Much More Time

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Physical, biological, pyscho-social constraints on free will,
and free will as an underlying assumption of freedom


Overview of our topic/Roadmap for class discussion


Two different, broad, categories:

1. Things (external) out of our control that happen contemporaneously (Run Lola Run) --> how big is our "freedom" pie to begin with? This should affect our value on it? (or should it?) Cf. Chaos Theory.

2. Things that have happened in the past that determine your actions – or determine the scope of your actions. Note, that if even one of the deterministic theories described/discussed in the readings (and below) is correct, there is very little room (or perhaps no room) for "free will". And, if several of them are correct (only a couple of them are mutually exclusive, for the most part they are consistent, and some even seem to imply/require others), then there may be no hope at all for the concept of free will.

  • Chemistry – groups of neurons firing in a particular way will (always) result in a particular behavior, different levels of neurotransmitters and hormones cause different emotional states. The deterministic nature of chemistry (and physics) is essentially an underlying assumption of the study of these fields. this is why experiments work, you do the same thing, you get the same outcome.
  • Biology (structure/genetics) – the structure of our brains (which is directly related to issues in physics and chemistry, above). our genetics, which deals in probabilities and predispositions, which we can still measure even if not determinate. And of course our biological urges (hunger, the need to procreate, etc.). All these are still well outside your control. Biological determinism, Genetic determinism, Environmental determinism.
  • Psychology – everything you think and feel and do is determined based on parental treatment in the first few years of life, or on conditioned responses to behavioral/reinforcement contingencies. Radical behaviorism, Psychoanalysis.
  • Sociology - what society tells you, how it constrains you. (the postmodern ideas on the reality that much of ourselves is created by others. i.e. how free are you to shuck you race/class status? Can you really be whatever you want to be? Should others have a sanction on your freedom? Even if your own ability/imagination allows, can you still be whoever you want to be?...) Cultural determinism, Social determinism.


These "two categories" aren't really two distinct categories (at least they aren't categorically distinct). Rather there is essentially a continuum of things that are out of our control that have an outcome-determinative (or potentially outcome-determinative) effect/influence on us and our decisions/actions/plans/choices/etc. This is basically a continuum extending backwards in time: External things that happen contemporaneously with (or shortly before) our actions (or attempted/intended actions), such as the bus being late or getting a flat tire (Run Lola Run). Next (earlier in time) are things that shape our "personality" (our beliefs, wants, impulses, etc. — in short, all the reasons we do what we do and want what we want), this portion of the continuum includes factors described in psychology and sociology (readings from Hospers, Skinner, Huxley, Satrapi). Prior to this is biology and chemistry — such as the structure of our brain (which is largely set very early in life) and our genetics (which are set at the moment of conception). Prior still is physics, which (if we accept determinism) would connect us (or rather the present state of the universe), by a causal chain, all the way back to the beginning of time.

Rather than seeing this continuum as spreading backwards in time, we might just as well see it as spreading over different levels of analysis. the important thing to understand is that each of these things on the continuum overlap with one another (and many (possibly all) are reducible into the level above, e.g. biology reducing into chemistry, chemistry into physics). And more importantly, each of them has/causes an effect contemporaneously with our actions. Each of our "choices" is the sum of the effects of Sociology, Psychology, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and each of our actions is the sum of those five things plus external things that happen contemporaneously with our choices. This, then, doesn't leave any room for "free will" — "choice" isn't really choice at all, but the illusion of choice.


If we accept these arguments, then we don’t have free will in the traditional sense.

- “Can’t have done otherwise, and the reasons why are completely out of your control” (this analysis directly affects criminal law, especially certain defenses)…

- If you think you don’t have a problem with this, are you prepared to admit that whatever you’re going to do in 4 days is already set.



Points of departure for class discussion:


Is this significant? IF you buy it, what are its implications for the freedom we’ve been talking about and placing value in the class. (again, do you have a problem with knowing/believing that what you will do 4 days from now is already set? does this rob "freedom" of some of its substantive significance?)

