Sunday, July 10, 2011

Do I Really Have A Choice?

So, I've been thinking a lot about free-will lately. It started when I came across the podcast of The Don Johnson Radio Show. He's an Evangelical Christian Apologist espousing a reformed epistemological perspective , from which he takes the tenets of Christianity for granted and then tries to argue against his opponent's world-view, exposing its inconsistencies and absurdities (I offer a criticism of this approach in a comment thread here on Don Johnson's blog). At first I thought he did a pretty good job of this in his debates with non-Christians, especially atheists. But the more I listened the more frustrated I became, and it took me a while to figure out why.
I eventually came to the conclusion that the logical errors in Don's own arguments were at such a basic level that one does not notice them immediately. It's kinda like if you were arguing about the quickest route from Los Angeles to San Francisco and you claimed it was best to take the 5 straight there and the other person claimed it best to take the 15 out through Las Vegas, then double back. Now you might make a bunch of logical arguments about how clearly your route was a lot shorter, but it might take you a while to discover that the reason your opponent argues his position is because he assumes that the laws of thermodynamics don't apply east of the 5 so he could travel at 20, 000 miles per hour on his route, and therefore he would obviously beat you there.
One of the arguments that recurs over and over again on The Don Johnson Radio Show is the argument from free will. One piece of data that Don claims is better explained by his form of Christianity than any other world-view is the fact that everyone feels like they have true libertarian free will. Over and over Don states that from a Materialistic world view in which "Matter is all that exists and the universe is a closed system of cause and effect" free will is impossible. He claims that a supernatural world view allows free will through Dualism and thus conforms better to the data point at issue. However, he never offers a satisfactory explanation of how the non-physical soul or mind interacts with the physical body and brain in his system of Dualism. Nor does he address how the non-physical component of a person is any less susceptible to deterministic arguments than the physical component is. The soul too must have been created with some kind of inherent nature, and shaped by environmental factors, so how does the addition of another component to the agent provide for indeterminacy if the component added is as determined as the rest of the agent?
Some of these points were argued very effectively by Jeremy from the Reasonable Doubts Podcast when he agreed to do a show with Don and his co-host Brandon on the subject of free will. Jeremy took the side of Naturalistic Determinism and pretty much exposed Don Johnson's arguments for the irrational, specious straw man arguments that they are, until he eventually got so fed up with Don's stubborn and immature refusal to argue like an intelligent adult and hung up on him (definitely poor form, but if you listen to the show it's hard to argue it wasn't justified).
I agree with most of the points that Jeremy made, but I have ultimately come to the conclusion that, after a point, the argument is basically one of semantics rather than of substance.
From the evidence one could come to one of a few different conclusions:
1. "People have free-will, just like we feel we do. Of course we are all influenced by a wide variety of factors, but that is different from being determined. When it comes down to it and I am faced with a decision I choose which action to take, and if I could go back and decide again I could choose something totally different."
It seems to me that this position is unsustainable. If every single factor was exactly the same, how could you possibly argue that you might choose something different? What would be the reason for that change? If there is a reason for it, then it is determined, if there isn't a reason for it then it's capricious and random and is not really the kind of free will most people mean when they claim it as a possession.
2. "Sure all of our choices and actions are technically the result of an infinite number of causal factors, but there are so many that it would be impossible to ever quantify them all, and therefore, impossible to predict an agent's future actions through analysis of all these factors. This being the case, although we may not have pure libertarian free will, we have something that is just as good as free will."
I think this argument is perfectly legitimate.
3. "Every action is the result of a multitude of causal factors. No action exists that is not fully caused by some number of antecedents. We make "choices" in the sense that there are theoretically possible actions which an agent may take in a given situation and the agent acts according to a list of causes including his genetic makeup, his early childhood experiences, whether and what he ate for breakfast that day, what psychological influences are at work upon him, etc. But if one was to go back to the same situation, with all of these causal factors the same, one would act the same every time."
This argument too is perfectly sound and what's more I think it does not differ from argument two in any substantial way. It's really a matter of how you want to look at it.

I've noticed more and more examples of the fact that so many disagreements between intelligent people of good-faith who are responding to the same evidence tend to come down more to semantics and emotional perspective, rather than the substance of the argument or true material differences.

1 comment:

  1. Let's see. Let as take a simple being in nature into a very controlled environment such that in any repetition of a given experiment you replicate exactly the conditions. Am choosing a very simple animal, such as an ant, as I would think that its simplicity should show a behavior closer to what stands for determinism over free will. We have a box with a glass roofing to see it from above and two pieces of sugar at a given distance. We replicate light, heat, etc and then we put the ant inside the box at a given location X and we let it go... we repeat this experiment many times. Questions

    1. Does the ant follow the same path every time relative to the box?
    2. Does the ant follow the same path every time relative to its original direction of its body?
    3. Does the ant affirmatively do either that is asked in question 1 or 2 for some time at all?

    what do you think?