Function of philosophy and pseudo problems of free will

By | May 26, 2014

Juan Bernal

Our function in philosophy is not to uncover facts about such things as human freedom and a deterministic world.  Regardless of how much they imagine they can do,  philosophers do not actually  discover truths about the world and human behavior.  Human beings will continue to believe that they have or lack degrees of freedom and will continue to act accordingly, regardless of what philosophers declare on this subject.  The world (natural and social worlds) is what it is, subject to a degree of determinism, but also characterized by randomness (or “random noise” as one physicist, Taner Edis, put it in his great book, The Ghost in the Universe),  regardless of what determinists and non-determinists pronounce about the character of the world.

The function of philosophy is to correct and clarify our language and concepts regarding human freedom and the alleged deterministic character of the world.  In short, the correct view of the philosopher’s task is to see him (her) as sorting out and clarifying the way we talk and think about human freedom and the alleged deterministic character of the world.   The philosopher’s task is a conceptual one, not one of discovering what holds true in the world, natural or social world.  If any group has the task of uncovering truth regarding the nature of the physical world (deterministic or not?) and the nature of human behavior (free or determined?), it would be a relevant science or sciences.  The time has long past that philosophers had this task or could realistically claim to carry out this task.

Given these points, we can characterize the free will – determinism problem as one concerning our conception of the deterministic character of the world.  Some philosophers argue that this implies a view of the alleged deterministic character of the world from a human perspective.   From a human perspective, the putative determinism that applies to our world is not one that enables general, accurate prediction regarding human action. (Dennett also has a qualified view of determinism.  He holds that that determinism does not imply inevitability. See his book, Freedom Evolves.)  The speculative theorist can posit a determinism that does imply inevitability and predictability with regard to human action.  But this is nothing more a speculative theory, or determinism from the perspective of a deity or an all-knowing intelligence.  This is mostly irrelevant to our human perspective of the alleged deterministic character of the world.

The conception of human freedom which takes into account our ordinary discourse and thought about human action and free choice allows that we have degrees of freedom to act, degrees which vary according to a variety of conditions.  This ordinary way of talking and thinking about human action does not imply that we lack freedom to act or choose between alternative actions.  Nor does this ordinary discourse and thought imply that human freedom requires that we act independently of corporeal (neurological) conditions or independently of environmental conditions.  I call this the action-in-vacuum notion of human freedom and consider this a gross misconception of freedom.

Given these ways of thinking about the alleged determinism in the world and human action, there is no problem of free will.  Humans can realize degrees of freedom and make informed choices; in many situations they can do what they desire to do or what they find to be in their best interest. There isn’t any conflict between this concept of free action and a concept of determinism which does not imply predictability or inevitability.   This free action and free choice are all that are required for what Dennett refers to as freedom worth having.

This does not prevent people so inclined (philosophers, psychologists, even scientists) from fabricating a problem of free will, based on a posited universal determinism which results in all acts being inevitable and which hypothetically implies general predictability of all human action.  They can and do.  Furthermore, nothing prevents them from advancing ideals of freedom based on an artificial definition of freedom which requires that a free act take place in complete isolation from all material and environmental conditions.  Given these notions, there is no human freedom and you have a full-blown problem of free will.  But in my view, this is just a philosophers’ problem — something for academics to play around with —  but not at all something that has any bearing on our actual thinking and correct discourse about human freedom, nor any bearing on what we can and cannot do in the world.

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