Why Did You Choose to Read This?

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August 5th, 2010

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FoxTrot by Bill Waterston

FoxTrot by Bill Amend

The Stone (a philosophy-oriented opinion column in The New York Times) recently published two arguments related to free will. On July 22, Galen Strawson, a professor of philosophy at Reading University, presented the idea of determinism to his readers. In short, determinism is the idea that everything is causally linked to prior events. Because one cannot control the infinite influences of genetics, culture, and history, it is impossible for one to declare that one has free will. The choices that a person makes depends on an innate selection of preferences that a person already has, and that innate selection of preferences also depends on another set of preferences, and so the sequence regresses. Strawson agrees that this “reality” about the universe does not change anybody’s opinion about free will and one’s responsibility felt towards one’s actions (he includes himself as an ultimate disbeliever), but simply believing free will is real does not make it so.

However, the Stone published an opposing argument on July 25th – a mere three days later. Before readers could wrap their minds around Strawson’s theory about free will, William Egginton, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, presented the fact that free will is at the forefront of everyone’s lives. Egginton explains that humans have a tendency to explore beyond what their senses can understand. This trait is good since we as a species have grown to understand more about our surroundings, but this quality also leads to projection and sensationalism among us. People are quick to make assumptions and draw conclusions about facts presented to them. For example, the New York Times itself sensationalized a “finding” of dark matter when in reality, the “discovery” was no more important than levels of dark matter found by accident.

Egginton described an experiment where monkeys “were taught to respond to a cue by choosing to look at one of two patterns.” The computer that was hooked up to the monkeys then determined the decision the monkeys were about to make a few fractions of a second before the monkeys’ eyes looked at the pattern. The scientists declared that because the monkeys were not taking time to weigh any options, the computer could predict the decisions that the monkeys were about to make.

Egginton asks, but were the computers really able to predict such decisions? Egginton argues that these computers were not predicting decisions; they were merely presenting the neural processes that led up to the monkeys making decisions. This makes sense if one considers the processing speed of computers. They generally perform functions (especially simpler ones) faster than human brains do. One could guess that these computers also work faster than monkey brains, so the computer was just offering the processes faster than the monkey. It was not extrapolating what the monkey would do before it would do it; it was only giving a readout of what the monkey had already decided a little bit faster than the monkey itself. No decisions were technically being made by the computer for the monkey.

Egginton finishes by saying that humans have free will whether they like it or not. They are prisoners of freedom not because they can choose but because they must choose.

However, these two arguments have left me feeling dissatisfied. Although I’m a believer of free will (I love Sartre), I can’t help but think that both of these arguments sit on extreme ends. I’m assuming the editors at The New York Times wanted these arguments to be this way, so readers could make choices of their own about their free will.

My father has always told me that life is about balance. As a result, I try to rationally balance everything that I do, say, or think. I would say that a human’s ability to have free will and live freely because is a combination of determinism and free will itself. In addition to humans having a tendency towards fanaticism by projecting their knowledge onto simple facts about the universe, humans also like to categorize and rationalize things such that they make the most sense for their own lives (I’m doing it, too!).

For example, when two people are breaking up, one of the partners may say that the breakup was inevitable while the other partner says that he or she had no idea that the breakup was coming. The partner that said the breakup was inevitable would most likely say that the breakup was a sensible thing to do, while the other partner would probably say that the breakup was random and unexpected. The person who views the breakup as a surprise will most likely feel more pain and mourn the end of the relationship more than the person who saw it coming. Despite the fact that these two people are undergoing the same breakup, they rationalize the events as determined or random depending on their point of view. The way they rationalize correlates directly with the way they choose to cope with the breakup.

For some people, saying that a higher power like determinism or even God essentially makes decisions for them makes their lives easier because they don’t want to be held responsible for some of their personality traits or actions. For others, saying that they have free will and must make decisions all the time makes them feel better because they will feel like they’ve done all they could to change a situation when they fail or succeed. Many feel at peace when they “know” that their choices have made them who they are.

I can’t say that either side is right or wrong, but life must be more nuanced than either argument says it is. At times, I feel as if certain choices I have made have definitely influenced what I’ve done or why I feel one way or another about a scenario. But other times, I don’t think that anything I could have done would have changed what happened to me. Sure, if I fall down when I’m walking down some stairs, I certainly could have done something else, but why does that matter? For situations like that, I think that it doesn’t really matter if your free will did or didn’t cause that situation. It happened regardless of what caused it. That is what is most important.

We like to ruminate on how what we did affects what happened, but it seems that we need to be spending more time thinking about how what we do now will affect how we are in the future.

What do you choose?

Your Move: The Maze of Free Will – Opinionator Blog – NYTimes.com
The Limits of the Coded World – Opinionator Blog – NYTimes.com


3 Comments on Why Did You Choose to Read This?

  • “It happened regardless of what caused it. That is what is most important.”

    This statement ignores the very heart of the debate surrounding free will. While it may be simpler to think of events as isolated, discrete units in time, in truth all occurrences (above the subatomic level) are continuous, and are simultaneously the cause and the result of other occurrences. So, to say that something happened “regardless of what caused it” is to completely forget the sort of universe we currently inhabit. Something happens only because it was the natural effect of some causal relationship.

    Though it may be impossible to delineate the “causal path” of a specific event, especially when human consciousness is involved, it’s useless to deny that one exists.

  • That’s a good point. On a universal level, pretty much everything has a reason. That’s indisputable.

    However, in terms of the human struggle with existence, people often ask, “Why me?” when bad things happen unexpectedly. That statement that you referred to was sort of a response to that rhetorical question that people ask themselves sometimes when tragedy occurs.

    Because of the idea of free will and the feeling of responsibility for one’s actions, people like “if, then” statements. For example, when one loses suddenly loses a loved one, one might ask why this loss happened or was deserved. Yes, you can explain that a disease killed that person, but there is no explanation as to why that person’s loved ones in particular should suffer.

    It is only human to react that way, but that statement asks for people to maybe think, “Why not me?” It is easy to sit and think of the many reasons why something might have happened to one person instead of another, but ultimately, that kind of evaluation of oneself in certain kinds of situations is senseless.

    I know it’s an entirely different argument that is only loosely related to free will, but it’s just something that was on my mind that I thought had some significance in this kind of debate.

  • The first thing to point out before presenting any academic argument is that the first thing determinists do after arguing the abscence of free will is to argue why you should not become Melvilles’ Bartleby and simply die from inaction. They also argue for ethical descision making. To me, this alone reconfirms my soft deterministic outlook. That is, that there is a degree of freedom and that it varys with circumstance.
    Now, does the causal nature of something eliminate a “will” or can a will arrive from a cause? Though our genes provide a structure that may change depending on the environment, could part of the genetic product be a will? The argument for absolute determinism that states that a causal factor makes choice an illusion argues that either the completely arbitrary or the completly impossible happen. Looking to the past to claim that an event was determined is logically fallacious, since it has already happened. It does not eliminate the possibility that a will was responsible for the event’s passing.

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