Can Will be Free?

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The idea of free will is both enabled and hampered by the understanding that we live in a universe of causes and effects. Without cause and effect, how could we hope to exercise free will? However, in a universe of cause and effect how can we be sure that our will is free from the influence of complex causal relationships? We generally engage with causality in a fairly loose way. I might say for example that I was late for work because the traffic was heavy or my energy bills have increased because oil is more expensive. In so doing I’m simplifying causality by failing to account for all of the factors. We also tend to consider snapshots of action. Yes, I might be late because traffic was heavy but the traffic might be heavy because someone’s car stopped working. Their car might have broken down because the owner failed to get it serviced etc. etc. along numerous causal chains. Our ideas about will and free will are also pretty fuzzy but seem to center on conscious choice, self-determination, independence and action initiation e.g.:

Will: “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/will)

Will: “the faculty of conscious and especially of deliberate action; the power of control the mind has over its own actions” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/will)

Free will: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/free-will)

Free will: “the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence” (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/free-will)

If we agree that “will” is a word we use to describe the mechanics of decision-making and action-initiation in a person then perhaps we can say that “free will” is a word we use to describe the operation of decision-making and action-initiation in a person without external influence.

Let’s consider a scenario where I place my hand on a hot surface and rapidly withdraw it. The act of withdrawing my hand is a reflex, an involuntary response. Sensory nerve impulses travel from my hand to my spine and motor nerve impulses are sent from my spine to my arm. There is no processing in my brain, no thought nor decision-making. We can comfortably say that there is no free will involved in this process. Let’s imagine another scenario. I’m sitting in a park and I suddenly become aware of a dark, rapidly moving shape approaching me and I dodge it. I look at the object and realise it was a ball. Here a stream of basic visual data is very quickly processed by my brain. The processing determines that there is a risk the shape will hit me. There is an instinct that such an occurrence could be a danger to me and a message is sent from my brain to my limbs to move. When the potential threat has passed I take the time to identify the shape. Things happen too quickly for me to consciously consider the situation, there is an imperative for action and there is no space for free will. Now imagine that I see the ball approaching me from some distance. Since my instincts don’t tell me I’m in immediate danger, the problem of the ball shifts to my consciousness. I identify the shape and it’s likely characteristics, consider potential ways to act that may involve imagining outcomes, lock in the decision and act, perhaps attempting to kick the ball, catch it or simply moving. Of the three scenarios, the last seems to be the one where free will could occur and what sets it apart from the other two scenarios is consciousness.

The conscious component of choice-making involves considering a problem with regard to your knowledge, understanding and experience. It involves drawing on your experiences and it’s coloured by your emotions. You draw on these and your imagination to predict a course and then behave. This is not a seamlessly conscious process but appears to involve shifting parts of the problem in and out of consciousness. It feels seamless though, so it may be that our brains furnish us with a consistency of experience that isn’t really there. Humans are very good at spotting patterns and quickly acquire an appreciation for cause and effect. Recognising patterns of cause and effect allows us to predict outcomes, which means we can act with intent. When we act with intent and correctly predict the outcome of our actions we feel that we have control. If I pick up a pen and write my name I can feel confident that there are few factors outside my control that might cause my goal to fail. I feel I have a lot of control. If I pull the lever on a slot machine and hit the jackpot, did I do that? I certainly played an essential part but I appreciate that there are many determining factors outside my control so may choose to call the outcome lucky. The more control I feel I have the more I believe I am exercising my will.

It might be useful here to draw attention to the distinction between believing I have free will and it being true. By way of an analogy, when I was a teenager I used to play video games with my younger brother. He was too young to play against me but wanted to join in so I would give him an unplugged controller, play against the computer and pretend he was playing too. He believed he was playing the game. He thought he was controlling the character on the screen but there were factors at play that he was unaware of. Similarly, if there is free will it’s constrained by factors that we perceive and others we don’t. If our wills were immune to influence then advertising would be a waste of time and money. Awareness of some of the factors that influence our decision-making can cause us to feel more in control or help us to realise that we aren’t, but perceiving the chains that bind you doesn’t make you free. If we are aware that we may be subject to influences that we don’t perceive, how can we ever be certain that we are exercising free will?

