Free will – some thoughts

immanuel-kantMichael Sandel on Kant:

Acting morally means acting out of duty—for the sake of the moral law. The moral law consists of a categorical imperative, a principle that requires us to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. Only when I act in accordance with the categorical imperative am I acting freely. For whenever I act according to a hypothetical imperative, I act for the sake of some interest or end given outside of me. But in that case, I’m not really free; my will is determined not by me, but by outside forces—by the necessities of my circumstance or by the wants and desires I happen to have. I can escape the dictates of nature and circumstance only by acting autonomously, according to a law I give myself. Such a law must be unconditioned by my particular wants and desires. So Kant’s demanding notions of freedom and morality are connected. Acting freely, that is, autonomously, and acting morally, according to the categorical imperative, are one and the same.

Sandel, Michael J. (2009-09-15). Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (pp. 123-124). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

I can’t really agree wholly with what Kant says (according to Sandel’s interpretation.) The problem here is in the phrase “according to a law I give myself.” Since how are we free to give a law to ourselves – and how can we be free from my wants and desires, or the necessities of my circumstances, when we do so? I don’t think we can be free of these things when we “give a law to ourselves” so it’s not clear how we can be free according to this definition.

However, I quite like the idea of adapting this slightly. I think for free will to make sense we have to move away from “acting without constraint” since I don’t think that’s possible – and I think Kant opens up a pathway of thinking toward this.

But first of all here’s the problem. We always have constraints – namely our environment, genes, upbringing, concomitant wants and desires etc. etc. In that sense I am a strict determinist. I can’t see how we can do anything other than we actually do in any given moment – since every atom in our body is already set in a certain way. So to me the traditional, conventional idea of free will doesn’t make sense – since it can’t escape the above – it’s based on a bogus idea of an individual who is somehow completely autonomous who can will something into existence that is not defined and controlled by precursors.

(Side note: OK quantum physics says events at that level can happen without precursors, however, that doesn’t provide the sense of agency required for us to have free will: according to the traditional idea, we have to generate acts ourselves, not be subject to some unknown process that we have no say or control over. And secondly, while there may be events without causes at the quantum level, this doesn’t at all mean that there are therefore events without causes at the level of human activity and implementation – and I’m not aware that physicists have been able to show anything of the sort – so quantum doesn’t satisfy the requirements of traditional free will and hasn’t been shown to have an effect at the human level of implementation.)

The conventional idea, I think, is that we have the capacity to act spontaneously WITHOUT any constraint – but this involves a weirdly unrealistic idea of the self. Our self is already and inevitably embedded in the environment and the universe – it’s not separate or autonomous – there simply is nowhere that a separate or autonomous choice can be generated from. In order to make a choice there has to be an agent – ie ourselves – and our self is made up out of the universe and not sui generis. Therefore as far as we can tell, only one outcome at a time is possible or conceivable for every human act. Therefore I can’t see how this traditional idea of free will makes sense.

But following on from Kant I propose a different definition of free will: to exercise free will is to follow a rational course of behaviour or behaviours.

Yes, following such a course would still be entirely deterministic, but I say (and I’m not of course being hugely original – Daniel Dennett to quote just one has a similar concept) that this is a workable and more useful definition of free will.

There’s a second practical challenge with this definition (though we don’t necessarily have to solve it for my proposal to be true) – how do we know or decide what’s rational? Since this is at the very least very difficult to determine in practice, we’d have to decide it by discussion, consensus and comparison, using the best information we have, and making use of the input of well-informed people.

The Kant article did make me think of things that are NOT determined by physical forces, or in fact the laws of physics – ie the laws of logic for example. And logic can make a contribution to our actions – it can be a factor in our decision-making. Thus it’s true that we are not necessarily entirely physically determined.

However, logic – and rationality based on logic – are still wholly deterministic and still, as I think about it, effectively part of our environment. It’s just that I hadn’t thought about the role of logic and rationality – as non-physical entities that nevertheless influence behaviour – before. This made me more open to the Kantian idea that free will is following a law, and following reason. This doesn’t give us free will in the traditional (and as I argue, flawed) concept of free will – but it does provide an opening for a new definition.

Free will therefore, could be “to follow the laws dictated by reason – or rationality.”

IF we are following the laws dictated by reason – even though we can do no other and are completely subject to a deterministic universe – we are exercising free will.

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