Saturday, June 21, 2008

Buridan's Ass and Free Will

My friend Tom and I were discussing free will last weekend. Tom believes in free will; I don't. In other words, Tom believes that, in at least some cases, people could have chosen, at the same point in time and under the same exact exterior and interior circumstances, to do other than what they ended up doing. I, on the other hand, believe that they could not have acted other than how they did.

I explained to Tom something I've posted here previously. I said I believe that all choices we make are more or less complicated versions of the following scenario: You must choose between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, you love chocolate and hate vanilla, and you have no overriding reason to choose against your strong preference. Under those exact circumstances, you could only choose chocolate; you could not choose vanilla.

But Tom wasn't buying this, and he came up with the following hypothetical: Suppose you have an absolutely equal liking for chocolate and vanilla ice cream and no conscious or unconscious inclination of any kind to choose one over the other. Wouldn't a person in that situation be free to choose either alternative? That is, no matter which choice he made, wouldn't he have been able, at that time and under those same circumstances, to choose the other flavor instead?

I told Tom about Buridan's Ass--a hypothetical mule that starves to death because he can't choose between two equidistant and equally appealing bundles of hay. But Tom says that in my scenario, one must make a choice between alternatives. I replied that I'd have to think about his hypothetical addition to my scenario.

I have thought about it, and I tentatively conclude that it's virtually impossible to actually choose one course of action over alternatives without that choice being the inevitable effect of some cause the existence of which makes the effect or choice inevitable. Otherwise, I believe that a person would, like Buridan's hapless mule, be paralyzed with indecision.

But I said this was my "tentative conclusion," for I want to give the matter more thought. So, Tom, if you're reading this, stay tuned for further developments.

14 comments:

Baba rum Raisin said...

Your attempt to convince another of your point of view presupposes free will, in other words, a will that can assent to your argument.

This is why you are a confused liberal, for if there is no free will, then there literally can be no responsibility -- the credo of the leftist. But liberals never go the next step, and realize that with no responsibility, there is no reason to do anything to fix a problem, because we can't choose to anyway. Yours is a single level, flatland ontology from which there is no vertical escape. I pity you.

If you believed what you say, you would have no worries, as you would have no choices. But you do worry, because you know that you actually do.

I am guessing that your perception of an absence free will is simply a measure of your mental and spiritual slavery, projected into others. If you were to actually taste liberation, no one could convince you that it doesn't exist.

Nagarjuna said...

Do we choose to assent to an argument, or does the argument persuade us? If we choose to assent to it, why do we choose this? If the argument persuades us, why are we persuaded?

Can we will or choose, but not freely? That is, can there be unfree or determined will or choice? Doesn't psychology, as a science of human mentation and behavior, imply this? That is, doesn't it imply that all human mental and behavioral phenomena are inevitable effects of complex interacting conscious and unconscious causes?

If I can make choices, but those choices are the inevitable effects of complex internal and external causes, why couldn't I still worry about the choices I make and their consequences?

Tom said...

Re the baba rum's comment:

I agree that disblief in free will poses a problem for nagarjuna, and I believe he and I discussed this. If one doesn't believe in free will, Why not just sit around and eat pork rinds? If the future is determined, then there is nothing you can do about it.

I'm not sure what an unchosen choice -- if I understand nagarjuna's comment right -- would be. Redundant? Pointless?

Worrying about the choices one makes, and their consequences, would be just as pointless as the direct effort of choice of which ice cream flavor to choose.

BUT because, to the mind of we free-will believers, choosing seems necessary doesn't mean that it is. Nagarjuna might be right.

Yet I don't think he is. The fact that there is an evaluation process doesn't mean that there isn't a fickle choosing process that will weigh and often disregard the factors that go into making a selection.

baba rum Raisin said...

"Doesn't psychology, as a science of human mentation and behavior, imply this? That is, doesn't it imply that all human mental and behavioral phenomena are inevitable effects of complex interacting conscious and unconscious causes?"

No, quite the opposite. Among other things, you seem to be living in a 19th century, billiard ball universe. But thoughts aren't objects and the mind isn't a pool table.

Nagarjuna said...

Baba--
If thoughts aren't "objects" whose nature and causes can be understood through investigation, what is psychology?

Tom--
One reason we might not "sit around and eat pork rinds" is that we don't like them. I know I don't. But even if one does like them, he might not eat them because he cares about his health. Thus, he is caused by either his distaste for pork rinds or his desire to eat healthily to avoid eating pork rinds, and either the distaste or the wholesome desire, in turn, is caused by other factors.

I don't know what an "unchosen" choice is either. But a "determined" choice--such as choosing chocolate ice cream in my scenario--is making the only choice one can, under the circumstances, between alternatives. There is choice in the sense that one is selecting one alternative over the other, but one could not help but make that particular choice or selection under the circumstances.

And, again, when we worry about the choices we made or have to make, why would this be "pointless"? If I inevitably chose to eat pork rinds at a given time and I subsequently worry about the effect of that choice on my health, this worry could be a factor that ends up causing me not to eat pork rinds next time I have the option of doing so.

As for "fickle" choices, why would they be "free" to be other than what they are? That is, why would they be uncaused by factors of which we may or may not be aware but which, nevertheless, render the choice we made inevitable at that point in time?

baba rum Raisin said...

"Psyche" means soul. Psych-ology is the study of the soul. The soul is more of a celestial or archetypal pattern in subjective phase space than the determinate entity of your fantasies. Of course, you are free to pass your life in the fantasy of a "determined" ego, but I don't see how you can stand it. Sounds terribly cramped.

Nagarjuna said...