If there is free will then it’s boundaries are determined by where we choose the delimit the individual. If we decide to view a person who has been schooled in approaching particular problems in particular ways as distinct from and responsible for the application of that schooling then we might say free will exists. My inclination though is to say that we each have the ability to make decisions and initiate action but that it is not possible to do so without external influence. There is a conceptual relationship between cause and effect, decision-making, action-initiation, perceived control and responsibility. There comes a culturally appointed time in a person’s life when they are considered to be responsible for who they are what they do. We don’t view young children as responsible because we don’t credited them with an understanding of the implications or their acions but understanding is a relative thing. There is often a fog at the edges of our decision-making into which causal links disappear from view. The clearing in the fog that surrounds us can give the impression of self-determination but if we choose to examine closely our beliefs, knowledge and strategies we’ll find the external influences. Free will as it is currently defined probably is an illusion but that doesn’t diminish what is means to be human. You can and will exercise choice, it just isn’t free from external influences.

 

 

The Power to Define

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So many of the discussions I encounter about religion centre on the power to define and so many of the disagreements revolve around assumed understanding. Let’s take for example the statement “The Bible is the true Word of God”. On the face of it this is a disputable but fairly straight forward claim, which implies a true or false answer. Either the Bible is the true word of God or it isn’t. We should avoid the immediate temptation to engage with a claim on its own terms and take a moment to think about the implied knowledge that is seeking tacit acceptance. This example refers to “the Bible”, but which Bible? There is an assumed understanding that there is only one Bible but this a mental abstraction of all Bibles, which obscures the many variations between versions and translations. The example also refers to “Word of God”, but which god? We might assume Christian but what does that mean? Many groups identify as Christian, include Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and each have a different Bible. Of course Jewish and Islamic holy texts are based on the same sort of source material as well. The embedding of assumed understanding in linguistically simple claims can be used as a means of setting the parameters of a discussion but I think in most cases it happens unintentionally. I think that someone making such a claim may do so from an ingrained perspective that they have difficulty transcending. Clarifying the detail of a simple claim is a useful way to raise consciousness.

I’ve noticed, as I’m sure many will have, a lot of discursive struggle around the word “atheist”. This has particularly to do with how it’s defined, who has the power to define it and the consequences of definitions. It is interesting to note that dictionaries differ in their definitions, ranging from “do not believe in God” to “lack beliefs in gods”. This is interesting because it reflects the embeddedness of certain assumptions in cultures. It can amount to the defining of atheism through monotheism and raises questions over who ought to be defining atheism? Many arguing from a religious perspective represent a view that atheists deny their god(s). Conversely, many atheists represent atheism as a state of having no beliefs that gods exist. I have encountered quite a few posts that either implicitly or explicitly frame atheism as a belief system that claims a Christian god doesn’t exist. Having thus defined atheism the argument will proceed with a declaration of how it is impossible to disprove their god and so atheism is illogical. So you see, the power to define is extremely significant in discussion. If person A is allowed to define person B then they can in essence silence discussion from the outset. I’m sure many will have seen this video clip of an interviewer asking for views about atheists from people in Turkey. Some of the words used to describe atheists are: animals; not human; ignorant; infidel; liars. We should approach any clip with scepticism, especially if it shows a consistent and extreme view from a small sample. The point to take away though is how easily a component of a person’s outlook can be redefined and swollen to be the entirety of their personhood.

“New Atheism” is a phrase I keep seeing and to which any number of beliefs and behaviours seem to be attributed. It’s often used to refer collectively to the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Never mind that these authors offer quite different perspectives, they are lumped together and associated with charges of racism, hate, fear-mongering and intolerance. Writing in The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow portrayed New Atheism as:

“…a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim”.

Notice how Sparrow made New Atheism a socioeconomic issue or the way he introduced race then invited readers to regard “Muslim” as a race. Unfortunately, an accusation of bigotry doesn’t have to be qualified or evidenced for it to do damage to reputations. Consider the course of events following Ben Affleck characterising Sam Harris as racist on the Bill Maher show. All it takes is for a popular celebrity to get the wrong end of the stick and it provides an excuse for people to no longer engage with Sam Harris’ arguments. I wonder if “New Atheist” is just a conveniently ill-defined phrase that facilitates the grouping and dismissal of heterogeneous views that some just don’t want to engage with. In other words, a way to deny people a voice and silence debate. In my view it’s probably more useful and honest to discuss specific behaviours and beliefs than it is to refer to analytically dubious categories of people.

