30 March 2007

Free Will (Part III½)

(This entry is some sort of a summarised version of my current thoughts on free will. The previous three entries can be accessed here: Free Will (Part I), Free Will (Part II), and Free Will (Part III). It is a comment to another blog entry, and it doesn't really add much new stuff, hence the III½ status.)

The following post is an edited comment to a blog entry in the PH1101E Reason and Persuasion blog. The original blog entry discusses a book review talking about the criticism of René Descartes' belief in dualism. Comments on the blog is part of the assessment for the module.

I am not going to comment on Damasio's criticism on Decartes, or Dennett's review on it, but my interest lies on its consequence - that is, the consequence of the inseparability of the mind and the body - more specifically, its effect on the arguments for free will, a subject which I have long been interested in.

One of the strongest arguments for the existence of free will is dualism, that the mind is separate from the body, and is not subjected to physical laws that our bodies experience. See, for example, anomalous monism. And the reason for free will hiding in dualism is due to the nature of science.

Our physical laws are either deterministic (such as Kepler's and Newton's Laws) or probabilistic (for example, quantum mechanics and theories of open systems) by nature. While we still do not know how our brain behaves, it is reasonable to assume that whatever laws that govern the physical processes in our brains has to be of this nature. In such a situation, how can we have free will then, if "choice" is either a victim of causality or total randomness? What is so special about our brains that admits free will? If the equations that govern the motion of our neurons is the same as those governing the electrons in my laptop, what is stopping my Windows from displaying a blue screen of death proclaiming "I think, therefore I crash"?

This is where dualism comes in a valiant attempt to rescue free will from the onslaught of science. If our choice-making mechanism is not subjected to physical laws, then perhaps we will then have free will, because our choices are not totally consequences of things we've done before or something so random that it is out of our control.

This dualism concept, however, does not sit well with me. On top of the "ghost in a box" problem described in the final paragraph of this post, I find that dualism explaining free will is just inventing something up to satisfy our need to have control of our choices. We can very well do away with it without sacrificing any knowledge of our world. This is an Occam's Razor approach to knowledge, but that is a philosophy I adopt.

I personally want to believe that I have free will, but I recognise that Nature does not care about what we like or not. She just is, and if dualism (and hence free will) does not exist, we do not have a choice.

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