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Determinism, indeterminism and free will


To: Matthew M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Determinism, indeterminism and free will
Date: 13 June 2006 11:45

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 9 June, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that Freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

You have had a good go at the question, and raised some interesting points.

Before I start, you asked about books to complement your Pathways units. I take it that you have seen the Pathways Book List, at .

As a basic library, you need a good philosophical encyclopaedia (as mentioned in the introductory letter) an introduction to philosophy (which will have suggested readings) as well as one or two classic texts. One of the features of this course is that the units do not have associated reading lists. How you read them will depend very much on the direction of your interests and what questions grab you.

However, if you decide on an essay topic and would like me to suggest possible readings I would be happy to do so.

Mary Warnock on Sartre was a very good reading for your essay on free will. Sartre has an original 'take' on free will which is not easy to grasp. I, for one, struggle with the idea of what it means to say that man's 'existence precedes his essence'.

However, I would to concentrate on the idea that 'a subject who is self-aware chooses himself'.

What is the difference between 'choosing myself' in a genuine sense and merely watching my life go by, like a spectator at a horse race?

Suppose someone suggested that the very acts of 'consciously choosing yourself' are themselves merely events that 'you' witness, as a passive observer of your own life?

Sartre would argue that the incoherence of this idea arises in the notion of what it is to 'observe' something. When I am observing a horse race, I can concentrate my attention on the leading horse, or horse in second place, or on the varying patterns as the horses catch and overtake one another. This 'concentrating my attention' is itself a free mental action, something I freely decide to do, either consciously or without thinking about it.

However, suppose it occurred to me that my turning my attention this way or that is itself merely an objective event that I can observe. What happens then is that I take a mental 'step up' and become aware of my deciding to turn my attention this way or that. And now we can say the very same thing again. I can think of myself as taking a mental step up as an 'objective event' only by taking a further step up.

In other words, however reflective I become, however many step ups I take, I have to view the 'I' at the top of this hierarchy as 'free'. It is impossible to view oneself wholly objectively. The 'I' always escapes.

Does that prove free will? Not exactly. What it proves is that there is an inherent impossibility of seeing ourselves objectively. The standpoint of the agent is necessarily one which involves the 'assumption' of free will.

Thomas Nagel in 'The View From Nowhere' (one book that I would recommend, although it is quite hard in places) offers an argument which relates to this conclusion. We can become aware of some of the causes which have led to our making the decisions that we make. We remember how we were brought up, and the formative experiences of our lives. But could we, in principle, become aware of all the causes of our actions? Nagel argues that, in order to occupy the standpoint of the agent there must necessarily be a 'penumbra of ignorance' concerning the causes of our actions.

Sartre's argument concerning the 'transcendence of the ego' plugs in to Nagel's argument, ruling out the escape route of saying that there might still be an 'I' which does not occupy the standpoint of an agent. Mental agency is still agency. Self-consciousness cannot be divorced from mental agency.

In my view, this is not so much an argument for 'free will' (as Sartre takes it) but rather an argument for the necessity of viewing ourselves 'as' free, which is not necessarily the same thing. I might turn out, as opponents of free will claim, that free will is merely a 'necessary illusion'.

In your essay, you also offer an argument against materialism. 'Surely my thoughts don't have the same existence as my body. For one thing you can't "see" thoughts, you can't "hear" thoughts, you can't "touch" thoughts, you can't "smell" thoughts.'

A materialist might reply that there are lots of things that 'exist' in the material world which can't be seen, heard, touched or tasted yet we are not tempted to posit their existence as 'immaterial' stuff. There are three books on my desk. But you can't see, hear, touch or taste the number three as such. (Or, at least, I can't.) At school I learned about Isaac Newton and his concept of gravity. Gravity is another thing one can't see, hear, touch or taste.

One view in the materialist camp compares the mind to a program. When you open up a computer to examine its electronic components, you can't 'see' the programs running on it. A good book to read on this is Daniel Dennett 'Consciousness Explained' which is available as a Pelican paperback.

All the best,