Free Will…. it’s more than simple freedoms…

learn_from_mistakes

Long ago and far away (back in the time before D2L was really a thing), I gave an in-class exam — (oh the horrors, for sure :).

On that exam, I asked students to take a position on free will and support it with an example.  I swear to you, one of my students wrote something along the lines of “I do not have free will because I cannot turn my stereo up as loud as I want to, because my neighbors will get mad.” —

Had this student continued on to use the stereo and angry neighbors as part of a clever example or piece of analysis (perhaps, I don’t have free will because when I seem to make choices I’m constrained by outside influences) — or in some way gave me more to work with than that — their grade would have been pretty good.  As it is, the student was conflating having a free will with the freedom to do whatever they wish.  Yea — nope.

The two basic positions are, more or less…

Free will:  we can and do make choices that are not pre-determined by cause and effect.  IF you could see the whole set of influences on a person, and you could know what they think about those influences, their actions will normally fall into a range of statistically probable reactions, but once in a while they could choose to do something completely unexpected.

the advantage of free will is the idea that we can hold people responsible for their actions (i.e. call those actions wrong or even punish them).

Determinism:  Whether or not we really understand the reasons we act, every action is determined by the cause(s) that precede it.  In fact, to do otherwise would be the action of a lunatic — actions taken without any regard to the things that influence choices is irrational.  Even what SEEMS to be an action that is random is caused by something, what makes it seem random is that we do not, nor can we,, know all of the things that influence a person to act.  In fact, for the most part, most people don’t understand all the reasons they make an action — the actions come too quickly to be reflected upon at length, and many times we simply act on pre-established patterns of behavior.

the obvious disadvantage here comes when we start to contemplate punishment:  IF we are really just acting in response to previous causes and effects, then how can we be held morally or legally accountable FOR those actions.  Think about it this way, if I rob a bank because I need money to feed my crack addiction (disclaimer, I wouldn’t recognize crack if it landed on my desk), I am motivated by my addiction to crack.  Perhaps one of many reasons I was addicted to crack is because I was abused as a child.  Perhaps one of the reasons my abuser abused me is because they were abused and so on…

Compatibilism:

The general idea is that we can hold people accountable for their actions without admitting free will exists… or, something like that… it’s a confusing position.

I think the best way to explain it is to look at free will as an illusion of control — and a powerful illusion at that — it isn’t as if we actually have completely un-caused choices before us, but rather we have a limited set of choices (some right and some wrong) — and that set of choices was broadly determined by prior sets of choices… so, when it comes down to choosing to do something morally or legally wrong — we DO make a free choice to do wrong or not — and thus, we ought to be held accountable.

Yea — it’s messy, yea — my explanation isn’t all that fantastic, but that’s the problem and perhaps a solution…

One way or the other, you really ought not argue that you lack free will because you need to keep the music down…

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