Free Will or not regardless of determinism or indeterminism

Traditionally the debate in free will has revolved around its compatibility or incompatibility with determinism, along with debates within compatibilism and incompatibilism about the conditions of our free will. I want to mention two views that take the issue of determinism to be independent of their view on free will: (1) P.F. Strawson’s reactive attitudes view, and (2) shrinking-agency view by Thomas Nadelhoffer.

P.F. Strawson, in Freedom and Resentment, argued that we have free will and that the overly abstract question of global determinism or indeterminism is irrelevant; instead, we should look at our interpersonal relationships and practices. In other words, we can’t over-intellectualize our justification of responsibility with considerations of global determinism; rather, we should look at our ordinary practice, e.g., we look for whether the child is old enough for responsibility, or whether someone’s harm on us was intended or accidental. Our reactive attitudes or praise and blame are necessary ways that we communicate to each other as human beings. I’m not a big fan of P.F. Strawson’s writing style, so I’d recommend the SEP to understand his view.

The shrinking-agency view takes psychological experiments to threaten our view of free will. Benjamin Libet’s experiment is the most famous example. I’ll assume the reader is already familiar with Libet.  Less talked about are priming experiments. These are experiments where the agent is unaware of external environmental cues that influence their decision. For example, agents that are primed by watching a rude movie will tend to act more rudely shortly after. Here, the agent will deny the influence of the movie–since it’s unconscious–and the agent will base the explanation of their rudeness on some a priori beliefs about what would influence them.

These experiments pose a challenge to our views on free will that is independent of considerations of determinism.  As Nadelhoffer puts it:

I think philosophers and psychologists should focus on other threats that are both more pressing and more challenging than the specter of determinism. The issue is not whether the mind is deterministic or mechanistic—the scientific consensus seems to be that it is both (see, e.g., Walter 2001: 162)—but rather whether the conscious mind plays the central etiological role that we have traditionally assumed. For instance, if our conscious mental states are merely epiphenomenon as some psychologists have suggested (e.g., Wegner 2002), then regardless of the truth of determinism it wouldn’t make sense to say that we are free. At the end of the day, indeterministic epiphenomenalism is no less worrisome than deterministic epiphenomenalism. Either way, there wouldn’t be room for libertarian free will because there wouldn’t be room for conscious will at all. Only the buzzing and whirling of the unconscious would have any real etiological role to play.

[…] Consider, for instance, the fascinating work by Bargh on the role of the unconscious mind. On his view, the data on automaticity indicate that “most of our day-to-day actions, motivations, judgments, and emotions are not the products of conscious choice and guidance, but must be driven instead by mental processes put into operation directly by environmental features and events” (Bargh and Chartrand 1999: 465). According to Bargh, it’s not that conscious mental states don’t have any volitional role to play. Rather, it’s just that this role is markedly more circumscribed than we previously thought.

To sum up, why should determinism or indeterminism matter if most of our actions are guided by our unconscious self?

Nadelhoffer, Thomas. The Threat of Shrinking Agency and Free Will Disillusionism.

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One Response to Free Will or not regardless of determinism or indeterminism

  1. BeingQuest says:

    All of this is great fun, for intellectual types and certified thinkers. Really, it’s little more than mumbo-jumbo.

    Here, the greatest fear of Intellectuals is realized; namely, that the practice of Thought without the evidence of Deed has NO bearing upon Reality, and that men are but the Objects of Time (deterministic effects). What is discussed here is the musings of hyper-important intellects in a very narrow conclave, themselves voting upon the Fate of mankind in certain, and ill-determined, particulars. It’s absurd, though couched in professional sophism.

    Fact of the Matter IS…Life does NOT operate as thus described in this Speculation. Not that anybody knows otherwise, but to believe the drivel of professionals put forth here, is to already have assumed a strong dose of Cool Aid. Drink-up. Anything else may do, just as well.

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