosity — has a very large (50% if I recall correctly) degree of heritability. Aristotle, on the other hand, appears to think that our minds are based literally in the heart.

    It’s okay to supplement your studies with the philosophers, but studying them primarily with regard to questions modern thinkers are much more equipped to deal with amounts to no more than mental masturbation. Nothing wrong with that per se, but if you want the truth, start with the scientists.

  8. […] In a recent comment (here) the pseudonymous Jewish Atheist writes: Basically, I’m suggesting you get a grounding in the facts before setting out to read what some very smart but relatively ignorant men wrote thousands of years ago. […]

  9. Mark says:

    JA,
    That presupposes that that part of “you” which is conscious is all of “you”. Heritability is a part of what determines who you are. The human organism is very trainable. Just as we can train our bodies to do things they are not born to, mental traits, perseverance, spirituality and so on are all trainable as well.

    I’m unclear on why mistaken impression on where thought arises has anything to do with the sagacity of thoughts on the contents of our thoughts. For example, you deride his opinion on the “where” thinking is centered, but do you also likewise deride his thinking on happiness? What relation does the first have to the second?

  10. I thought we were talking about volition and choice, not happiness. Even with happiness, I’d trust a social scientist or psychologist more than a philosopher. There’s a reason philosophy’s gotten so obscure these days — everything that actually relates to anything is better studied with science.

  11. Mark says:

    JA,
    Happiness was just an example.

    I don’t thinkn the “everything is better with science” is the cause for the off-track problem with philosophy.

  12. jpe says:

    The empirical data appear to show that the part of our brains which is conscious is notified of a decision rather than makes the decision.

    So we’re determined robots that can’t say no to our instincts? Like it or not, your perspective is shot through with non-empirical philosophy.

  13. So we’re determined robots that can’t say no to our instincts?

    No. First of all, I never say we are deterministic. Second, this is more than a matter of instincts — these are actual decisions we’re talking about. I’m not saying for sure that we don’t have volition, just that it seems difficult to reconcile the idea of free will with the data.

  14. Mark says:

    JA,

    It seems to me you have a contradiction in what your stating. On the one hand, you’ve agreed that unconscious + conscious makes up the individual. But you also claim that because the decision making process of the conscious mind is illusory and an artifact/expression of processes taking place in the unconscious therefore volition/free will don’t make sense.

    If the individual is the combination of both, then there is not problem with volition, except that possibly because we are not aware of any possible external influences on our choices made at the unconscious level, free will becomes a matter of faith?

  15. Mark:

    If all decisions are unconscious, can we say we have free will? I’m not sure. Because it’s unconscious, we can’t control it, so we are not in control of our decisions. Sounds to me that’s the definition of not having free will. Granted, we can probably affect our subconsciously ahead of time, but that’s a pretty indirect way of managing individual decisions.

  16. Mark says:

    JA,
    “We can’t control it” is a way of saying “we” consists only of conscious mind.

    We have free will, iff the unconscious/subconscious is not externally controlled. For example, if you find that hereditary influence on decision making exist, for that then to imply the non-existence of free will means that both that heredity is “not you” and that the heredity completely determines your choice (see programming comment above by jpe).

  17. Mark:

    We have free will, iff the unconscious/subconscious is not externally controlled.

    I disagree. If the brain were purely deterministic, for example, we would have no free will even without external control.

    The real problem of free will is that there isn’t really a self to have it.

    I posted about it a long time ago here.

    Part of the excerpt from someone else that I quote there:

    The assumption of free will, so widespread in our culture, in effect sets us up as supernatural little gods, and it’’s this assumption that a thorough-going naturalism upsets. We should doubt the little god of free will on the very same grounds that atheists doubt the big god of traditional religions: there’s no evidence for it.

    Just as science has radically altered our view of cosmic reality, replacing the static earth-centered heavens with the Big Bang, and supernatural human origins with Darwinian evolution, so too it replaces the soul with the fully physical person, shaped in its entirety by the complex interaction of genetics and environment. Rapidly accumulating evidence from biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive neuroscience suggests we are not causal exceptions to nature. There is no categorically mental agent or soul-essence floating above the brain which can exert a choice-making power that’s independent of neural processes. There’s nothing supernatural or causally privileged inside the head, just as there’s nothing supernatural outside it.