I’m big on discussion and enjoy talking through and challenging people’s ideas. I think critically engaging with each other in an honest way is a useful means by which we can broaden our view of the world. Part of that is appreciating the implications of the power to define and the presence of assumed understanding or knowledge in claims about the world. Being aware of these helps us prevent discussion becoming too narrow and can help us avoid misunderstandings arising from assumption.

Belief in Absence Vs Absence of Belief

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When encountering claims like “atheists believe x” or “an atheist would say y” I often find myself unable to resist the urge to add my view to the discussion. This generally involves pointing out that atheism is an absence of belief in gods. Responses vary from “you’re a God denier” to “believing there’s no God is the same as not believing God exists”. It seems that although I’m trying to be clear about my view of what an atheist is I could be clearer.

I’d like to start with two quite different definitions of the word “atheist”.

Merriam-Webster:

“…a person who believes there is no God.”

Oxford Dictionary:

“A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”

To some people these definitions are for all intents and purposes the same but they’re in fact quite distinct. One difference is the notion of lacking belief. I prefer the word “absence” over “lack” since “lacking” implies that something is missing, while “absence” conveys non-existence or non-location. Another difference is between notions of believing something negative and disbelieving something positive .

Let’s pretend that my mind is a basket and beliefs are objects. I might believe for example that things I drop will fall. I can represent this belief in gravity as an apple and place it in my basket. Then perhaps someone makes a claim that ghosts exist. This can be represented as a bed sheet and I’ll exclude it from my basket because I’m not convinced by their evidence, that’s to say I disbelieve their claim. I’m then told that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. I can represent this belief as a toy dinosaur and place it in my basket since I’m convinced by the suggestion that if we can find whales in an ocean we ought to be able to find Nessie in a lochSo in my basket (mind) I have an apple (gravity), a dinosaur (Nessie) but no bed sheet (ghosts). I believe in gravity, I believe the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist and I have no beliefs in ghosts existing. My holding a negative belief (Nessie doesn’t exist) is not the same as the absence of a positive belief (ghosts do exist). Likewise, the belief the gods don’t exist is not the same as the absence of beliefs that they do.

Merriam-Webster’s definition that an atheist is “…a person who believes there is no God” is an example of a negative belief. People who are atheists may hold negative beliefs about specific gods but this isn’t a function of their atheism. Atheism has no evaluative tools or framework that might be used to form a belief about gods. There is no atheist epistemology. We notice that Merriam-Webster capitalise the “G” in God so they’re referring to something by name rather than a class or category. Their use of the word “God” is in the singular so we’re dealing with the god of a monotheistic religion. The assumption of the inherent legitimacy of monotheism and the creation of a false binary of only being able to believe God does or doesn’t exist is glaringly obvious and dishonest. The Oxford Dictionary definition does a much better job but could be improved by substituting the word “lacks” and removing the superfluous word “God”. Monotheists are aware that there are other gods. The reason they refer to their god as “God” rather than by the god’s name (where it’s known) is a mixture of cultural normalisation, aversion to blasphemy and elevating their god above others. In the last sense saying “God” is a sort of shorthand for “the one true god”, which has no bearing on the meaning of the word “atheist”.

After thinking about belief of absence and absence of belief, and considering this distinction in relation to the two dictionary definitions above, the following is perhaps a clearer way for me to phrase my position on what atheism is:

Atheist: a person who has no affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

Atheism: an absence of affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

The descriptive power of the word “atheist”, like “theist”, “monotheist” or “polytheist”, is quite weak since it’s an encompassing word. It offers a way of expressing the absence of beliefs that are sometimes assumed to be present. It says nothing about how beliefs are constituted or by what means decisions about beliefs are reached. Yet it’s a useful word that deserves to be protected from being defined through a monotheistic lens.