Monday, September 26, 2011

Free will, dualism, and reductionism

Following up on a post I wrote recently, I thought it would be interesting to think once more about the concept of free will, with respect to the idea of causality. What is the cause of my own behavior? Is it really I who act a certain way, or are all of my actions reducible down to physical causes? Do I have genuine volition, or am I simply a composite of simple particles which combine to produce something complex?

The second question is an attempt to refine the first, which is blatantly naive. This question leaves us with only two options: dualism between body and person, or else hard reductionism, eliminating the notion of "person" altogether. I think both of these options are absurd. The first option forces you to search hopelessly for a way to link the choices of the will with the behaviors of a body, which exist in totally disparate spheres. The second option forces you to eliminate the question, "Who did this?" from your language. Neither of these will do. Indeed, you can't hold people accountable for their decisions unless their decisions genuinely happen in this world; this should be enough to immediately dismiss both dualism and reductionism.

One option is "emergentism." Maybe the laws governing the fundamental particles which constitute a human being can be shown to logically imply certain complex characteristics, including the ability to make decisions. In other words, maybe free will somehow "emerges" from the "bottom up." The implied directionality is too big of an assumption. We can see humans as wholes, or we can start to divide them into parts, or we can aggregate them together. It just depends on the questions we're asking--psychological, biological, or sociological, for example.

But that really is wild, isn't it? I can look at my body and realize I have many parts. I can acknowledge that I have very little conscious awareness of all that my brain is doing. But in my conscious experience, it is hard to divide myself into parts. If my mind really is the sum of many parts (specifically neurons working together) the whole really cannot talk to the parts, and therefore the whole has a hard time even believing it is divisible. In normal human experience, it is hard to avoid thinking of the self as a single entity. In traditional terms, nothing could be more obvious than that I have a soul.

Maybe there's an analogy to be made here, even if hopelessly imperfect. A society as a whole can be thought of as a single entity. For instance, the United States has some degree of unity, and we can study its reactions as a whole to major world events--think World War II, the moon landing, the Cold War, or 9/11. The actions of this country in response to such events has truly shaped the course of history. It would clearly be wrong, on the one hand, to imagine that our nation has an existence apart from the individuals it comprises. Yet, on the other hand, it would be far too reductionist to say that the United States does not really have an impact on the world, but to insist that only the individuals do.

But a nation or society, like the United States, doesn't have a will of its own, does it? Well, it certainly isn't a will divorced from the individuals it comprises. Still, sometimes it's hard to avoid talking about the will of a society (although if I had enough time I'd list a thousand qualifications here).

Emergentism isn't quite the complete picture, because there really isn't a clear direction to nature. That is, it's not clear whether it's more important to understand myself in terms of the parts I comprise (cells), or to understand myself as part of a greater whole (society). And this question remains at every level: societies are part of an ecosystem, ecosystems are parts of a larger physical environment, which is part of a planet, which is part of a solar system, and all the way up...meanwhile cells comprise molecules, which comprise atoms, which comprise protons and electrons and neutrons, and all the way down... And who's to say that bigger or smaller is more important?

I haven't said much about free will. Here's the point: if we can't be sure whether the greater whole or the smaller parts are more important, we must be equally careful not to dismiss the level on which we actually live. Determinism seems to creep into intellectual discussion either from above or below--either society really determines everything we do and think, or else neurons do. Nonsense. Even if I can explain how one thing is a part of another, that relationship cannot explain away either the part or the whole. This is, after all, common sense: if you take away all the parts of something, that something no longer exists. I find the other direction a bit trickier to explain abstractly, but the idea is clear: the United States might truly be a bunch of people, but that in no way justifies the assertion that it is just a bunch of people.

So how can I prove that I really do genuinely have volition, and I'm not just a product of outside forces? The whole question is, as I see it, a red herring. In the sense that the cells which my body comprises, on the one hand, and the society of which I am a part, on the other, cannot explain away my own actions, I have free will. Some will see this as a "compatibilist" viewpoint, and I guess that's fair. Personally, I would just dismiss determinism as a pretty useless concept to begin with. It is useful only insofar as it encourages us to try and explain things. To try and make it into a systematic doctrine is, as is so often the case with systematic doctrines, an exercise in philosophical vanity.

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