  18. Mark says:

    JA,

    I think your first premise is wrong, that is

    If the brain were purely deterministic, for example, we would have no free will even without external control.

    Complexity can make determinism impossible in a deterministic environment (without resorting to quantum unpredictability to derive freedom of action). Can a sufficiently complex yet completely deterministic mind have free will?

    As to your extended quote, I think Chesterton’s retort (The Everlasting Man) apt about man being fundamentally different from the other animals

    … After all, it would come back to this; that he had dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man.

    It isn’t that deer or apes or any other animals draws (does art, loves, does theology, philosophy, or any other things the Genesis writer pens as “in the image of God” well and the animals do it more poorly). It’s that the animals do these things not at all.

    I still don’t understand your denial of self/free will, but think it is still tied up to your identification of self as separated from your unconscious.

  19. Can a sufficiently complex yet completely deterministic mind have free will?

    I don’t see how something can be both deterministic and free, regardless of complexity.

    There are in fact non-human painters like the famous Congo, who is a chimpanzee.

    I’ll grant you that few have probably painted without human encouragement. Still, I don’t see how humans being unique implies anything about free will one way or the other.

    I still don’t understand your denial of self/free will, but think it is still tied up to your identification of self as separated from your unconscious.

    Do you believe there can be free will or a real self in the absence of a supernatural soul?

  20. Mark says:

    JA,

    So, was it Descartes or Leibniz who had the idea that a clockwork universe only required elaboration of the initial conditions to time evolve the rest of history. Chaos and complexity (even setting aside quantum uncertainty) make this hypothesis untenable.

    Put it this way, if you had an independent, deterministic (chaotically complex) robot which was AI (Turing intelligent). It is faced with a choice. No external agent (saving omniscience) can predict what decision it will make externally due to its complexity and the unknown nature of its initial state. It chooses. Is that free will. It chose, it was not predictable, it like us might explain its understanding of it came to that choice and like us might be naive in its description of its thought processes leading to that choice. What about that process violates your conception of of free will?

    On that “famous Congo“, I’m not artist but to my eye that looks more like random paint swatches than any artistic impulse put to paper. I only brought up the human uniqueness in response to your comment and its attaching of significance to Darwinian evolution.

    On the last question, note the above, I’m not sure how supernatural notions of soul have any necessary connection to free will or a “real self”. Or to put it bluntly … yes.

  21. Your example of the deterministic but complex robot gets to the heart of our disagreement. I claim that the robot appears to others to have free will but does not actually have it. Moreover, even if said robot had true random number generators, it would still not have free will, since being a slave to random numbers is no better than being a slave to fixed ones. I think we are either mostly deterministic, partly random robots or non-random, completely deterministic robots.

    It’s like the Chinese room argument. If it were impossible to tell the difference between the Chinese room and a human Chinese translator, the Chinese room appears to have human-like translation capabilities. Does that mean it’s doing anything other than going through a completely deterministic process? No. Is it “intelligent?” Depends what you mean by “intelligent.”

    I guess we could define free will to include a deterministic AI which passes the Turing test, but by that definition of free will, everybody on earth believes in it, so where have we gotten?

  22. Mark says:

    JA,
    Well, that’s not entirely true. That is that many people would hold that the existence of an omniscient being contravenes free will (He knows the outcome of your choice and thereby constrains your choice and therefore the existence of omniscience violates free will). My personal response to the omniscience problem is what measurable difference does it make? What gedankenexperiment can you propose in which the outcome is changed by the existence of non-existence of an omniscient being. If there is no experimental difference, then omniscience does not destroy free will.

    I’m unclear on how a unpredictable but that the underlying mechanism is at the root deterministic violates a common conception of free will, because (and this the crucial bit) your initial conditions are unknowable. Since, no non-omniscient observer can predict your response and you have no outside influence and you are intelligent ergo you are free willed.

  23. Mark says:

    JA,
    What else could free will be? That is, I think you have painted a definition which cannot be satistied by anything.

  24. […] To get the ball rolling, as I’ve noted I’m going to attempt to consider choices, free-will and … all that. Before going into “the literature”, I thought it might be instructive to put to pen/paper (or ePaper anyhow) some ideas on this matter. I suggested some texts I might look at, put forth here, and a lively discussion followed (or lively as it gets in my quiet corner of the ’sphere). […]