Ask a Philosopher: Some Questions about Free Will
Morell Maison started reading my book, The Counterfactaul Theory of Free will: A Genuinely Deterministic Form of Soft Determinism (Saarbrucken, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010), and was prompted to pose the following questions, which I repeat below, after each of which I offer some replies. Morell: “What is free choice” Reply: Many different conceptions compete to answer this: being able to do as one pleases; being able to not do what one wants to do; my choice not being compelled by conditioning, coercion, brainwashing, hypnosis, drugs, manipulation, authority, etc.; being able to want what one wants to want and not want what one does not want to want and being able to select one’s actions and enact them accordingly; its being “up to” me what I decide to do and actually do; my decision and action not being causally determined or necessitated by anything other than my reasons and preferences and willings; it being the case that if I decide to do x and I do x I still could have equally decided to do not-x and I could have actually done x under identical conditions. Morell: “What conditions are needed for an action to be as free will.” Reply: Depends on which conception above one adheres to. Philosophers disagree about what constitutes free will (as above), so they disagree about what conditions need to be satisfied for an action to exhibit free will. If you think for example that an action cannot be free if it is determined by causal conditions, but you think that everything in the physical world is governed by deterministic causal laws, then you will conclude that no actions are free. But if you think it is enough if your action is not compelled or constrained by freedom-undermining influences like brainwashing, mental illness, etc., then you might think doing what you want and not doing what you don’t want is sufficient. Morell: “How can my stream of thoughts, ideas and perceptions have free will.” Reply: Good question, because it complicates matters to ask if some part of you can have Free will when that part of you seems to just happen on its own. It might be stretching the concept to think perceptions might be free, since they happen mostly involuntarily and as a function of neurophysiological processes over which we lack significant control. However, we can blink, close our eyes, cover our ears, direct our own visual attention, etc. Meditation practice enables us to control the extent to which we identify with the flow of thoughts and even the entire stream of consciousness. I make an analogy with the driving instructor that has a second set of controls and a driving student who is operating a vehicle. If the driving instructor does not like the way that the driving student is operating the vehicle, the driving instructor can hit the brakes or the gas pedal or extra steering wheel that he has control over, and redirect the vehicle. Similarly, awareness has that sort of control over the stream of thoughts and perceptions and desires. The degree to which each of us has more or less of this kind of control varies, But it can be increased through practice like anything else. On the other hand, there is a kind of freedom and simply being at one with the flow of the stream of one’s own consciousness, thoughts, perceptions and so on, and that model comes also out of philosophies that consider being one with nature a kind of freedom, such as Zen, Taoism, and others. Certain characters in fiction are described in such way to resemble that, such as Yoda and the Jedi of Star Wars, or Siddhartha in the book by that name by Hermanne Hesse. Morell: “Does having free will presuppose consciousness can a slave have it, or even a dead person.” Reply: I do think that if there is such a thing as free will, it requires consciousness and is actually the executive aspect of consciousness, the ability of awareness to direct itself and those other abilities that it tops in a hierarchy of cognitive abilities. Epictetus was a famous Roman slave and a mentor to the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and both of them were Stoic philosophers who believed that there is a locus of control that an individual has which includes everything going on in his conscious mind and his will, despite all external phenomena beyond the range of control. If there is survival of consciousness after the death of the body, then I think in principle a disembodied mind can have the same sort of control that the stoics thought it could have while it is in a body, because they did not think it was up to us how much of the body we could control, since much of the body operates according to its own laws. Morell: “As we are all shaped by our family, education & experiences how can I have free will and respond to it.” Reply: There is no doubt that the events that happened to us influence us, nor is there any doubt that our genetics and our biology very significantly determine the better part of our constitution and our abilities. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a skinny teenager when he decided to start pumping iron, and whether or not he used steroids does not undermine his ability to alter what Nature pre-disposed his body to be like, but at the same time his body had to have the capacity for that kind of transformation. However, his experiences and learning certainly contributed to his forming the desire to transform his body, but without him choosing to act on those ideas and to exert his will in a tremendously disciplined way over the course of years of training, that would not have happened. Some of us are more heavily influenced by genes and environment than others. I think most of us have very little practical free will, all things of this sort considered, but we all (most) have the ability to cultivate our will and alter its unfolding in the ways suggested above. Morell: “One of the greatest mysteries of prehistory is how people from all over the world 🌍 suddenly and spontaneously developed the the capacity for language at roughly the same time.” Reply: This is not a free will question, but I think it’s a good question. We don’t really know that it happened all around the same time or also all independently, as far as I know. We do have some evidence from writing, but that (writing) likely began much much later. Primates other than us have language, even dolphins and elephants do. Elephants are able to make vocalizations that human beings cannot even hear, in which case they communicate with each other in a stealth fashion. Different species of primates use the same sounds to indicate the presence of large predators in the feline family afoot, indicating that it is time for them to climb up trees, on the one hand, and similar sounds to indicate the presence of flying predators like hawks and eagles, indicating the signal to come down from treetops, on the other hand. This is primate language that cuts across several species. Since we are primates, it is reasonable to think that as we emerged along the evolutionary tree, the first humanoids had language, however primitive it may have been. Morell: “Do we have some form of genetic Alarm clock in our heads that went around the world 🌎.”
Reply: In the book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2007), by Francis Collins, the geneticist who was in charge of the human genome project, he argues that the frequency and magnitude of human genetic mutations is so high that it far exceeds what probability would predict for human mutations compared with all of the other mutations in our evolutionary past along the tree of life and compared to that of all other organisms. He thinks that this is evidence that our genes were tinkered with or were designed in the way that you suggest, but I have alternative hypotheses that could explain this phenomenon without reference to divine intervention. First of all, aliens could have modified our genes in order to create slaves or for whatever reason. Second, according to anthropologist Terence McKenna, in his fascinating book, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. A Radical history of Plants. Drugs, and Human
Evolution (New York: Bantam, 1993), the earliest humanoids where Hunter gatherers, and they have been so up until about 10,000 years ago when the agricultural revolution occurred. Hunter gatherers for the most part live by following herds of large mammals like bison, Buffalo, antelope, and the like, all of which fertilize the soil with their manure and in which fertilized soil grow large quantities of magic mushrooms, which are known psychedelics. These natural chemicals not only enhance cognition, perception, visual acuteness, sensitivity to changes in the environment, and a host of other psychophysiological changes that could enable early humans to be better predators and more difficult to prey upon, given these heightened sensitivities, but they also are known mutagens, that is, they are known to cause mutations in the human genome. Epi-genetics is the relatively recent knowledge about how the behaviors of living organisms activate a subset of their own genes, which activated subset is then more likely to be passed on to the next generation. The combination of psychedelic mutagens and the kind of epigenetics that wouks accompany hunter gatherers on psychedelics as well as the kind of language that they might develop in those heightened states could alone explain the heightened degree of mutations that Francis Collins thought were evidence of tinkering with our genes. Occam‘s razor is the principle that says of any two competing hypotheses that would equally well explain the same data, you should prefer the simpler or more natural explanation. That kind of thinking goes against your theory about the genetic alarm clock. But it is possible.