On the last day of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) convention I attended a session on the general topic of free will. One of the papers analyzed choices people make as a source of data, which is very close to the approach advocated in a book I had recently read. I recommended this book to the presenter. He thanked me as was unaware of this volume. I decided that a review of this book would be more informative than a discussion of the papers at this session.
Free Will is an important philosophical topic and is also the title of the book by Mark Ballagher in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series. He is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles. He is the most remarkable philosophical author I have ever read. In my experience philosophical writing involves making the same point with the most subtle nuisances over and over again to what is, in my view, beating a dead horse. I think in many cases Cliff Notes will suffice and one need not suffer the abuse of philosophical writing. Mark Ballagher is an exception. He is writing is highly readable and to the point. He allows the horse to live. He neatly dissects the topic and makes his points concisely.
In the case of free will he dismisses arguments that justify free will on external basis not relevant to the philosophical argument per se. For example, arguing that free will is necessary or there would not basis for law and punishment. Ballagher states up front that he has no religious beliefs and does not believe in God. So those issues are out of the way.
He argues that the big problem with the classical argument against free will is that it just assumes determinism is true. That makes it easy. But what makes determinism true? Determinism is still an open philosophical and scientific question. Quantum physics undermines determinism because it entails uncertainty, but there are still clever arguments that attempt to deal with this uncertainty in undermining free will. But these are arguments, not compelling arguments, and do not disprove free will. Philosophical arguments against free will do not hold up to Ballagher’s analysis.
Then he addresses the scientific argument that there is empirical evidence against free will. Psychologists might argue that subliminal perception and the fact that the vast amount of mental activity is unconscious (see the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”). But to argue that we are unaware of some, even most of our mental activity, does not mean that we never control or make decisions on the basis of mental activity.
Evidence from neuroscience appears to be stronger. There is LIbet’s experiment that there was neural activity indicating the action before we decided to perform the action. Ballagher does not mention this, but I believe that LIbet himself did not believe this, although many have used his data to make the argument. Haynes’ studies appear to be a more successful attempt to debunk free will, but Ballagher digs into the scientific data to reveal its flaws.
Ballagher even criticizes philosophical arguments for free will, for example Hume’s compatabilism. Ballagher gets to his point by asking what is meant by Free Will actually. It is true that most of our information processing occurs below our level of consciousness. Ballagher introduces the notion of torn decisions to explain what he means by free will. Examples of torn decisions are which restaurant to go do, which movie to see, which college to go to, and so forth. One can still argue that these decisions are made subconsciously, but this is an assertion, not proof. Ballagher would not claim that he has proved the existence of free will. Rather he has defended it from those who attempt to debunk free will.
It is impossible to do justice to Ballagher’s dissection of this topic. For those interested in this topic, I strongly recommend reading the book. I would also recommend reading this book to see how informative philosophy can be when incisively analyzed and concisely written.
I would close by providing my reasons for believing in free will. I am sure that Ballagher would disagree with what I am about to write on philosophical grounds. Also it is important to realize the Ballagher makes no attempt to prove the existence of free will. Rather, he is debunking arguments that attempt to disprove free will. I would argue for believing in free will on pragmatic grounds. The basic concept of mindfulness is that we have enough control of our conscious minds to modify our behavior and emotions. And there is much evidence that mindfulness works for those who believe in and practice mindfulness. If one does not believe in free will, then there is little basis for trying. If we are without free will, then we are stuck sitting in front of a television set with no ability to change channels.
© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.