More Mad Men and Philosophers – Illusions and Delusions of Freedom

By | April 20, 2010


Alberto and Ben are walking the Mojave Desert. They’re thirsty and eager to find water. In the distance they see what appears to be an oasis and body of water. Alberto thinks it is real and soon their thirst will be satisfied. Ben wonders if the vision is just an illusion. Only when they get closer will they discover who is right.


Alberto and Ben finally reach the oasis and the pool of fresh, cool water. As they slake their thirst, Alberto wonders whether this water which he drinks is really water, or just the appearance (sense datum, sensation in the mind) of water, which might not exist as water-in-itself. He wonders if the oasis that shades him and the water that he drinks are not just elaborate illusions synthesized by his mind.


Truman has lived his entire life in a gigantic bowl (with transparent walls) made to look like an ordinary environment of hills, forests, meadows, rivers, and mountains. Truman has always believed that there are no barriers to his world, and that, if he chooses, he can travel beyond his familiar surroundings and explore the world beyond. In reality, his world is enclosed and he cannot travel beyond its periphery. However, he never tries to pass beyond; and so lives his entire life with the illusion of freedom to wander.


Alberto and Ben have the freedom and resources to travel the world. So they take advantage of their privileged circumstances and travel to far and exotic places. Alberto revels in his freedom and fully enjoys his travels. Ben worries that it is all just one elaborate illusion. He’s afraid that they really haven’t freely traveled, since, as a metaphysically inclined student, he believes that everything (including their decision and actions) is determined.


People who are enslaved (or imprisoned) yearn for a freedom they do not possess; when they see the opportunity, they risk life and limb in an attempt at gaining that freedom.


Pangloss, who has never been enslaved or imprisoned and who is free to do as he likes, nevertheless yearns for a metaphysical freedom. He yearns to be a spirit who acts in isolation from all material factors that condition his actions.


Shawley asked: When we talk about free will we are talking about the mind? Is it is free to think?

Me: I share your perplexity, Shawley, which is why I issued these semi-comical, semi-jocular suggestions that philosophers’ worries often resemble the delusions of madmen. In reply to your question, I would say that the freedom “worth worrying about and worth talking about” (Dennett) is primarily freedom of choice and freedom of action. Even when stated in the old fashioned language of “freedom of will,” the problem concerns real choices and actions, not merely the freedom to think or imagine possible action. Of course, there is a real-world problem of ‘freedom of thought.’ But essentially it refers to freedom to express your ideas and beliefs without fear of persecution, not the mere ability to entertain thought

Shawley: Juan, then you seem to be saying that the average person in the U.S. has more free will than the average in, say, Dafur? Perhaps one has more of the exercise of free will here than there. To me ” w.o. fear of persecution” becomes merely a question in politics. .

Me: Yes, this is why our friend’s reply (Paul’s reply) to one of my examples is puzzling. Referring to my example of Truman, who thought he could move beyond his enclosed world when he really could not, he writes:

You end by saying he lives his entire life with the illusion of freedom to wander. Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that he can’t wander outside of the bowl for he is permanently enclosed (as is the man in the locked room). However, he can deliberate as to whether he should leave the bowl and wander about as the man in the locked room can deliberate about whether or not to get up and walk out of the room. In this sense the man DOES have free will; for all the factors involved in free will are in order. He has the ability to deliberate albeit he does not know that the option to leave is really not open to him.

Me: So, according to Paul, one has freedom of will when (a) one can deliberate about going to Shangri-La, (b) one mistakenly thinks he can get to Shangri-La, and (c) in fact cannot ever go to that fabled place. Accordingly, one type of ‘Freedom-of-will,’ is simply the freedom to think about doing something which one cannot do but about which one is uninformed.
On these points, I’m with Shawley, namely, very confused. Paul claims a freedom-of-will when the subject has NO REAL CHOICE and lacks the freedom to act. In other words, if I have the delusion that I can run a marathon in one hour, can entertain the thought of of doing this (although it is physically impossible for me ever to do this), I surely don’t have the ‘free-will’ to run such a marathon! Could I correctly say that I am free to run such a marathon? As my boys would say, THAT DOESN’T COMPUTE, DAD!
This does not strike me as any kind of ‘freedom’ worth worrying about or worth having.

Shawley: Juan, I understand what you’re saying; but to me ‘free will’ argues that, despite genetics and environmental factors, humans have a measure of choices which they can freely consider. Freedom of action is a different beastie than freedom of thought. I realize this verges on existentialism, but that is not my point. If a god knows the future, or if I am genetically programmed in many ways, or I live in a constrained environment – I still have free will. You argue that a Roman Emperor had free will; but an uneducated Gaulish, or Jewish, peasant who was “tied” to the land – was essentially devoid of free will. No, I say his freedom of action was quite limited. It seems that you would see most people in history as mere puppets, manipulated by kings & genetics (etc.), with their minds devoid of choices. If I win the lottery do I suddenly have “more” free will in my mind? My answer is no.
Freedom of action does not equal free will.
For me, free will is a function of the mind (perhaps the brain) – not a measure of degrees of freedom of action.

Me: Shawley, I prefer to avoid the term “free will” because it suggests some mysterious faculty of mind which operates independently of genetic and environmental factors. I don’t think there is such a thing; and it seems to be a mistaken turn in discussions of problems of freedom and determinism.
I prefer to talk about freedom in relation to choice and actions that humans do. I don’t know what it means to talk about a ‘free will’ which does not result in some degree of freedom in deciding between alternative actions, and in sometimes being able to do what we desire to do, or what we judge to be in our best interest. This is the ‘freedom’ that interests me. (Maybe “autonomy” is a better term.) By a person having “free will” I understand a person with some ability to make choices and act according, i.e., a person having some autonomy.
As to the notion of ‘free will’ which is an aspect of mind or thought, I simply don’t know what that would be. I suspect there’s some confusion here. I have never thought of the ability to engage in free thought, free association and creative imagination as expressions of free will. Traditionally “will” referred to volition to act, and could be understood only in reference to overt action and choice (it seems to me).
I don’t know whether this answers the questions you raise, but it is a quick attempt to sort through some of these confusing concepts.

P.S. In reply to one of your questions: if you win the lottery you don’t thereby gain more “free will”; but you do gain more options, thus more freedom to do things you might not have previously been able to do. (I haven’t the least idea what “gaining more free will” means.)


Postscript: If having freedom of will is like having a soul, then scientific materialists would deny that human beings have freedom of will. For there is no faculty in the brain (mind) which can be identified as ‘will’ and which is free of all the conditions to which the brain and nervous system are subject. Just as the search for a soul occupying some part of the human constitution will not turn up any such ‘thing,’ so the search for that elusive faculty, the ‘free will,’ will not disclose anything. There is no such thing. Humans are physical, biological beings subject to all physical, chemical, genetic conditions to which all biological creatures are subject. Despite our aspirations, imaginings, and fondest wishes, we cannot float above our physical and biological limits. We are not free in this sense, as we are not spiritual beings in the sense that an eternal soul defining our spirituality could be identified and located somewhere intimately tied to our earthly being.

But if we deny free will in this sense, what have we denied about human existence? Have we denied that humans lack all freedom of action and choice? Have we denied the reality of ‘freedom’ in any significant sense of the word? Many of us argue that we have not denied real freedom. Any freedom worth having is still something we can achieve. Talk of being free to choose to ‘compete in a 10K run’ or merely go as a spectator still makes sense and represents real freedom of choice.

Question to the determinist: What am I unable to do (what capability have I lost?) if your position is correct, that I have no free will?

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