Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Free will? What could that phrase even mean in a causal universe?

 There has been endless discussion, academic and otherwise, about the existence or even the meaning of 'free will.'  Does the concept even make sense?  What real evidence, even conceptual evidence, could there be that someone's 'will' is 'free'?  That is, how could one even define it?

To try to illustrate this, is there any decision-to-act that one can make that has no relationship to experience?  Even if I think of something in bed in the dark of night, did it have no empirical triggers or origins? If I reach for a fork to eat my dinner, what aspect of that is actually 'free'?  One might say that I could, instead use my fingers or a spoon, but would that choice have no causes at all?  If the act is just due to some brain-based whim, didn't that itself have some sort of cause?

If the answers to these sorts of questions essentially acknowledge that, of course, no will is entirely 'free' of any circumstantial or context-specific biological or cellular forces or factors, then the answer erases the question.  We have to re-think what we mean and ask a more cogent question.

Even if I dream of getting an ice cream downtown, that whole scenario is based on experience.  Even if I dream of doing that in some 'imaginary' downtown, the latter has to be based on experience.  Indeed, even science fiction or novels build on such from-real imagery.

So if no action is 100% 'free', does the question of free will mean anything, as it obviously seems to?  Is it just empty grist for philosophers' mill?  What distinction between some sort of clear external coercion and some minimal or generic rather than specific conditions could there be or could we identify to give meaning to the term 'free' in this context?

The question of 'free will' has for centuries seemed to make a lot of sense.  Often it arises in philosophy or theological discussions.  But maybe it never has made sense.  Maybe we cannot even define what 'free' would mean!  If that's the case, then perhaps something like the previous paragraph could help us better at least to define the phenomenon we want to know about.

Ah....but then why did we decide we wanted to know about that in the first place?

In this context, 'free' is a rather existential or even non-definable concept, a notion that we may each have in our own unique way, that isn't even really possible to define.  If so, is it even a 'philosophical' question?

And yet.....it seems to make sense as a real question!

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