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Determinism: Tricks of the Trade

The objection that the terms ‘consciousness’ or ‘free will’ are used in too many different ways to be understandable is one of the most common arguments that I run into. I agree that it is a superficially valid objection, but on deeper consideration, it should be clear that it is a specious and ideologically driven detour.

The term free will is not as precise as a more scientific term might be (I tend to use motive, efferent participation, or private intention), but it isn’t nearly the problem that it is made to be in a debate. Any eight year old knows well enough what free will refers to. Nobody on Earth can fail to understand the difference between doing something by accident and intentionally, or between enslavement and freedom. The claim that these concepts are somehow esoteric doesn’t wash, unless you already have an expectation of a kind of verbal-logical supremacy in which nothing is allowed to exist until we can agree on a precise set of terms which give it existence. I think that this expectation is not a neutral or innocuous position, but actually contaminates the debate over free will, stacking the deck unintentionally in favor of the determinism.

It’s subtle, but ontologically, it is a bit like letting a burglar talk you into opening up the door to the house for them since breaking a window would only make a mess for you to clean up. Because the argument for hard determinism begins with an assumption that impartiality and objectivity are inherently desirable in all things, it asks that you put your king in check from the start. The argument doubles down on this leverage with the implication that subjective intuition is notoriously naive and flawed, so that not putting your king in check from the start is framed as a weak position. This is the James Randi kind of double-bind. If you don’t submit to his rules, then you are already guilty of fraud, and part of his rules is that you have no say in what his rules will be.

This is the sleight of hand which is also used by Daniel Dennett as well. What poses as a fair consideration of hard determinism is actually a stealth maneuver to create determinism – to demand that the subject submit to the forced disbelief system and become complicit in undermining their own authority. The irony is that it is only through a personal/social, political attack on subjectivity that the false perspective of objectivity can be introduced. It is accepted only by presentation pf an argument of personal insignificance so that the subject is shamed and bullied into imagining itself an object. Without knowing it, one person’s will has been voluntarily overpowered and confounded by another person’s free will into accepting that this state of affairs is not really happening. In presenting free will and consciousness as a kind of stage magic, the materialist magician performs a meta-magic trick on the audience.
Some questions for determinist thinkers:

  • Can we effectively doubt that we have free will?
    Or is the doubt a mental abstraction which denies the very capacity for intentional reasoning upon which the doubt itself is based?
  • How would an illusion of doubt be justified, either randomly or deterministically? What function would an illusion of doubt serve, even in the most blue-sky hypothetical way?
  • Why wouldn’t determinism itself be just as much of an illusion as free will or doubt under determinism?

Another common derailment is to conflate the position of recognizing the phenomenon of subjectivity as authentic with religious faith, naive realism, or soft-headed sentimentality. This also is ironic, as it is an attack on the ego of the subject, not on the legitimacy of the issue. There is no reason to presume any theistic belief is implied just because determinism can be challenged at its root rather than on technicalities.

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  1. phiguy110
    August 18, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    NIce post. To me it seems that the only way to understand free will is to understand our will as part of some sort of fundamental universal conceptual truth. If we have have will, then it means that the world must to. The reason so many people think that free will is obviously an illusion is that they set the will in front of a causal universe that they imagine is totally determined at the lowest levels, which makes the will seems superfluous at best or a total trick and illusion of consciousness at worst. (Or even worse, if the will is not determined, but also not free, that is to say was ultimately, totally random.)

    The dilemma is that we our bound to the will, or at least compelled to believe in its existence, even in people who don’t “really” believe. But, an analogy can be brought with consciousness itself, for we can’t seem to find the need for consciousness in a materialistic model of the world, but that’s no good reason to deny its existence, no matter what the Churchlands say. (Sarte was right to relate consciousness directly to the will as the same phenomena.)

    Instead, the incompatibility between normal materialist science, the ontology of consciousness, and the existence of the will points to a need for a conceptual convergence, not under the umbrella of science, but something new, higher than all three, but containing each. The trick is to put the will at the heart of all causation and consciousness as the background of all possible existence, with science as an attempt of consciousness of certain sort to relate to itself as an objective 3rd party “it.”

