Free Will

This post is partly an excuse for a shoutout to Eric MacDonald at Choice in Dying, which for most of its 15-month (so far) life has been the first blog I check each day. Eric writes with wonderful lucidity: highly recommended. In his honor (and because I don’t want to spend a lot of time looking at themes!) I have appropriated his blogtheme for this one.

Anyway, right now his latest post is one on free will, apropos of having read Sam Harris’s recent short book on the subject (which I have not, so far).

The notion of free will has been bouncing around the blogosphere over the last year or so, including in Jerry Coyne’s website, which is also among my staple reading. It is a topic that, like many in the realm of philosophy, is liable to get bogged down in the definition of terms, or worse, to go astray through having given too little attention to definitions. I won’t try for a monograph here, but will see if I can throw out a few tidbits worth thinking about.

One of my reactions to the free will debate can be summed up pretty well in this bit of dialog:

—“I’m worried that my brain is making decisions for me, and I want to be the one making the decisions!”

—“Say what? It is your brain, after all!”

Flippant, but worth some consideration.

More seriously: it should be beyond dispute that some of the choices we make flow from conceptual reasoning that we engage in about preferences, goals, values and the like, and this connection between the conceptual world and the realm of action should be all that any sane person wants from “free will”. The fact that all this reasoning is embedded in physical brain structures and activity (which of course it is) is irrelevant.

Now, it can also be the case that some of our choices flow from brain patterns that our conscious selves have not assented to: perhaps traumatic events in our childhood have conditioned us in ways that constrain our choice, and this, it seems to me, is a real diminution of our freedom.

I’m going quickly here: I want to get this first substantive post up without too much dithering. But I want to touch on another aspect of free will that seems central to me, and that Jerry Coyne for example seldom seems to consider: looked at the other way about, free will is the burden of choice. Does strong confidence in materialism in any way relieve us of the burden of choice when it comes our way? When we have to “decide” whether to have the dish of ice cream that is not included in our calorie budget? In the case of smoking, discussed in Eric’s post? (And yes, we rightly see addictions as reducing our freedom, or at least making the burden of choice more burdensome.) Making choices just is an important part of our experience of living.

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