Free Will Pt 2

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader, a few days ago, posted about an Economist article about the shrinking realm of “free will.” This rather lengthy post (admittedly mostly excerpts) elicited a response from your Maximum Leader’s best bud, the Big Hominid.

In part Kevin wrote:

My buddy Mike is worried about the disappearance of what many philosophers call “libertarian free will.” I’d venture that Mike has little to worry about: even if we become capable of tracing every single human impulse back to a previous physical cause such that nebulous concepts like “mind” and “will” need not be invoked as explanations, there will always remain the question of predictability. Although not often explicitly included in philosophical definitions of freedom, it is usually implied that freedom contains an aspect of unpredictability. This is not to say that freedom is merely a form of randomness; after all, random phenomena do not demonstrate the existence of freedom. But a free creature, and that creature’s interactions with its environment and with other, similarly endowed creatures, will produce possibility trees that ramify in surprising and unpredictable ways. Rest easy, my friend. You’re as free as you need to be.

First off, your Maximum Leader was pleased that his post appeared under the rubric of “Great Reads.” It was an undeserved compliment. But, compliments aside, something about what Kevin was saying disturbed your Maximum Leader.

A day or two after reading Kevin’s comment your Maximum Leader had the pleasure of talking (alas not at enough length) on this subject with Buckethead on this same topic. At that point your Maximum Leader recounted his (then rather vague) misgivings about predictability and free will. It seemed as though if one were to accept Kevin’s point (and there isn’t any reason not to frankly) then one wasn’t really talking about free will but rather statistical probability.

Buckethead and your Maximum Leader speculated that neuroscience, genetics and understanding of human physiology expand more and more human behavors would be able to be traced to a particular genetic, hormonal, or other factor. While it would be wrong to say that all human behavior in all instaces would be controlled by some genetic/physiological predisposition, we speculated that the range in which one could possibly behave might be severely constrained.

Allow your Maximum Leader to try to use an analogy… As our scientific understanding expands, our range of action is decreased. If a human being could be said to be a car, with unlimited free will one would be free to drive where ever one would want to. On the road, off the road, on the highway, in the mud… Where ever. But, as we learn more about how genetics affect our choices, our driving choices are limited. Rather than being able to go any where, we are only able to drive along a two lane highway. We can drive where ever we want on that two lane highway - but we can only drive on our designated road.

This doesn’t particularly seem like “free will.” At least it doesn’t seem to be free will to your Maximum Leader. He realizes that this argument is highly speculative. Rarely do people exercise free will to an extreme. We act within the strictures of social conventions and normal behavior. But what if through tens of thousands of years of breeding we humans are predisposed towards following social convention? Is that even a choice? What if the extent of your ability to make a choice is deciding to wear white after Labor Day?

Then we can get back to the issue of predictability… If human genetics predisposes one towards a particular activity or behavior, how free are you to really resist? How long to you hold out against your nature? Sure, there is an element of unpredictability. But are we talking about free will - or statistics? Can one say that the chances decrease that one will avoid one’s nature as you get older? Would they increase? Can you truly avoid your own nature?

It is still a vexing question.

Carry on.

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