Free Will: Leaving the Tradition Behind, A History Boy, 26/09/2013

Introductory philosophy classes face a pretty hard sell for the discipline. Because of the usual way universities allocate budgets, philosophy programs have to attract enough majors to keep a reasonable share of their university’s money.* My old department is facing the short end of this stick right now. In the face of a trimming overall budget for the university, the philosophy department at McMaster is staring down some cuts, which is a damn shame, because it’s a quality department that’s being kept from firing on all its cylinders. 

* I happen to think that the most productive way to develop an undergraduate philosophy curriculum is through more service courses that integrate philosophical perspectives and techniques with other disciplines. In an era where immediate practical application of their education is foremost on students’ minds (as it would be, given what most people sacrifice for their degrees), philosophy sometimes has to reach out of its more abstract comfort zone and provide people with diverse critical thinking skills. Learning how to be of service to multiple other disciplines would also, I think, be a great asset for creative philosophical research.

Of course, leaving aside critiques of the outdated and unfortunate method of allocating budget shares to university departments by major instead of overall service to the university’s programs, there is the question of attracting majors. An often-used tool is to generate nerdy enthusiasm, getting people excited enough about the discipline’s material to want to learn more. And one of the standard methods of doing this is hooking people with the perennial problems of philosophy, the questions that don’t ever seem to go away. Does God exist? Is there such thing as a soul? Is free will possible?**

** I sometimes see this term written as freewill, a single word. And it annoys the crap out of me.

What amuses me about this well-worn technique is that I was never that interested in these problems, though I specifically want to talk about free will today. As I’ve studied other areas of philosophy, especially scientific principles, the various conceptions of what a law of nature would be, and the nature of causation, free will almost seems like a pseudo-problem. It sounds like a serious problem, but when you actually examine all the ideas involved, it actually isn’t anything worth worrying about. 

I read an article on Slate Wednesday morning that got me thinking about this. The author’s point was basically that whether there could be free will wasn’t really a problem. The problem is usually stated in the discipline of philosophy in terms of causation: if an action is caused, then it isn’t free; because no human action is free from cause, then there is no such thing as free will. This is based on a conception of causality as strongly deterministic. A cause, on this conception, utterly determines its effect. 

The article’s writer, Roy Baumeister, points out how silly this is. His own argument is that as systems grow more complex over time, they develop new ways of acting which essentially constitute human freedom. Yes, everything is made of matter, and elementary particles move according to the laws of physics,*** but these laws describe very simple actions, and the determinations of these simple actions don’t apply to the more complex dynamics of movement that emerge from them. By the time we arrive at the peculiar kind of complexity of humans with their cultural ways of living, the human organism has developed the ability to move in ways that practically amount to everything that the traditional methods of pure metaphysics ask of free will. And if it develops its personality and trades a complex chain of favours for political advancement like a free human, then it’s free.

A funny story involving Daniel Dennett. My friend K used
to work at a marina in Newfoundland where apparently
Dennett used to go sailing with reasonable frequency.
*** Of course, the mathematics describing activity at the fundamental levels of matter and energy are statistical, a matter not of strict determination but of probabilities, likelihoods, and tendencies. This is further evidence that some arguments in philosophy seriously need to catch up with discoveries in other disciplines that have impact for our concerns. I have even met philosophers, actual people with PhDs in the discipline, who believe that the scientific concept of emergence is nonsense. I won't name names, just express my thankfulness that there aren't very many of them, and hope that it won't be long until such people no longer exist.

This is essentially Daniel Dennett’s argument for the evolution of freedom, dressed in language better suited to journalism than giant books of technical philosophy. And perhaps philosophy could learn something from journalistic style; at a minimum, it sells better. Dennett, of course, has many more nuanced concepts involved in his argument. Freedom Evolves is a 400-page book. What I read yesterday morning was a 1000-word article. 

But I’ve never actually read Freedom Evolves in detail. I vaguely remember taking a course that had a short excerpt from it in our readings, but that’s about it. When it comes to Dennett scholarship, I’ve read more of his essays and books on philosophy of mind (I do recommend Consciousness Explained; not strongly, but recommended) when I was working on my MA and during the first year or so of my doctorate. 

I was simply never really that interested in the problem of free will, having suspected from my first encounter with it that it didn’t really add up to much. I had a feeling that freedom as a question was kind of immaterial. I think I always held an attitude basically akin to Dennett’s since before I even discovered philosophy in the first place. And nothing I subsequently discovered in philosophy could convince me otherwise. 

I’m not entirely sure what that says about philosophy. Or about me. Oh well.

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