Sunday, July 01, 2007


My weekly workload has collapsed and will stay low for most of July before August will bring it back to some respectability. Naturally, I'm caught in a win-win situation, where a lack of hours brings more leisure time to do what I like to do and a surplus of hours gives me money for random expenses like car repairs, which I like too.

In my extra time this week contemplating, my mind settled back to an old philosophical chestnut, namely whether we have freewill. A burst of inspiration suddenly revealed to me a weapon to destroy the argument of anyone claiming that determinism is a logical necessity.

Paul once related an idea from a book he was reading about how the human mind has a natural tendency to look for causes for phenomena it experiences. For example, if people saw a comet and then a nature disaster occurred, there was an inference of causality. In the book, it related how this could be a source of the belief in the supernatural. The sins of mankind had to lie in a past flaw/sin at the beginning of creation; people of different areas spoke differently because God punished the people for building the Tower of Babel; deformities and being born in poverty must have been a result of sins in a past life and so on. This is a reasonable theory and could explain the capacity for rational people to believe in things such as luck and the desire to see coincidences as providence. More crucially, it shows that a natural mode of thinking can lead to beliefs that are not necessary logical.

If we have a look at the scientific mode of thinking, it is easy to see that it is a formalised systematic analogue to the same mental process. It looks at the effects and seeks to attribute causes. This naturally is a powerful technique and has been highly successful. But the conclusion of determinism could be an example of how such processes being victims of their own success.

Determinism is the theory that all of our choices are essentially pre-determined by circumstance. For example, I'm going to make a cup of tea now. Why? Because I have a sensation in my throat; I'm partial to tea; it's cool in this room; I'm a bit sleepy and may be in need of a pick-me-up. I could try to demonstrate my freewill by going against such factors to make a point. But my decision to make this point are also pre-existing; I'm writing this blog (which itself had pre-existing causes); I'm a contrarian etc. So if all the effects have causes, then there is no free will, thus determinism.

But the logic leading to determinism could be underpinned by the same assumptions that lead us to beliefs in luck, karma and a creator. If you assume that all effects and choices by sentient and non-sentient beings and objects can be attributed to causes, then you are begging the question when it comes to freewill. It is an assumption to say that all effects have a 100% materialistic cause.

We could assume that our choices are to some degree a result of circumstances and to some degree the effect of the executive functions of the brain exerting its freewill over the choices available. The executive function is what weighs up the significance of each of the factors and effectively makes the choices. Naturally circumstances are the data that the executive function may consider, but to say that the circumstances force choices upon the executive functions is to make an assumption beyond what one knows.

I see this perspective as a valuable point to raise against anyone who considers determinism to be a logical certainty. It doesn't prove freewill; in fact you'll notice that it can be used to attack someone who intellectually asserts freewill. But any awareness of the assumptions that lead to non sequitur 'conclusions' has to be a good thing.

I'm annoyed that I had never noticed this point in fact. It does have implications and uses in other discussions. Anyway, I came to blogger this morning because I knew there was a philosophical topic I was going to blog. Freewill was not going to be the topic, but I couldn't remember the topic that had inspired me to have a more philosophical blog. While writing this one, typically, I recalled the topic which will be the basis of a blog in the near future: Was Mother Theresa selfish?

Any thoughts on freewill and/or Mother Theresa, please comment.


Crypticity said...

Coincidentally, the magazine I borrowed from the library had an article about freewill. It outlined the biochemical argument for determinism. 'Twas really fascinating to have an analysis like that to contrast against the philosophical arguments.

The assumption for determinism that I mentioned in the blog is referred to as 'casual determinism' (that everything has a cause).

Probably the most interesting part was an argument from an evolutionary perspective. If freewill is taken as a characteristic that developed via natural selection, would it be adaptive or aversive? The author suggested that determinism would be favoured because there would be a 'right decision' that could be realised from the circumstances (i.e. the causes) and to always follow that right choice would be determinism. To not do the right decision would be aversive as the situation would indicate the likely best choice and to go against that would be perilous. I think that is an argument that might seem plausible in abstract, but I would say it fails in reality. Freewill gives the option of not choosing a natural choice. It doesn't mean that it would run toward the lion rather than away, but the capacity to do so. To not do the obvious thing could be the source of creativity, discovery, and an engine for developing new behaviour. Besides, do all situations really provide 'right decisions'. I'd say not.

One interesting analysis was that for a sentient being a belief in freewill was advantageous. Thus, an illusion of freewill would be also favoured by natural selection as a being becomes sentient. A point to hold in mind because an illusion is easier to create than the substance. My take would be that genuine freewill could well have a survival advantage the illusory freewill wouldn't have.

A marginal advantage is all that is needed. Sexual reproduction only has a marginally more advantageous than asexual reproduction yet it still developed despite the necessary physical developments required and effort that goes into it. Aren't we lucky!

After reading the article, I probably believe in freewill more than before as I can conceptualise how it could develop.

Edwin said...

I have to say that pondering over freewill is a very western thing, largely due to the influences of Christianity.

But anyway, as long as you're having fun with it, it's all good~

btw I'm now travelling in the Himalaya ranges. The internet is expensive here so I don't have too much time to have any meaningful discussions, so anyway, wish you all the best.

Crypticity said...

Cheers for spending some of your valuable himalayan internet time reading my blog!

Yeah, it is probably a western thing originating with through the interaction of western thought and christianity. And yeah it is fun.

Hope you are staying well up there and the high altitude isn't getting you down! Take care.