Saturday, January 18, 2014

Free Will and Dualism

Reading Notes from Underground, one of the Underground Man's contradictions particularly struck me: he laughs at dualism, and yet is somewhat obsessed with the idea of free will.  I think that these two positions are totally inconsistent.

To be totally honest, the idea of "free will" has never made much sense to me.   It supposedly means the ability of people to make choices, like the choice to be "good" or "bad" to use the archetypal example.  If I take the materialist position that people's actions are entirely determined by the physical state of their bodies and brains, I am anti-free will.  If I say that people can "overrule" their bodies, then I am pro-free will.  But the latter position implies some sort of mind-body dichotomy, since something has to do the choosing and something has to be the object of the choice.  Another way of putting this is that there is a completely external, non-material agent doing the choosing for us--which sounds awfully anti-free will.

I think that the problem inherent in answering the question "Do I choose to do what I do?" is imprecision in the definitions of "I" and "choose".  When people say "I", to what do they refer?  I think that generally the pro-free will people are referring to the soul, or more prosaically the mind (in the true sense of the word--the conscious, thinking element of a person).  Anti-free will people, meanwhile, are referring to the entire physical manifestation of a human, in which case the answer is that the question doesn't make sense--you do what you do; "choosing" is nonsense, because it implies the above-noted dichotomy.

Before I get back Notes from Underground, let me backtrack a little.  A lot of what U.M. talks about in relation to free will is physical determinism: the idea that if some entity "knew" all of the information (a term cosmologists use to refer to mass and energy) and rules in the universe, it could predict what all of that information would be in ten million years, or what it was a few seconds ago.  This means that the universe is physically deterministic and reversible.  A simple case of such a universe is one that oscillates between two states, "T" and "H" like this: "THTHTHTHTH...".  If I tell you the state is T, you know that it was just H and will be H one state later.  Modern physicists, however, think that our universe is actually more like a coin toss: "THHTHTHHTHHTTTTH".  At some level, it is unpredictable and not deterministic; not only that, but it is impossible to be aware of the exact location and energy of every particle in the universe--and talking about "exact location and energy" may not make sense at all.

This is what UM means when he says that people would not be able to stand being predicted by a "table"--the sort of algorithm our omniscient entity might make in a deterministic universe.  He argues contrarily that people would rebel against such predictability.  I think that this is nonsense: if we lived in a deterministic universe and had tables made by an omniscient demon, there would be no external factors that our demon couldn't predict; UM's hypothetical is simultaneously materialistic and dualistic.  When I think about it, this logical error is almost the source of his evil.  He constantly wants to rebel and do what he shouldn't do (dualism) but he thinks that he can't change how he is (materialism).

3 comments:

Kincy GIbson said...

I agree with you Ian, the concept of free will confuses me also. I know this is a little off topic, but I always think back to the first time I learned about predestination in history class. The idea that humans have free will but their choices are already determined and known seems contradictory to me. I thought about it and thought about it, and came to the conclusion that it is indeed contradictory because how could a person have free will if their choice has already been made in the over all scheme of things. I would think this would encourage complacency as people would say, "I am either going to heaven or hell already, so why try to be better?" (I know this is a very, very simplified statement) I definitely see this complacent and nihilistic attitude in the underground man because he has lost hope in becoming a better person. He doesn't think he is able to change, yet he regards free will as the most important human privilege and capability.

Megan Hoolahan said...

I'm also often confused about the concept of free-will. When I think about predestination I don't think of it as contradicting free-will. I don't see predestination as some other force determining your actions. We determine our own actions but this other force or God already knows which decisions we are going to make. He doesn't decide for us, he is just aware of what we will choose. Still, I don't believe in predestination. I also see how predestination can lead to nihilism. If someone thinks that his or her fate is already determined, he or she won't try to act in anyway to improve his or her fate. But the problem with this assumption about predestination is that this person assumed that his or her fate was already decided for them, he or she thinks we cannot control our destiny, which leads to nihilism. I don't think predestination tries to suggest that God has already determined our fate. We still determine our own fate but we are basically like a reality show, minus all the planned drama. We live our lives however we want, we make our own decisions, there is no script for us to follow. God, the viewer of the reality show, has not control over our decisions, but he knows what decisions we will make because he has already seen the show. Basically he had a DVR and can rewind and fast forward the show. So he sees it once and knows the decisions the characters will make. The second time he watches it he knows what decisions they will make but he doesn't have control over it. He is only aware of what choices we will make, he doesn't determine our fates for us. That's the way I like to think of it. I'm not sure if it makes much sense.... it's a lot harder to explain but it makes sense in my head ahha.

Megan Hoolahan said...

I'm also often confused about the concept of free-will. When I think about predestination I don't think of it as contradicting free-will. I don't see predestination as some other force determining your actions. We determine our own actions but this other force or God already knows which decisions we are going to make. He doesn't decide for us, he is just aware of what we will choose. Still, I don't believe in predestination. I also see how predestination can lead to nihilism. If someone thinks that his or her fate is already determined, he or she won't try to act in anyway to improve his or her fate. But the problem with this assumption about predestination is that this person assumed that his or her fate was already decided for them, he or she thinks we cannot control our destiny, which leads to nihilism. I don't think predestination tries to suggest that God has already determined our fate. We still determine our own fate but we are basically like a reality show, minus all the planned drama. We live our lives however we want, we make our own decisions, there is no script for us to follow. God, the viewer of the reality show, has not control over our decisions, but he knows what decisions we will make because he has already seen the show. Basically he had a DVR and can rewind and fast forward the show. So he sees it once and knows the decisions the characters will make. The second time he watches it he knows what decisions they will make but he doesn't have control over it. He is only aware of what choices we will make, he doesn't determine our fates for us. That's the way I like to think of it. I'm not sure if it makes much sense.... it's a lot harder to explain but it makes sense in my head ahha.