If there is no such thing as freedom in the absolute sense, then perhaps we can compare/contrast Individual "freedoms" vs. freedom in the conduct your group/religion.


Govt. action questions – does government constraint really affect your freedom? Is “they shouldn’t force me to do this” be a good excuse/argument?

Is there a moral difference between Thoreau's "Walden Pond" notion of society and rigid Islamic societies. You can find people in both situation who think they’re happy. But is there an objective—and then ultimately normative—basis for saying one is preferable, or less free? --> (this is Piggy-backing on the stuff from last week about conflating happiness and freedom, and the Biblical readings on sacrificing one kind of freedom for another).

The key here is to realize that the things mentioned above, which are out of our control and which have an outcome-determinative (or potentially outcome-determinative) effect/influence on us (like genetics, upbringing, etc., call them "determining factors") can very easily be in conflict with one another. This conflict may cause discomfort, or other unpleasant feelings in the individual. When such a conflict occurs, the stronger determining factor(s) win(s) out. the important point is that this "conflict/struggle" has nothing to do with free will, it is not a matter of temptation versus will power, because "temptation" is really just a broad name for a set of various determining factors, and "will power" is a name for a facet of personality (and personality is just a confluence of a set of various determining factors).

So, for example, sometimes biology wins out over social/psychological factors, e.g. when someone cheats on a diet (the need/desire to eat, a product of biology, where as the diet, or rather the desire to be slim, a product of social/psychological pressures). In other cases chemistry or social/psychological factors will win out over biology - for instance with the somewhat extreme example of anorexia (where the social/psychological pressure/desire to be thin (or some such thing) overcomes the urge to eat), or the even more extreme example of suicide (where some factor, perhaps a chemical imbalance, perhaps social/psychological pressures, overcomes one of our most fundamental biological drives, survival). In these cases, the individual may very well be distressed by the conflict between determining factors. So the question is, is this any different from a situation where the government forces you (or attempts to force you) to do one thing, where other determining factors are pushing you towards doing something else?

But if we see the government and the laws as just another of many "determining factors" then it becomes clear that the absence of "freedom" is not, in and of itself, an objection, because the government's coercion is just displacing (or at least competing with) the coercions of biology/chemistry/psychology/sociology. So the individual in the ostensibly "free" society, really just has their actions determined by coercive forces other than the government.

Put it another way, consider the societies in Huxley's "Brave New World" or in Skinner's "Walden Two" where the denizens (or at least most of them) are perfectly happy with their situation despite the fact they have very little of what we would consider "freedom", because all the determining factors acting on them are well aligned (they want to do what the gov't wants them to do). Brave New World is a prime example, the society there is a ridged caste society that most of us would consider a dystopia, yet it is different from many dystopic stories in that most of the people there (except the protagonist, although even the protagonist seems content at the start of the story)—even those in the lower caste—are (or, at least, seem) happy and content. The reason for this is that the governments in these stories have become quite adept at manipulating the determining factors of citizens. Compare these societies with those where the government uses less effective, less subtle, more heavy handed techniques — dictatorships, and other despotic regimes. The point is, the citizens (at least a large portion of them) in these societies are less happy then the citizens in Skinner's and Huxley's societies, but they are not less free! They are more aware of their unfreedom (which is really just to say that the determining factors that are coming from the government are not well aligned with their other determining factors), and that makes the people that live in these societies unhappy. But the point is that the problem is not one of freedom vs. unfreedom, but rather one of well executed unfreedom vs. poorly executed unfreedom.

So, is Govt. coercion morally same as physical or biological coercion? If not, why not? After all, if govt. weren’t forcing you to do X, something else would be (equally) forcing you to do Y.

This is not to say that we cannot criticize any other society (although some hard line cultural relativists do maintain just such a position), but rather that the lack of freedom is not, without more, a criticism.




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