Baba--
"Celestial or archetypal pattern in subjective phase space" has a nice, ethereal ring to it, but what does it mean? And whether our thoughts, emotions, volitions, and actions stem, ultimately, from our minds or from our souls, when psychologists study these phenomena or work, in a clinical capacity, with troubled people, aren't they studying and working with phenomena that have cause-effect relationships not so different in principle, albeit far more complex, than those in any other scientific domain?

In other words, if what goes on in our "psyches" and if our actions don't have causes that can be understood and psychotherapeutically manipulated or influenced, what scientific validity and therapeutic efficacy does psychology have?

baba rum Raisin said...

"Celestial or archetypal pattern in subjective phase space" has a nice, ethereal ring to it, but what does it mean?"

It means precisely nothing to you.

"aren't they studying and working with phenomena that have cause-effect relationships not so different in principle, albeit far more complex, than those in any other scientific domain? "

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It all depends.

"Having causes" is not synonymous with being determined. For example, adulthood is the final (i.e., telological) cause of child development, but it obviously doesn't determine it. Indeed, one may ignore it all together and remain a child or liberal for life.

baba rum Raisin said...

Man as such is composed of intelligence, will, and sentiment. To suggest that man has no free will is to say that he has no intelligence, as intelligence quintessentially involves discerning options and then applying the will toward achieving the ends determined by the intellect.

Obviously there can be no freedom without the intellect and no intellect without truth, which is precisely why knowledge of the Truth sets one free.

What I have just revealed to you is Absolute Truth, and therefore the foundation of freedom. Reject it if you like, but know that you only reject it to the extent that you are a slave and ardently wish (with the passions, not intellect) to remain one.

Nagarjuna said...

Baba--
As far as I can tell, I don't believe in free will not because I freely choose not to, but because it really DOES seem to me that all events--including everything we think, feel, choose, and do--is the inevitable result of a stupendously vast and complex web of causation extending billions of light years in distance and billions of years in time beyond the boundaries of what most people think of as themselves. In other words, I, when properly understood, am the unified physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, and, perhaps, spiritual universe or kosmos of past, present, and future, and everything I think, feel, choose, and do is the inevitable result of the past and present configuration of the kosmos. This may make about as much sense to you as your psyche or soul as "celestial or archetypal pattern in subjective phase space" does to me, but aren't each of our beliefs about free will based on our metaphysical understanding of overall reality and our human relation to this reality?

Are my metaphysical understanding and corresponding belief about free will correct? Perhaps not. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that they're not. Isn't it legitimate to ask WHY I have this false understanding and belief? And doesn't that very question IMPLY that there's something "efficiently" causing me to entertain these falsehoods such that, given that cause, I can't NOT entertain them unless and until I'm able to understand how they're false? Haven't you implied as much yourself by theorizing that my not believing in free will is the result of the PSYCHOPATHOLOGICAL CAUSE of my "mental and spiritual slavery projected into others"? If so, how am I free to believe in free will unless and until I am sufficiently free of my psychopathology to understand that I am free?

Tom said...

"[W]hy would [fickle choices] be uncaused by factors of which we may or may not be aware but which, nevertheless, render the choice we made inevitable at that point in time?"

Mostly, because there is "something else going on." That is, something other than a landslide falling down a hill. Choosers are here and they determine what happens next.

Everything isn't machinery. A robot is machinery and it cannot talk to you. It can simulate talk and you can be in the room, but that is the upper limit of what it can accomplish. There is consciousness in the world and it is an experience we cannot yet explain. We make conscious decisions that happen by choice-making which isn't really a "process," but a determination to make a determination. People regularly make "bad" decisions, as well as inspired decisions and wise decisions that defy logic and weighing factors mechanically-like.

At least, that's what I think.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom--
It seems to me that what you and Baba are saying, in essence, is that we make some choices for which it is pointless to ask WHY we made them, because there is no why. For as soon as we're justified in asking "Why?", aren't are justified in assuming that there was a reason or cause for our choice? And if there was a reason or cause for why we made the particular choice we did, how could we, given that reason or cause operating at that point in time, have produced a different result, effect, or choice?

To revisit my ice cream example, if I love chocolate ice cream and hate vanilla, am given a choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and have no overriding reasons or causes to choose what I hate over what I love or to not choose any ice cream at all, how can I possibly, under THOSE circumstances, be "free" to do other than choose the chocolate ice cream?

I agree with you that people often make good or bad choices that don't seem to have resulted from a conscious, "mechanical" weighing of factors. In fact, I suspect that most of our choices are made more unconsciously than consciously, and then we try to consciously explain or rationalize the choice we made after the fact. But why couldn't whatever produced the choice we made still be some kind of process consisting of cause-effect relationships between its various parts? In fact, how could it NOT have been such a process?

Tom said...

Steve: You ask, "[W]hy couldn't whatever produced the choice we made still be some kind of process consisting of cause-effect relationships between its various parts? In fact, how could it NOT have been such a process?"

Basically, I think your conscious decisions are made just the way you "think" they are. That is, not how you suppose they are made, but in the very manner you experience when you decide something.

It seems from what you're saying, Steve, that there are gears turning behind the scenes that prompt your decisions to be logic-influenced. I do suppose that for most people logic and wisdom and emotions and subconscious stuff come to the fore when making a decision, but I don't think we should dismiss the pure experience of choosing as being the very thing that does the choosing.

Consciousness is not mechanical, I don't believe. Nor is it mathematical nor predictable nor consistant. It is "something else" that we don't really have any information about, despite the science wizardry of the 21st Century.

Consciousness is both that which we know most intimately, and something that remains unexplainable.

Ryan said...

how can you take baba seriously? perhaps i am biased because i believe in determinism...as the alternative makes no sense. cheers.