    But, we must understand the will outside the bounds of our experience and see it not only in humans, but in animals, maybe even in chemistry or physics. Ultimately, the will is a necessary belief epistemologically (ontologically its eternally mysterious) because consciousness can never wholly determine its whole past, at every moment of causation there is mystery, and therefore consciousness always apprehends a future that appears existentially open. This is true of the consciousness of humans, seas slugs, extra-terrestrials and archangels for all I know. (Tangent: This is also why consciousness must appear in “time.” Time is the perception of “change,” which is actually the belief/knowledge in consciousness of the existence of other actualized, causally linked, perceptual reference frames within an overarching network of possible existence states.)

    Any consciousness which was able to know, KNOW, that it couldn’t possibly have been otherwise, would be wholly determined and unable to experience the “concept” of choice, it would just watch what it did – an experience being finds inconceivable, necessarily. We can always find more and more good explanations to explain why we did what we did, but ultimately the only “reason” one outcome in the world occurs rather than another is because that’s what the world “chose” to do at that causal moment, given what it knew. The will is simply that which determines, that which selects, that which measures.

    The amazing paradox at the heart of the will is that the more it exists, the more determined it is, the more it becomes less random in behavior as it experiences itself becoming more bound by the past, but free into the future. It also becomes existentially less “subjective” and becomes a more and more “objective” phenomena. As consciousness evolves, it relates to itself more like an other while never losing its belief in first person control over its own experience.

    Animals are less conscious than people but their experience of reality is pure subjectivity…they lack objective understanding altogether. (Perhaps the higher mammals display glimmerings of understanding.) Animals are also less determined in behavior by their past than humans, they don’t have the memory capacity or cognitive skill to learn from mistakes the way that we can. Still, they do will. Animals exercise their will constantly, they just don’t know they are doing it, nor can they wonder if it’s an illusion. Only with self-consciousness does the mystery arise. Being discovers that though it’s not generating the world, the world seems to move towards its intention. This is so WEIRD that consciousness first comes to want to subjectify the world (rain gods etc.) but eventually, much later, comes to want to objectify the world by separating the mind from the world, and then looking for the “objective” regularities of shared phenomena.

    The feeling of “willing” as humans experience it may be an existential anomaly unique to this stage of evolution. For we experience the will as burden, whereas in other creatures it is no such thing. Animals just act and the future mind shall simply, but not totally, “watch,” though in existentially novel ways, we, human beings, we CHOOSE. It’s telling that “morality” is such a key feature of human thought and civilization; perhaps we are that stage of existence when the will is experienced most acutely. The narrative life, the ego story, with it’s centrality of “choice” and “fate” and “good” and “evil” is what humans are, aesthetically. We are not like novels, we are the novels.

    This can also relate to the religious notion of “submission;” this is the human intimation that being is ultimately forced to trust reality totally, forever submitting the will, loosening the causal aperture, to make objectively better and better choices. Let the Tao in, so to speak. First a dribble, then a flood.

    (Pehaps time is literally like an infinite hourglass that pours being into it’s other half. The central point of contact and flux is the selection mechanism, the will. i like the idea. Like sand through the hourglass…)

    • August 19, 2013 at 1:29 am

      Because of the complexity of the human experience, I think there is kind of a whack-a-mole quality to our free will. Wherever we focus our attention (using free will to do the focusing) on our own free will we find some sub-personal preference has already been there before us, and probably continues to influence us behind our back. Wherever we plant our psychic flag, however, we get the impression that now that ‘we’ are there, we can take control of the situation…and sometimes that seems to be true. I think that most people have a simplistic conception of free will, both proponents and deniers – that it is a monolithic chooser. The reality, I suspect, would be more like an enormous sheet of folded bubble wrap, with each bubble containing a magnetic compass which reads the other bubbles on one side and pushes them on the other. Each one has free will on its own level, but the sheet as a whole pushes another level of free will down through the folds.

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