Wednesday September 6, 2006
I’ve just arrived back from four days away – I seem to be pretty itinerant at the moment – to find that my last post on free will (or its absence) has generated a fair amount of interest, so I think that perhaps I should attempt to clarify some of my thoughts here.
The first useful thing to do might be to distinguish free will from choice as the terms do not seem to have the same shades of meaning. And I want to suggest that there is such a thing as choice, phenomenally speaking. I am faced by two options – carrot cake or chocolate cake – and I only have enough money to buy one. I must choose. So I choose.
Free will, on the other hand, is a theory about how choice happens, about what is involved in making the choice. And this is a very different kind of thing. I think we can straightforwardly acknowledge the phenomenon of choice whilst calling into question the coherence or the usefulness of the theory of free will that lies behind that phenomenon.
The major conundrums that the idea of free will, as a theory of choice, presents is this: what on earth does “free will” mean? When we get beyond asserting the presence of this magical property, and start to ask what this property is, we don’t seem to get very far.
What is a free act? We might say that it is undetermined. Perhaps. But what does that mean? Because it may be that our ideas of both free will and of determinism are rooted in a particular view of the self as agent which may itself be problematic. This on one side, does undetermined mean random? I think not. I don’t think that this precious free will over which philosophy has agonsied can be reduced to a throw of the dice. But if this so-called freedom it is not determined and it is not random, what is it? How can it be described? Is it planted in our mind by some god? But which, god, how is it planted, and how does this solve the problem?
I have for a long time had the growing sense that the story of the will as somehow free and sovereign simply does not account for experience when you pay close enough attention, for example in meditation. But I am shying away from taking this as a solely philosophical problem. My interest at the moment is not so much in deriving a theory of choice or consciousness – something I’m hardly competent to do, I should add – but it is, so to speak, negative. My interest is in unpicking the tangle of stories around the subject of free will, both by asking of these stories but is it really like that? and by paying closer attention to what is actually happening. This kind of negative thinking has a dinstinguished history from the Buddha through Nagarjuna and, to some extent, with the Sceptics in the West. Its enemies have always seen it as a kind of cop-out. But the Buddhists and the Sceptics have long realised that the fruits of this approach lie not so much in the possibility of reaching the solid ground of an absolute view, but rather in a form of life that is characterised by ataraxia – freedom from disturbance, amid the hubbub of the world.
Here’s another question, then: regardless of whether we have free will or not, what are the effects in the world of the stories we tell about free will? Do they lead to this ataraxia, or do they lead to still greater hubbub?
But this is still work in progress, work that – although fascinating – is both unsettling and even uncanny. I’ll post more reflections on the topic as they arise.
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