Monday, March 07, 2011

Not a Prisoner, I'm a Free Man

How about some more Owen Flanagan?

To decide whether the scientific image spells death for free will, we need to know what conception of free will is being discussed. There are two main conceptions of free will. One is the libertarian view, which is relatively new and Western. The other is older and can be found in ancient Greek and Eastern texts (I see it in Confucius, Buddha, Aristotle). The first conception cannot be fused with the scientific image; the latter conception can. So let it return.

The view that won't work is stated by Descartes this way: "[T]he will is so free in its nature, that it can never be constrained....And the whole action of the soul consists in this, that solely because it desires something, it causes a little gland to which it is closely united to move in a way requisite to produce the effect which relates to this desire."

...No one has ever explained how any animal, or any natural being, could possess a part—an extremely important part, "the will"—that is not subject to causal principles but nonetheless produces astounding effects.

...We can make peace between the scientific and manifest images in the following way: Accept that (as best we can tell) everything that happens has a set of causes that make it as it is; then proceed to distinguish the voluntary and involuntary, the free and the unfree, in terms of the kinds of causation or causes that distinguish them.

Aristotle championed the voluntary-involuntary distinction long before there was a conflict between the Cartesian image of mind and agency and the scientific image. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle drew the involuntary-voluntary distinction this way: "What is involuntary is what is forced or is caused by ignorance. What is voluntary seems to be what has its origins in the agent himself when he knows the particulars that the action consists in." What Aristotle had in mind was something like this: An action is involuntary if it results from some sort of compulsion against which effort and thinking are impotent, or if the agent in no way knows or grasps what he is doing.

Voluntary action involves the agent's knowing what action he is performing, and acting from reasons and desires that are his own. How is this possible? It is possible if I am conscious and if my consciousness has some causal efficacy. And it does. Mother Nature put me in conscious touch with some of my most salient desires, hopes and expectations. When I see what I want and/or need and judge it to be choiceworthy, I adjust some circuitry (thanks to how I am designed, what I have learned, etc.) to do what gets me what I want. These actions are voluntary. We call actions "voluntary" when we think about means and ends and act in accordance with our thinking (or could have).

...[Dewey's] answer was that the myth of a completely self-initiating ego, an unmoved but self-moving will, was simply a fiction motivated by our ignorance of the causes of human behavior. He saw no need for the notion of a metaphysically unrestrained will or of an independent ego as a prime mover itself unmoved in order to have a robust conception of free agency. For there to be agency, we need the person (or the ego) as a cause, possibly even the proximate cause of what we do. But the person (or the ego) may serve as the proximate cause of action and still himself be part of the causal nexus. Indeed, a person, in virtue of being a natural creature (an animal), must be part of the causal nexus.

...Spinoza diagnosed the source of the libertarian illusion this way: "Men believe that they are free, precisely because they are conscious of their volitions and desires; yet concerning the causes that have determined them to desire and will they have not the faintest idea, because they are ignorant of them."